Journalism Copyright & 2007 SAGE Publications (Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Singapore) Vol. 8(6): 619–639 DOI: 10.1177/1464884907083115 ARTICLEThe culture of arts journalistsElitists, saviors or manic depressives?& Gemma Harries and Karin Wahl-Jorgensen Cardiff University, UK ABSTRACTThis article examines the self-image of arts journalists, or journalists who work in thecriticism and coverage of theater, classical music, opera and dance. It is based on inter-views with 20 arts journalists in the United Kingdom, including classical music DJs, artsreviewers, arts reporters, and arts and music editors for print and broadcast media.This occupational group within journalism is worthy of study because of its distinctiveprofessional and cultural role: while arts journalists share aspects of their professionalcultures with other newsworkers, their work is intrinsically linked to the project ofimproving ‘public appreciation of the arts’. Our argument is that while many arts journalists see themselves as part of the largerprofessional category of ‘journalists’, they also lay claim to an arts exceptionalism,insofar as they suggest that: (1) the ideal arts journalist is better and more extensivelyqualiﬁed than a conventional news reporter; (2) arts journalism is qualitatively differentfrom news journalism; and (3) arts journalism has the responsibility of communicatingthe transformative nature of the arts. Drawing on such a discourse, arts journalists takeon a crusading role, and describe their work as infused by a passion which is otherwisefrowned upon within journalism. We also demonstrate how, within the specialist groupof arts journalists, there are distinctive subcultures of freelance critics, arts reporters, andarts editors – professional categories which greatly inﬂuence these newsworkers’ self-understandings.KEY WORDS & arts journalism & high culture & interviews & journalismculture & journalism sociology & objectivity & specialist correspondentsIntroductionThis article examines the self-understanding of arts journalists, or journalistswho work in the ‘criticism and coverage of theater, classical music, opera anddance.’ 1 It is based on interviews with 20 arts journalists in the United King-dom, including classical music DJs, arts reviewers, arts reporters, and arts andmusic editors for print and broadcast media. This occupational group within
620 Journalism 8(6) journalism is worthy of study because of its distinctive professional and cultural role: while arts journalists share aspects of their professional cultures with other newsworkers, their work is intrinsically linked to the project of improving ‘public appreciation of the arts’.2 The research on which this paper is based deliberately focuses on journalists who view themselves as mediators of ‘high arts’. The paper takes an interest in the relationship between the valorization of ‘high culture’ and journalistic iden- tities. We seek to access journalists’ ‘interpretive communities’ (Zelizer, 1993), to see what they tell us not only about newswork (Hardt and Brennen, 1995) but also about the relationship between media and the construction and perpetuation of distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures. Our argument is that while many arts journalists see themselves as part of the larger occupational category of ‘journalists’, they also lay claim to an arts exceptionalism, insofar as they suggest: (1) that the ideal arts journalist is better and more extensively qualiﬁed than a conventional news reporter; that (2) arts journalism is qualitatively different from news journalism; and that (3) arts journalism has the responsibility of communicating the transformative nature of the arts. Drawing on such discourses, arts journalists construct theirs as a crusading role, and present their work as infused by a passion which is otherwise frowned upon within journalism. We also demonstrate how, within the specialist group of arts journalists, there are distinctive subcultures of free- lance critics, arts reporters and arts editors – professional categories which inﬂu- ence these newsworkers’ self-images and orientations toward the key strategic ritual of objectivity. Locating arts journalism: professional cultures and the sociology of journalism Arts journalism should be understood within the larger context of newsroom professional cultures. Scholars suggest that journalists of all stripes share certain cultural orientations and experiences. Harrison (2000: 108–37), in her work on television newsrooms, found similarities across news organizations in a set of ‘formulas, practices, normative values and journalistic methodology’. As Soloski (1999) has argued, journalism can be viewed as a coherent profession on the basis of an allegiance to objectivity. For journalists, ‘objectivity is the most important professional norm, and from it ﬂows more speciﬁc aspects of news professionalism such as news judgment, the selection of sources and the struc- ture of news beats’ (Soloski, 1999: 311). Others have pointed to the thrill of the deadline, a disregard for authority, and a genuine desire to serve the public as unifying features (e.g. Cottle, 2003: 15).
Harries & Wahl-Jorgensen The culture of arts journalists 621 Even if we can locate a distinctive culture of journalism which cuts acrossgenres, media and occupational roles, newswork is also characterized by a pro-liferation of specialized subcultures (Pedelty, 1995: 112). As Davis (1979: 102)put it, ‘there is a variety in journalism to be found in few other occupations’.Occupational subcultures studied by journalism scholars include war reporters(Pedelty, 1995), foreign correspondents (Hess, 2001), television reporters ¨(Harrison, 2000; Kung-Shankleman, 2000), investigative reporters (Ettema andGlasser, 1998), local journalists (Franklin and Murphy, 1998) and political corre-spondents (Barnett and Gaber, 2001; Schlesinger et al., 2001; Tunstall, 1970,1971). This research has shed light on the diversity of professional practices,assessing how specialist journalists ﬁt into the hierarchy of their newsrooms,carry out their reporting, relate to sources and competitors, and manage thetime constraints of their work, among other things. It has also illustrated that although journalism practitioners and scholarsalike understand these sub-professions as distinctive professional cultures, it isdifﬁcult to generalize about the practices, experiences and self-images of news-workers within them. Rather, the way journalists see themselves is structured bytheir place within newsroom hierarchies and structures. As Tunstall (2001: 1)comments: [W]e see within the media world and media industries a large number of occupa- tional fragments – many different sub-categories of journalist, of TV production workers, of advertising personnel, and so on. Within this fragmented occupational world there are ‘horizontal’ attempts of similar workers to combine together as fellow ‘professionals’ or as fellow ‘craft’ members or as fellow trade union mem- bers. However, there are opposing ‘vertical’ forces coming from the market and emphasizing very steep hierarchies in terms of ﬁnancial reward and general status or prestige. Along those lines, Tunstall, in his work on television producers (1993),found that despite the shared occupational title, the work routines of producersvary greatly between different genres, and such differences shape how thesenewsworkers see themselves (see also Hess, 2001: 163). And the hierarchywithin a specialism constructs distinctive, often oppositional subcultures. Thisis both because such hierarchies differentiate roles and expectations, andbecause they create inequalities of power and resources which generate resent-ments (Pedelty, 1995: 69). The difﬁculties of generalizing about the experiencesof journalists within occupational subgroups are further compounded in a worldof ‘liquid journalism’ (Deuze, 2005) where ‘media occupations increasingly lackﬁrm deﬁnitions and sharp boundaries’ (Tunstall, 2001: 17). Such difﬁculties areespecially important to consider in the context of arts journalism, which is aparticularly nebulous professional category. At a more basic level, by tappinginto the self-images of arts journalists, we can better understand an under-
622 Journalism 8(6) researched corner of the newsroom. As several scholars have noted, there is very little research about arts journalism (see Forde, 2001: 23; Jones, 2002: 4). Forde (2003: 113) found that music journalists ‘mark out a clear ideological, cultural and professional distinction between their world and that of the tradi- tional journalists’. Music journalists have their own ‘professional tradition, employment conditions, goal deﬁnitions, newsroom power structures, position within corporate publishing organizations, and sources and source relations’. On that basis, he described them as ‘journalists with a difference’. The same can be said for the arts critics who are the focus of this article. As we shall see, regardless of their occupational sub-category, they mark out an arts exceptional- ism, suggesting that their role is radically different from the conventional news reporter. Their professional identity is tied to their ability to pass judgment on cultural products, and their role in mediating the arts. As Klein (2005) pointed out in her study of popular music criticism, cultural criticism confers status on to the object it evaluates. She suggested that: [A]lthough critics and journalists often work for the same institutions, critics’ dif- ferent set of professional values may have an impact not only on the extent to which they are open to public challenge, but also on how they experience their roles and sense of authority. (Klein, 2005: 18) She argued that ‘high culture’ arts critics occupy higher rungs of the newsroom hierarchy, and are also viewed as inherently more authoritative and therefore able to pass judgment on the object of their criticism.3 Regardless of the privilege conferred by such cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1984), arts journalists are challenged to justify their professional role. In doing so, they provide us with unique insights into some of the implications of dis- tinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, and the practices of those who report on them. Given that more than half of the population uses mass media as their primary way of interacting with, learning about and listening to/watch- ing the arts (Webber, 1993), the journalists who shape and construct media texts relating to the arts play a role that is both crucial and problematic. Methodology: accessing the self-understanding of arts journalists Other researchers on specialist correspondents have carried out extensive ethno- graphic work, tracing both the professional cultures of these journalists and the practices that constitute them (e.g. Pedelty, 1995; Tunstall, 1971). The present study has a somewhat narrower focus: we are interested in accessing the professional self-images of arts journalists and examining how these vary from those of other types of journalist. We tap into the self-images of arts
Harries & Wahl-Jorgensen The culture of arts journalists 623journalists by drawing on data from open-ended, semi-structured interviews.Such a method provides a useful means for gaining rich data about arts journal-ists’ views and understandings (Mason, 2002: 63), as well as their discursive self-constructions. Despite the richness of interview data, it is not without its problems. Itcannot be taken at face value because, as Buckingham (2000: 63) has pointedout, interviews have proven to be ‘an exceptionally slippery medium. In inter-views . . . individual speakers will often prove to be incoherent, inconsistent,or downright contradictory’ (see also Saukko, 2003: 58). When intervieweesexpress opinions and interpret events, they also tell stories about themselves(see Cameron, 2001: 14–15). Arts journalists, who view themselves as educatorsof the public, rehearse what are often self-congratulatory arguments about theirown signiﬁcance. We view the interviewees’ social constructions of idealizedjournalistic self-images as central to (and inseparable from) their opinions andexamples. Such evidence can be used to understand better the culture of jour-nalism – or how arts journalists see their work through the socially constructedprism of professional identities, even if it cannot serve as a straightforwardsource of material about how arts journalists do their work. The arts journalists interviewed included presenters from Classic FM,Radio 3, and local radio, as well as press and freelance arts correspondents/critics. These journalists work as classical music DJs, arts reviewers, artsreporters, and arts and music editors, primarily for newspapers and radio.4 Thesample included 8 women and 12 men. Interviews were conducted betweenApril 2004 and February 2005, over the phone and in person, and lastedbetween 25 minutes and one hour and ten minutes. Of course, any attempt atcategorizing these varied professional roles under the umbrella of ‘arts journal-ism’ is inherently a reductionist exercise. However, while the interviewees maynot be representative of all arts journalists in Britain and beyond, they providean insight into the ways in which this group of newsworkers discusses whatthey do, and why they do it.5 In particular, though interviewees did not neces-sarily share occupational viewpoints or experiences, they articulated similarorientations to the arts and to journalistic practices. We therefore suggest thatthey belong to a shared journalistic culture.The ideal arts reporter: journalists with that little somethingextraArts reporters, whose jobs typically involve both conventional reportorial dutiesand arts criticism, do not ﬁt comfortably into the professional category of thejournalist. Forde (2001, 2003), who studied popular music journalists, found
624 Journalism 8(6) that music journalists on both dedicated music titles and on broadsheet news- papers often describe themselves not as ‘journalists’ but rather as ‘writers’, ‘reviewers’, ‘music critics’ or ‘music journalists’ (Forde, 2003: 113). Among the arts journalists interviewed here, professional deﬁnitions depended largely on their place in the newsroom hierarchy. Three major sub-professions were evident: (a) the arts journalist (both local and national); (b) the arts editor; and (c) the freelance critic. When asked the question ‘How do you deﬁne yourself?’, editors and arts journalists typically answered with no hesitation: ‘I’m a broadcast journalist’ (Tracy, a regional radio presenter); ‘I’m an arts editor’ ( Jessica, an arts editor for a Welsh newspaper). Freelance critics, however, found this question difﬁcult. One respondent, typical of this group, viewed this as an ‘impossible question. I wouldn’t even seek to deﬁne myself ’ (Daniel, freelance music critic). Freelancers’ difﬁculty in deﬁning their professional status appeared to be based on the lack of structure and routine in their work, as well as the absence of a formal job title. Klein (2005) distinguishes between critics and journalists, arguing that the two groups have similar work experiences; in both professions shared conventions and interpretations substitute for a lack of licensing. Yet although the authority of critics often hangs in the balance, journalistic authority generally holds ﬁrm’ (Klein, 2005: 18). The arts critics interviewed here rarely expressed doubts about their critical authority. However, they did engage in a range of justiﬁcatory discourses, seek- ing to show themselves as exceptional journalists. First, they were keen to stress that their work requires more skills than conventional journalism. Emma Caprez (2003: 48) suggested that professional journalists require qualiﬁcations associated with communications skills, as well as more personal attributes such as organizational skills, the ability to work under pressure, and determina- tion. Finally, they must possess an ability to use journalistic tools, such as prac- tices of objectivity. These types of qualiﬁcations were also mentioned by the arts journalists. However, they were referred to in a bored tone of voice, suggesting that such skills were obvious and mundane. For example, after listing qualiﬁca- tions speciﬁc to the arts, Matthew (a national radio presenter) added a list of more general journalistic qualiﬁcations: ‘That’s apart from the obvious ability to express yourself in an engaging manner, to listen, to be prepared to put others’ points of view before your own and to meet other people’s deadlines, etcetera, etcetera.’ In the words of Gavin, an arts editor of 30 years, ‘journalism is . . . student essays on speed. The essence of journalism is that you assimilate and dissemi- nate information at a really rapid rate’. In order to be an arts journalist, the qua- liﬁcations of conventional journalism are needed and expected. However, as Caprez (2003: 54) also observed, ‘if you are going to concentrate on a specialist
Harries & Wahl-Jorgensen The culture of arts journalists 625area, you will need further specialist qualiﬁcation, e.g. a degree in the area, andbe able to demonstrate a strong passion for the subject’. Popular music criticsinterviewed by Klein (2005: 5) suggested that in order to perform successfullyin their sub-profession, individuals should ‘be proﬁcient writers, should have abreadth of knowledge, and should be able to make studied judgments regardlessof personal preferences’. Winton Dean (cited in Porter, 1978: x) noted that amusic journalist or critic needs ‘a knowledge of the technical and theoreticalprinciples of music as well as knowledge of musical history and scholarship’.The arts journalists interviewed for this study, however, were divided on thequestion of whether specialist knowledge is necessary. Again, this division wasinformed by the distinction between freelance critics versus arts reporters andeditors. The majority of those who described themselves as journalists/editorsfelt that specialist knowledge of the arts was not a requirement. As Jessica, anarts editor on a Welsh daily newspaper, put it: I couldn’t give a stuff about the arts really . . . so I have no agenda and the material is always very varied . . . Some people think I shouldn’t be doing it at all because I don’t know the ins and outs of any particular art, but I know people who do, and that’s where my expertise comes in.It was thus the arts journalists’ and editors’ view that if a reporter is writing anews story concerned with the arts, and adheres to practices of objectivity andbalance by merely ‘reporting the facts’, knowledge of the arts is not seen as anabsolute requirement. However, to the freelance critics, specialist knowledgewas seen as vital: ‘The critical thing is you have to have a basic understandingfor your speciﬁc art form. It’s no good just saying that you have a grasp of thearts in general, you have to have specialist knowledge and understanding’(Wilfred, a freelance music critic who writes mostly for the New York Times). This distinction may well rest on the question of critical authority. Whilereporting about a particular artist, performance or work of art allows the reporterto hide behind the strategic ritual of objectivity (Tuchman, 1972), the criticmust possess the epistemic authority to pass judgment, and such authority isoften seen to derive from specialist knowledge (see Klein, 2005). The greaterinsistence on a body of skills as a marker of professionalism (Soloski, 1999)among freelancers may also stem from the instability of their employmentconditions, and their resulting greater need to assert their worth. Whether or not specialist knowledge is necessary, the arts reporter mustdemonstrate ‘a clear ability to think straight and to write in a clear and stimulat-ing manner coupled with an inquisitiveness and a willingness to learn’ (Dean,cited in Porter, 1978: x). In terms of radio in particular, arts presenters must be‘good with words and description, as it’s really very hard to describe a piece ofart or dance’ (Stephanie, regional radio management and presenter). As Simon,
626 Journalism 8(6) a national radio presenter, argued: ‘Have you ever tried to explain succinctly the meaning of a Shostakovich symphony in 20 seconds? Or explain the principles behind a Wagner opera in 30? That is most challenging.’ Such comments are reminiscent of the sentiment, variously attributed to Elvis Costello, Laurie Andersen, and Frank Zappa, that ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ (cited in Klein, 2005: 1). While this comment has been used to ridicule the work of music critics, it also recognizes the difﬁ- culty of their task. Such a position was embraced by the freelance critics inter- viewed, and used as a way of claiming a privileged position on the basis of specialist communication skills. In fact, arts reporters elevated themselves above the regular news journalist, suggesting that they must be able to not only write in an informed manner, but also ‘translate their passion and knowl- edge in a way that will both interest and inspire audiences/readers’ (Caprez, 2003: 54). As a result, arts journalists described themselves as qualitatively dif- ferent from the mainstream reporter. Their accounts demonstrate an anxiety about performing their identities as journalists ‘with a difference’ (Forde, 2003) who are professionally superior to the reporters who dominate the news- room. As Goffman (1959) noted in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, ‘in their capacity as performers, individuals will be concerned with maintaining the impression that they are living up to the many standards by which they and their products are judged’ (Goffman, 1959: 250). Such maintenance is all the more important when these standards are ill-deﬁned and contested, and its practitioners’ status uncertain. As we shall see, arts journalists’ justiﬁcatory accounts extend to their discussion of their products. Many of them go to great lengths to construct arts journalism as central to the news agenda, coun- tering a view of the arts as ‘soft news’ or as ‘light and ﬂuffy’. Distinctive features of arts journalism: soft news and high culture The discourses on the status of arts journalism within the news hierarchy fall into three inter-related positions: 1 The arts are important, and should be central in media coverage (most common). 2 The arts are ‘softer’ than politics and current affairs, but more important than other ‘low culture’ specialist areas such as celebrity and sports coverage (fairly common). 3 The arts are clearly ‘soft news’ (rare).
Harries & Wahl-Jorgensen The culture of arts journalists 627 The majority of the journalists discussed the arts as vitally important. Someinterviewees were offended when asked about whether the arts are perceived assofter news: ‘This is not entirely relevant, classical music is not soft’ (Sam,national radio presenter); ‘This issue is of no concern to me, I do what interestsme and others do what interests them’ (Daniel, freelance music critic). Thisdefensive position, which recognizes that ‘soft news’ is often dismissed as ‘trivialor insigniﬁcant’ (Allan, 2004: 120), was usually followed by well-rehearsed argu-ments about the importance of the arts. The lack of hesitation with which theinterviewees defended the arts might suggest that they regularly face such criti-cism. First, some interviewees argued that the arts are important because of theirﬁnancial implications. As Harriet, a freelance arts journalist and radio broad-caster, suggested: ‘I think people who are inclined to agree with the arts beinga softer news item should think about the fact that cultural industries arehugely important for economic development and that the turnover is reallyquite sizeable.’ Such economic arguments are, indeed, increasingly central tojournalistic self-images and discourses, reﬂecting a broader trend throughwhich the newsroom is colonized by economic interests, resulting in a needfor newsworkers to draw on the language of capitalism to justify their activity(see McManus, 1994; Wahl-Jorgensen, 2002). Also, the interviewees suggested that arts coverage is both important andinteresting to their audiences and, more generally, to the world. They con-tended that the arts are so important that as subject matter they transcend thenormal ‘news agendas and schedules’ (Matthew, national radio presenter). Some argued for the importance of arts coverage on the basis of audiencedesires: Although people need to know about the situation in Iraq and they don’t need to know about the way Bruckner’s concerto was performed, it should be about a matter of want. Lots of the public want to know about Bruckner. A want of some- thing is different and is sometimes neglected. (William, retired freelance music critic and writer) Such a position shows an awareness of a hierarchy of newsworthiness(Allan, 2004: 57) where news about the war in Iraq rests ﬁrmly at the top, andalso argues that a diversity of news material is important to audiences, andthat news media have a responsibility to provide audiences not only withwhat they need, but also with what they want. It relies on a view of the publicas a mass of consumers, and implies an understanding of what these consumersdesire (see Lewis et al., 2005). It is detached from normative conceptions aboutwhat is ‘good’ for society. Instead, it provides an economic justiﬁcation forarts journalism, implying that it matters to the ﬁnancial success of mass media.
628 Journalism 8(6) Other journalists provided normative arguments to establish the centrality of arts journalism, arguing that the arts are of lasting importance in a historical context: ‘Think about this; if we look through the other end of the telescope, what do we remember about ancient civilizations? We remember their art. So I think that actually the arts are extremely important (Gavin, arts editor). This position also represents a dig at the culture of ‘hard news’ journalism, which celebrates immediacy over historical signiﬁcance (Schlesinger, 1999: 124–5). It carves out a distinctive identity for arts journalism as historical documentation of a vital cultural practice, while challenging the hierarchy of newsworthiness. A second category of responses about the importance of the arts acknowl- edged that arts may not top the hard news agenda but deserve a more central place, particularly in comparison to forms of specialist coverage that represent popular culture. While some journalists and critics were willing to concede that the arts are ‘soft news’ compared to political issues such as the situation in Iraq, they were incensed at the space devoted to what they viewed as ‘trivial’ content, particularly sports and celebrity news. One critic said that ‘it’s under- standable that people need to know about the situation in Iraq but when the front page is dominated by celebrity gossip, I begin to feel irate’ (Edith, freelance newspaper music critic). Another interviewee complained about the pressure to take on celebrity-oriented reporting, suggesting that ‘in terms of someone coming into my ofﬁce and saying, ‘‘can you phone Robbie Williams today’’, it can get light and ﬂuffy’ ( Jessica, arts editor). Such worries about maintaining the boundaries between ‘light and ﬂuffy’ celebrity journalism and ‘serious’ high arts journalism are all the more pressing because of increasing pressure to popularize or ‘tabloidize’ journalism (e.g. Sparks, 2000). Arts journalists, despite their ‘high culture’ allegiances, are especially vulnerable to these developments because of the difﬁculty of deﬁning exactly what constitutes the arts, and, there- fore, their area of professional expertise and responsibility. As arts editor Gavin put it, he has ‘yet to ﬁnd a deﬁnition of the arts that does not include Coronation Street’. This, in turn, speaks to anxieties about the ‘high culture’ designation of arts journalism (Gans, 1999). Harriet, a freelance TV and radio broadcaster, suggested that ‘there is a ﬁne line in the arts, you have to think ‘‘is this a glitzy, celebrity story about Charlotte Church [teenage classical music diva turned pop star], or is it actually about the arts?’’’ Such a statement implies that celebrity/entertainment stories do not belong in the category of arts journalism. They are, by deﬁnition, ‘popular’ or ‘low culture’ texts, and the demand for them threatens the integrity of arts journalism. Indeed, many of the interviewees (especially freelance critics, broadsheet arts journalists and national broadcasters) readily described both the arts and themselves as ‘high brow’. They volunteered their Oxbridge education, and mentioned recent appearances on Radio 4, known for its ‘high culture’ program-
Harries & Wahl-Jorgensen The culture of arts journalists 629ming and audience. William, who used to broadcast with national Radio 3, sug-gested that ‘the reason [he] was dropped from Radio 3 was because [he] was toohigh brow.’ However, interviewees justiﬁed their ‘high culture’ bias by suggest-ing that their work is intended for a smaller and more sophisticated ‘highbrow’ audience. As such, though the journalists prided themselves on beingable to write skillfully and accessibly about the arts for a lay public, their audi-ence conceptions differ from those of mainstream journalists, who do notgenerally hold readers, listeners and viewers in particularly high regard (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2001). As Daniel, a freelance music critic, suggested: ‘One hopesone is writing for a reasonably savvy, arts-orientated section of the public.That can be a well informed, cultural doctor as much as anyone who is directlyinvolved in arty things. Classical music is by and large practiced by a smallproportion of a large populace.’ This view of the audience is linked to a percep-tion of the elitist nature and limited popular appeal of the arts, and provides arationale for maintaining a ‘high brow’ style of arts journalism. Given the fact that arts journalists were so resolute in embracing a ‘highbrow’ position, it made all the more sense for them to fear the blurring of theboundaries between the arts and popular culture. Mary Douglas, in her classicanthropological study Purity and Danger (1966), examined beliefs surroundingpollution among ‘primitive’ and ‘advanced’ cultures. She deﬁned pollutionbehavior as ‘the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuseor contradict our cherished classiﬁcations’ (Douglas, 1966: 36). When someoneor something disturbs our understanding of how and where things ought to be,we view it as a form of pollution. Douglas suggested that ‘attributing dangeris one way of putting a subject above dispute [and] also helps to enforce confor-mity’ to prevailing moral frameworks (Douglas, 1966: 40). The discourses of artsjournalists about ‘low culture’ forms of specialist reporting reveal their pollutionfears, suggesting that their professional identities as mediators of high cultureare threatened by the invasion of the popular. This anxiety was also evident inthe journalists’ views on sports journalism6: Arts journalists are always at the bottom of the pecking order. This order is deter- mined by funding and space. Sport gets pages and pages of football story after foot- ball story. The arts journalist gets next to nothing. If I am traveling somewhere, the paper won’t pay; our funding comes from symphony orchestras or opera com- panies, but if a sports reporter wants to go and cover yet another football story, it’s ‘OK, here’s £1000!’ It’s disgusting how the arts are treated by the press. (Wilfred, freelance music critic)In their attempts at categorizing arts journalism, the interviewees demonstratedthat their most signiﬁcant worries are about holding up deﬁnitions of artsjournalism, and avoiding its pollution by popular culture.
630 Journalism 8(6) The ﬁnal category of responses to the question about the place of arts jour- nalism in the newsroom hierarchy represented a minority of respondents, who felt that arts journalism belongs ﬁrmly in the ‘soft news’ category. As arts editor Jessica put it, ‘clearly it is softer than covering a Tsunami or being in a battle zone’. Arts journalists have at their ﬁngertips a series of justiﬁcatory discourses about the place of arts in the newsroom. These discourses recognize that arts cannot be shoehorned into the ‘hard news’ agenda, but suggest that they have a lasting signiﬁcance that goes beyond the immediacy which drives most jour- nalism. They serve as a type of occupational ritual through which individuals afﬁrm the social order both by marking out their own territories and respecting those of others (Goffman, 1963: 40–1). At the same time, they reveal an anxiety about the instability of the arts as a category of news content – one which mirrors their worries about professional status amidst the ‘tabloidization’ of journalism. Objectivity and arts journalism The anxiously exceptionalist claims of arts journalists relate not only to their place in the newsroom, but also to their orientation towards the key strategic ritual of objectivity. As McNair (1998) pointed out, the epistemic authority of the journalist relies on a view of the profession as that of the ‘authorised truth teller or licensed relayer of facts’. In this sense, objectivity can be seen as a device to ‘facilitate the social construction of legitimacy’ (McNair, 1998: 65). Some interviewees – mostly arts reporters and editors – viewed objectivity as central to arts journalism: ‘You have to come towards everything in the arts in an objective and impartial manner . . . we try not to print opinions, particularly if they are forceful, and always try to remain neutral’ (Isabelle, arts journalist for a daily newspaper). Such a view suggests that practices of objectivity are the key to journalistic credibility. According to Brian McNair (1998: 65), adhering to rules of objectivity and balance is ‘the normal condition of journalistic work’. To him, these rules constitute the ‘oldest and still the key legitimating profes- sional ethic.’ It makes sense that those who were embedded in newsroom hier- archies, as arts journalists and editors, viewed objectivity as important. By contrast, some interviewees – mostly freelance critics – regarded objec- tivity as unnecessary or irrelevant. William, a retired music critic, suggested that ‘you’ve got to have opinions and tastes, otherwise it’s just not worth listen- ing to or reading [your work]; you can’t be objective . . . nobody is’. This is in some ways a self-evident position, insofar as criticism involves the expression of opinion and the subjective assessment of particular events, performances
Harries & Wahl-Jorgensen The culture of arts journalists 631and artists. As Stephanie, a local radio presenter and manager, saw it: ‘there is areal difference between the presenter and the critic; a presenter has to be moreneutral, but if you set yourself up as a critic you have to have opinions.’ Jim(freelance critic) explained that: It depends on context. I do actually write news stories relating to my area and when I do that, then clearly I’m bound by objective conventions of news reporting and I enjoy the discipline of this . . . If I am writing a comment piece or reviewing something, I might be extremely outspoken.When probed further about their positions on objectivity, these critics offeredmore complex critiques, suggesting that practices of objective reporting createa presentational style that fails to engage audiences. George (architecture anddesign editor) felt that ‘too much objectivity can make it bland and ratherboring . . . peripheral subjects such as the arts must grip the audience’s interest’.Matthew (national radio presenter) argued that the ‘transcendent’ 7 nature ofthe arts requires a different style of reporting, and said that ‘merely reportingthe facts barely touches the surface’. Jim (freelance music critic) suggested thatthe expression of opinion has its own professional rules and practices: ‘If oneis going to be subjective, and attack a performance/artist, all one needs to dois explain why.’ It seems, then, that the practices of objectivity which structure ‘hard news’reporting also apply to arts reporting. However, they do not have much mean-ing in the context of arts criticism, which depends upon the expression ofopinion and draws on a more didactic style.8 Nevertheless, some elements ofobjective reporting, as ‘discursive clusters’ in journalism (see Chalaby, 1998),translate into rules that also govern the writing of opinionated criticism. In par-ticular, critics stress the need to uphold ideals of fairness by thoroughly explain-ing any negative comments, and being ‘intelligent’ and ‘sincere’. The personalized nature of arts journalism – which is often about individualartists – further complicates notions of objectivity. Many arts journalists, whenasked about obstacles to objectivity, made a point to mention the performeron the receiving end. One respondent emphasized that the reporter or writermust bear in mind that their words will impact directly on the life of others: I once wrote a review about this marvelous singer, Rita Hunter, an Australian soprano who was immensely fat but had a beautiful voice. She performed a work . . . and the next day I wrote: ‘The real test will come when the work is performed by someone other than Hunter.’ The next day, I had a phone call from a man in Yorkshire, saying that he had his wife sitting at the kitchen table in tears. It turned out that the wife was Margaret Curfeel, the next soprano to sing the work in question. She read my comments as a personal dig at her, thinking I was suggest- ing that she would not be able to sing the work as well, when actually Margaret Curfeel was furthest from my mind. (William, veteran freelance critic)
632 Journalism 8(6) From then on, William was ‘much more careful not about whether I gave opinions, but how I gave them’. This story points to the fact that arts criticism is, as Forde (2003: 123) put it, ‘self-referential’. Arts journalists, like the political reporters of the Westminster Lobby or the White House, are part of an insider culture (e.g. Barnett and Gaber, 2001; Tunstall, 1970, 1971), where their continued professional success relies not merely on satisfying their immediate managers and peers, but also on maintaining good relations with their sources – the artists and performers. First, sources tend to prefer talking to journalists who give them positive cover- age. Second, sources form an important part of the social network of journalists. Also, the feedback journalists get from them is more immediate and tangible than that which they get from their mass audiences (e.g. Gans, 1980: 234). Bourdieu has explored the relationship between the specialist writer’s self- understanding and their ‘public of equals’: No one has ever completely extracted all the implications of the fact that the writer, the artist, or even the scientist writes not only for a public, but for a public of equals who are also competitors. Few people depend as much as artists and intellectuals do for their self-image upon the image others, and particularly other writers and artists, have of them. (Bourdieu, 1993: 116) Bourdieu’s reading implies that arts journalists are shaped by interactions with the immediate, known audiences of the performers – a position evident in the interviews (see also Sumpter, 2000: 338). As such, they do their reporting con- scious of, and inﬂuenced by, the reported. However, as discussed previously, their imagined audience is ﬁrst and foremost the privileged strata of society which consume the high arts. All the same, as we will explore in the next section, arts journalists also justify their work in terms of their responsibility to larger, anonymous audiences, whose lives can be enhanced by exposure to the arts. Roles in society: arts journalists as moral saviors and crusaders Further challenging arts journalists’ conceptions of objectivity is their self-image of being more than mere ‘reporters of fact’. Klein (2005) discussed a range of professional roles identiﬁed by popular music critics, who described themselves as creators, guides, producers of texts, cheerleaders and historical arbiters. The arts journalists interviewed here explained their roles in more normative terms. They constructed themselves as passionate moral saviors and crusaders for the sake of the arts. These idealized roles rest, in part, on a view of the arts as transformative or ‘good for you’. Joli Jensen has argued that Western cultures assume that high ‘cultural forms do something to us in a positive way’ ( Jensen,
Harries & Wahl-Jorgensen The culture of arts journalists 6332002: 1). Along those lines, the arts journalists expressed great faith in the‘teaching and healing’ powers of the arts. They argued that the arts can‘encourage sensitivity and respect’ through this ‘life-enhancing expression ofhumanity’ (Edith, freelance music critic). They also suggested that the artsprovide an alternative avenue for understanding the world and the human con-dition – one that falls outside the narrow boundaries of conventional newsreporting: Some of the profoundest, most enduring and most valuable attempts to engage with the human condition have taken place in the arena of the arts. A work of art, a piece of music, a recorded performance can continue to speak eloquently of a situation, an experience or an emotion to an enormous audience, long after the news headline and reportage that might have originally accompanied it have been pulped and recycled. (Matthew, national radio presenter)Interviewees believed that art can provide audiences with spiritually transforma-tive experiences: Art can take you, in a structured way, through difﬁcult and challenging emotions or experiences and help give meaning to them . . . I think it’s a far better means than religion for doing it . . . In some ways it can give you more of a religious sense. ( Jim, music writer and freelance critic)In an even stronger expression of the positive potential of the arts, Jim con-tinued by saying: One thing you’ll probably ﬁnd is that quite a lot of people in the art profession are either diagnosed or undiagnosed manic depressives. I mean that quite seriously, and I am one of them, I know that music is one of the things that saved my life.Journalists who had themselves experienced the positive potential of the artswanted it to be realized more widely. William, a retired critic, suggested that‘everyone should play an instrument, people would learn so much. Just playingchamber music, for example, would teach people so much about relationships,sensitivity and emotions’. On the basis of this belief in the transformative power of the arts, inter-viewees expressed a passionate belief in the importance of their work ascrusaders for a cause. As Wilfred, a freelance music critic explained, it is ‘hardnot to feel passion’ when reporting on the arts. Journalistic cultures aregenerally characterized by a cynical attitude and a deliberate distancing fromthe events and individuals reported on. News reporters tend to be suspiciousof passionate engagement, viewing it as anathema to professionalism (seeEpstein, 1973; Gans, 1980; Soloski, 1999). By contrast, arts journalists view self-less passion as a motivating force. In this, they once again rub up against idealsof objectivity, preferring instead to take a stance which embodies advocacy andsubjectivity. Without passion, ‘you just end up with these people who are just
634 Journalism 8(6) destructive and you start to think you’ve been in your profession far too long’ ( Jim, music writer and critic). Matthew, a national radio presenter, dismissed some of his colleagues, whom he viewed as being ‘more interested in exposing themselves than in the thing they’re writing . . . someone who’d rather have a sexy headline and top billing than increase their audience’s understanding of the subjects they’re writing about’. Nearly all the interviewees expressed, in some form, the sentiment that you could not report ‘something like the arts unless you are fascinated. And I mean really fascinated’ (William, retired freelance music critic). Because of their expressed view of the arts as a savior of humanity, arts journalists construct themselves as having a great ‘responsibility and duty’ to offer the arts to the public in a way that transcends the journalistic aims of educating and entertain- ing the public. They aim to ‘make a difference and add to life’ (Simon, national radio presenter). They believe that the arts can allow the listener/reader to become more ‘respectful, sensitive and emotional’ (William, retired freelance music critic). To facilitate this process, arts journalists seek to compose a piece of knowledgeable, informed reporting, fuelled by passion, that will encourage audiences/readers to become more involved in the arts; to ‘make people see what the arts can do for them’ (Simon, national radio presenter). This view, common among interviewees, shows that arts journalists embody normative ideals particular to their occupational subculture. As James Carey has argued, the public is the ‘god term’ of journalism, which ‘exists – or so it is regularly said – to inform the public, to serve as the extended eyes and ears of the public, to protect the public’s right to know, to serve the public interest’ (Carey, 1987: 5). If news reporting is premised on service to the public in the aid of democ- racy, arts journalism draws on a related but subtly different trope: while our interviewees invoked a larger public that can be salvaged by the arts, this public is not understood as a political entity. Instead, interviewees imagined a cultural public, enlightened by the therapeutic powers of the arts communi- cated through passionate and involved journalism. The discourse of passion and involvement described here often expressed itself in attacks on what the journalists described as society’s apathetic attitude towards the arts. Several respondents begrudged their audiences for being unable to ‘open up’ to the arts. Gavin, an experienced arts editor, accused England of having a ‘cultural problem, with a great tradition of philistinism and embarrassment around the arts’. The perceived denigration of the arts within the wider culture also translates, in the eyes of the journalists, into a bias against media coverage. Journalists felt that they have to struggle to be ‘taken seriously’ (Phillipa, arts correspondent). Arts journalists were also exasperated by the low priority given to arts stories that are ﬁnally given ‘the go-ahead by
Harries & Wahl-Jorgensen The culture of arts journalists 635editors, often as a last resort’ (Tracy, local radio journalist). They complainedabout their articles being placed ‘on page 38, in the bottom right-hand corner’(Tom, freelance ﬁlm critic). Though arts journalists widely rehearsed arguments about the importanceof their material, they were also keen to point out how marginalized it iswithin the newsroom culture. As such, arts journalists – even if they areviewed as privileged elites by popular music critics (Klein, 2005) and others –cultivate an oppositional self-understanding. They see themselves as misunder-stood moral saviors on a crusade to improve society by educating the publicabout the arts.Conclusion: understanding arts exceptionalismThis article has explored the self-image of arts journalists. We have suggestedthat arts journalists see themselves and the art they work with as exceptionalwithin the culture of journalism. First, arts reporters construct themselves as‘journalists with a difference’ who need specialist knowledge and the ability tocommunicate complex ideas to the public in addition to conventional journal-istic skills. Second, arts coverage, though it does not ﬁt easily into ‘hard news’hierarchies of newsworthiness, is described as more important than the con-ventional news agenda. Interviewees singled out celebrity and sports coveragefor particular scorn, demonstrating their allegiance to ‘high culture’ and theirdismissal of popular culture. Third, arts coverage is seen as exceptional becauseof its complicated relationship to the strategic ritual of objectivity. Thougharts reporters and editors subscribe to practices of objectivity, the concept hasless relevance to the work of critics, who nevertheless articulated a clear set ofrules for the expression of opinion. Fourth, arts exceptionalism also involves aseries of normative claims about the ability of the arts to improve society. Draw-ing on this discourse, arts journalists take on a crusading role, describing theirwork as infused by a passion which is otherwise frowned upon within journal-ism cultures. They construct themselves as moral saviors, guiding the culturalpublic towards a better, more fulﬁlled existence through arts. The self-image of arts journalists is self-serving, covering over anxietiesabout the status of their specialist profession and its products. However, it alsodemonstrates belief in their ability to improve the world, and a desire to breakwith the cynicism of most journalistic cultures. This belief rests, in part, onarts journalists’ role as the representatives and defenders of ‘high culture’against the encroaching popularization of the newsroom. Though the journal-ists we interviewed see themselves as servants of a public, their ideal imagined
636 Journalism 8(6) audience consists of performers and privileged high arts consumers. As such, they may be moral saviors but they do most of their preaching to the already- converted. The culture of the newsroom is often analyzed in terms of internal factors, such as production processes, division of labor and power relations. Yet the views of arts journalists demonstrates that external factors (McNair, 1998), such as social constructions of taste cultures, have a profound bearing on how newsworkers see themselves. Notes 1 http://ascweb.usc.edu/asc.php?pageID=378, accessed 21 October 2005. 2 http://www.najp.org/aboutus/index.html, accessed 21 October 2005. 3 But see Janssen (1999) for evidence of the increasing legitimacy of popular music journalism. 4 Though many arts journalists contribute to magazines, none of our respondents was a regular magazine writer. Instead, most worked in newspapers and radio. Some freelancers, however, were occasional contributors to magazines such as Gramophone. 5 For more details about the interviewees, see the Appendix. 6 There was one exception: Martin, a freelance music critic, commented: ‘I particu- larly admire our sport writers, who produce so much copy at a very late hour, and always so beautifully written.’ 7 The term ‘transcendent’ was used by more than one interviewee to describe the arts. 8 For a useful discussion of the discursive style of opinionated journalism, see Van Dijk (1998). References Allan, S. (2004) News Culture (second edition). Maidenhead: Open University Press. Barnett, S. and I. Gaber (2001) Westminster Tales: The Twenty-First Century Crisis in Politi- cal Journalism. London and New York: Continuum. Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Bourdieu, P. (1993) The Field of Cultural Production. Cambridge: Polity Press. Buckingham, D. (2000) The Making of Citizens: Young People, News and Politics. London and New York: Routledge. Cameron, D. (2001) Working With Spoken Discourse. London: Sage. Caprez, E. (2003) Journalism Uncovered. Surrey: Trotman and Company Ltd. Carey, J. (1987) ‘The Press and Public Discourse’, The Center Magazine 20(March/April): 4–32. Chalaby, J. K. (1998) The Invention of Journalism. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
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Harries & Wahl-Jorgensen The culture of arts journalists 639Jim, award-winning music writer, broadcaster and academic, interviewed 11 March 2005.Martin, chief music critic, regional English daily, interviewed 21 February 2005.Matthew, national radio broadcaster, previously a performing classical musician, interviewed 27 April 2004.Maureen, commercial classical station presenter, interviewed 28 January 2005.Phillipa, chief arts correspondent, Welsh daily paper, interviewed 23 February 2005.Sam, national radio presenter, interviewed 27 January 2005.Simon, national radio presenter, formerly broadsheet travel writer, television news producer and radio instructor, interviewed 11 April 2004.Stephanie, assistant editor, regional radio station, interviewed 7 March 2005.Tom, freelance critic, specializes in ﬁlm journalism, interviewed 25 February 2005.Tracy, presenter for regional broadcaster, interviewed 29 April 2004.Wilfred, freelance music critic, interviewed 2 March 2005.William, ex-freelance writer and national radio presenter, now academic, inter- viewed 2 April 2004.Biographical notesGemma Harries graduated from Cardiff University in 2005 with a ﬁrst class honoursdegree in Journalism, Media and Politics. She is now a teacher of English in a second-ary school in Cornwall, having won the Exeter University Ted Wragg award for theOutstanding PGCE Student, and she loves every minute of classroom life; she has aparticular interest in the politics behind education. Although teaching English,Gemma’s second subject, music, is never far behind and she plays both oboe andpiano. Not wanting to leave her studies behind, nor her interest in politics andjournalism, Gemma hopes to complete her MA next year.Address: 23 Trelawne Road, Carnon Downs, Truro, Cornwall, TR3 6HP. [email: email@example.com]Karin Wahl-Jorgensen is Senior Lecturer in the Cardiff School of Journalism, Mediaand Cultural Studies. She is the author of two books, Journalists and the Public(Hampton Press, 2007) and Citizens or Consumers? (Open University Press, 2005;co-authored with Justin Lewis and Sanna Inthorn). Her work on journalism, democ-racy and citizenship has also appeared in more than 20 different journals.Address: Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Bute Building, KingEdward VII Avenue, Cardiff, CF10 3NB, Wales. [email: Wahlfirstname.lastname@example.org]