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JOURNALISTS NORMATIVE

CONSTRUCTIONS OF POLITICAL
VIEWPOINT DIVERSITY

Tim P. Vos and J. David Wolfgang

This in-depth interview-based study with US political journalists explores how they conceptualize
the portrayal of political viewpoint diversity as a journalistic norm, particularly in light of
changes to news and the news media ecology. The political journalists still discursively embrace
the normative role of providing audiences with a range of political viewpoints, but express assump-
tions about democracy that seem to thwart their intentions. The implications for the journalistic
eld and eld theory are considered.

KEYWORDS eld theory; in-depth interviews; journalistic capital; normative roles; political
journalists; political viewpoints

Introduction
Normative constructions of journalism in the United States have long held that jour-
nalists are professionally obliged to portray competing political viewpoints (Karppinen
2013; Nerone 2013). Journalism, the argument goes, plays a special role in democratic
self-governance by lling a number of ideal functions, such as reporting the news of the
day, checking abuses of power, and providing a forum for the exchange of ideas (Baker
2002; Christians et al. 2009; Gans 2003). Journalists have been socialized to accept these
normative constructions as a benchmark for good journalism. Thus, when journalists per-
ceive that their work conforms to these journalistic idealsor what some call journalistic
cultural capital (Benson and Neveu 2005; Hanitzsch 2007)they nd value and worth in
their work. However, if journalists provide one-sided accounts, are selectively partisan in
investigating claims of abuse, or amplify a distorted or narrow range of viewpoints, they
transgress institutional or occupational norms. Journalists can expect to be met with criti-
cism if and when they fall short of these journalistic ideals (Elliot 2008).
But, the material conditions of journalistic production in the United States are chan-
ging, as is the prole of who is producing the news. The proliferation of blogs and other
news and public affairs outlets is altering the news ecologythe greater pluralism of
media outlets shrinks the audiences for traditional outlets, creating incentives to serve
niche news audiences (Stroud 2011). Journalistic ideals, built on assumptions of a mon-
opoly-style press that would be all things to all people, seem less relevant as the main-
stream press begins to lose its gatekeeping power and authority (Nerone 2013; Pearson
and Kosicki 2016). It is unclear to what extent journalistic capital is also shifting in the
twenty-rst century. While norms of journalistic objectivity are seemingly being renego-
tiated (Hellmueller, Vos, and Poepsel 2013), it is largely unknown how journalists think
about professional ideals of portraying competing political viewpoints. Indeed, even in
Journalism Studies, 2016
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1461670X.2016.1240015
2016 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
2 TIM P. VOS AND J. DAVID WOLFGANG

the more settled past, journalism scholars have known little about how journalists them-
selves understood notions of political viewpoint diversity. Instead, research has largely
focused on studies of diversity in news content. While this research is reasonable and valu-
able, it should not be used to infer how journalists think about their work.
This study uses in-depth, semi-structured interviews to explore how a relatively small
number of US political journalists conceptualize political viewpoint diversity. By political
viewpoint diversity we mean the presentation or representation of two or more political
perspectives in the news: the more political perspectives that are represented, the more
the diversity in the news. The goal is to plumb how the journalists themselves think
about political viewpoint diversity in the context of doing their jobs. For example, do jour-
nalists feel compelled by journalistic norms to represent at least two competing ideas in
news stories about political issues? Do they think strictly in terms of two sides or do they
think more broadly about viewpoint diversity?
While the study does not assume that conceptualizations of political viewpoint diver-
sity are easily or directly manifested in the reporters news stories (Tandoc, Hellmueller, and
Vos 2013), it does seek to contribute to a research program that identies discursive con-
structions of diversity that can subsequently be used to study political news content.
Further, this study aids in the larger project of understanding how pluralism and diversity
are discursively constructed in the journalistic eld, and therefore also potentially aids in
the theorization of journalistic capital. As Karppinen (2013, 2) argues, diversity seems to
have self-evident value, but this has not meant that its proper implementation or insti-
tutionalization is self-evident.

Field Theory and Political Viewpoint Diversity


This study contributes to knowledge of journalists doxa and cultural capital (Benson
and Neveu 2005; Bourdieu 2005; Hanitzsch 2007). The journalistic eld is constituted by
doxa, or a shared system of presuppositions (Bourdieu 2005, 37). These presuppositions
have been dened in somewhat different, but largely complementary, ways. Bourdieu
and others (Benson and Neveu 2005; Bourdieu 1998) speak to the specialized knowledge
and normative assumptions that form the cultural capital of a eld. Hanitzsch (2007)
denes journalisms cultural capital in terms of three dimensionsinstitutional roles, epis-
temologies, and ethical orientations. When journalists embrace culturally legitimated roles,
epistemologies, and ethics, journalists amass cultural credit or capital (Vos and Craft 2016).
The idea that journalists should present diverse political viewpoints has largely been
implicit in these conceptualizations of doxa and journalistic capital (Karppinen 2013).
This study explicitly theorizes normative suppositions about political viewpoint diversity
as a form of journalistic capital and seeks to understand how this form of capital functions
in the perceptions of political journalists.
The journalistic eld has largely embraced the notion that journalists have a norma-
tive role to play in presenting competing political viewpoints in the news (Karppinen 2013;
Nerone 2013). It is helpful, however, to sort out the multiple ways that scholars have talked
about institutional roles before addressing the particular role of presenting political view-
point diversity. Normative roles are constituted at the level of the eld and represent the
capital and doxa of what journalists should do (Benson and Neveu 2005; Christians et al.
2009). Scholars (see, e.g., Weaver et al. 2007) have also studied role conceptions; i.e.,
largely how individual journalists indicate what they want to do in their work. These role
NORMATIVE CONSTRUCTIONS OF POLITICAL VIEWPOINT DIVERSITY 3

conceptions are overwhelmingly derived from normative, institutional roles. Scholars


(Mellado and Van Dalen 2014; Tandoc, Hellmueller, and Vos 2013) have also examined jour-
nalists role performance; i.e., how individual journalists manifest their role conceptions in
the news that they produce. This is a matter of what journalists do in practice. Finally, scho-
lars (e.g., Weaver and Wilhoit 1996) have examined how journalists perceive their role per-
formance. This is a matter of what journalists say they do. Role perception, then, is examined
through journalists talking about their work; and it is in their discourse that the evaluative
character of roles comes to expression. Journalists can express the taken-for-granted nature
of normative roles; but they can also articulate criticisms that force the re-articulation of
journalistic norms. For example, Rosen (1999) and others reected on the harmful conse-
quences that journalism had wrought on democratic participation and posited a new nor-
mative frameworka framework that became known as civic and public journalism. This
study largely focuses on the interaction between journalists perceived roles and normative
roles as a way of understanding how journalistic capital is discursively negotiated.
Journalists have long dened their role in terms of offering a forum for the articula-
tion and exchange of ideas relevant to public life (Botein 1981; Smith 1988). Early colonial
printers opposed censorship by advocating for the rights of an open press. It was not up to
journalists to limit publication to like-minded ideas (Botein 1981). Public debate in an open
forum would ensure wise public decision-making. Hence, the presss role should be to facili-
tate the exchange of the communitys diverse views (Smith 1988). How this diversity should
be presented evolved over time. It shifted from an exchange of ideas within a publications
pages to an exchange across publications to a representation of diverse ideas that would be
curated by a gatekeeper-editor. A minimal version of this role lived on as an obligation for
journalists to present balanced news coverage (Mindich 1998). One of the more robust
defenses of the role in the United States came from the Hutchins Commission report (Com-
mission on Freedom of the Press 1947), which argued the press had a social responsibility
to publish diverse views, including minority viewpoints.
Scholars have reinforced the normative character of this role by articulating the
importance of a diversity of viewpoints to a just and equitable public sphere (Christians
et al. 2009). The expression of diverse viewpoints in the public sphere has been posited
as essential, so that public opinion can be formed (Dahlgren 1995, 7), open dialogue
can take place (Curran 2000), and conict can be resolved constructively (Baker 2002).
Habermas (1989), most notably, argued for a public sphere in which diverse voices could
be raised and rational debate could ensue. However, Habermas argued that the commer-
cialization of journalism, and other forces, had come to limit diverse and rational discourse.
The perception of threats to diversity has been the occasion for no small amount of norma-
tive theorizing about the value of a diverse expression of ideas (Christians et al. 2009). In
other words, it is when values are most under threat that they are rationalized and legiti-
mized (Swidler 1986).
However, the literature points to more than one form that diversity or pluralism
should take in the news media. Diversity is sometimes discussed in terms of diverse
media outlets. Also called structural pluralism and outlet diversity, here a diversity of
news organizations is seen as a means to add diverse voices to a marketplace of ideas
(Hallin and Mancini 2004; Napoli 2007). This approach does not suggest a particular norma-
tive obligation on particular news organizations or individual journalists to represent
diverse voices. Rather, a healthy marketplace will serve the needs of a diverse audience
by providing diverse voices (Wildman 2007). However, Habermas (1989) and others
4 TIM P. VOS AND J. DAVID WOLFGANG

(McChesney 1997) have posited the marketplace as a means of limiting diverse voices.
Indeed, some research suggests that outlet diversity in broadcasting has not yielded a
diversity of viewpoints (Terry 2008); and as news outlets have consolidated, even fewer
voices have been represented in the news (Ho and Quinn 2009). Research at the market-
place level of analysis, however, does not address whether particular news organizations
might seek to represent a diversity of voices in their news stories. Raeijmaekers and Mae-
seele (2015) developed four conceptions of media pluralism. Under their critical pluralism
model, the media represent sites of struggle over the contestation of ideological view-
points (10521054) and function as a purveyor of a plurality of viewpoints that can rep-
resent the publics interest. This model can assist in explaining how news organizations
can encourage a diverse set of viewpoints and facilitate the development of new political
positions.
The nature of journalistic capital is that journalists nd value in performing journal-
istic roles that may or may not be valued by an economic marketplace (Benson and
Neveu 2005). Thus, journalists who conceive of their role as crafting news with diverse view-
points will seek to perform such a role, despite pressures to do otherwise. Indeed, research
(Demers 1998) shows that some journalists will forego some amount of economic capital to
maintain their cultural capital, particularly when that cultural capital is vital to the social
legitimacy of the eld. This brings us back to the doxa and cultural capital of the journalistic
eld. How do journalists habits, assumptions, and presuppositions shape the news that
they produce, and how do these reect on the diversity of voices that appear in the
news? Could new pressures for economic capital outweigh traditional forms of journalistic
cultural capital?
Observational studies suggest that journalists approach the issue of diversity as a
matter of source selection or sourcing (Gans 1979; Tuchman 1978). Simply put, the
voices that appear in the news are the voices of those actors, or sources, that journalists
choose to put in a news story. These studies provide insight into how journalists approach
source selection. For example, journalists seek out informed sources, authoritative sources,
and a balanced array of sources (Schudson 2003). Source selection, of course, does not
occur in a vacuumit can be driven by the prerogative of efciency: Reporters who
have only a short time to gather information must therefore attempt to obtain the most
suitable news from the fewest possible sources as quickly and easily as possible, and
with the least strain on the organizations budget (Gans 1979, 128). Hence, source selection
is not simply a matter of representing diverse viewpoints. In fact, the practicality of news
production can ultimately serve to narrow the range of viewpoint diversity, presumably
creating a gap between role conception and role performance.
Most of what we know about sourcing, however, comes from studies of news
content, where content is a form of role performance. Findings overwhelmingly show
that journalists privilege ofcial sources (Reese, Grant, and Danielian 1994; Schudson
2003). Scholars have sought to explain this reliance in various ways. One notable approach
is the indexing explanation offered by Bennett (1990, 2009) and his colleagues. Indexing
suggests that journalists index viewpoint diversity to consensus of political and other
elites. Where elites are in consensus, there will be little viewpoint diversity, with minority
opinions largely excluded from or marginalized in news content. Journalists index view-
points in an attempt to reach balance and portray their work as objective by reporting
from ofcial statements and debates (Sparrow 1999). Indexing is effective at explaining
sourcing choices for coverage of war, national security, and foreign policy (Hallin,
NORMATIVE CONSTRUCTIONS OF POLITICAL VIEWPOINT DIVERSITY 5

Manoff, and Weddle 1993), but is less effective at explaining source choices in domestic
reporting because of its complex nature and the multitude of narratives (Lawrence
2010). Journalists also avoid indexing when there is less dependence upon political elite
sources, including such as when doing investigative journalism (Hamilton, Lawrence, and
Cozma 2010), when unexpected events occur (Lawrence 2010), and when non-ofcial
sources organize effective information campaigns (Bennett, Lawrence, and Livingtson
2007). However, indexing theory is criticized for treating journalists as passive actors who
lack the agency to shape news (Potter and Baum 2010).
The cascading activation model, however, helps explain how political inuence works
as a chain reaction from the most powerful institutions to the least (Entman 2004). The
news media are one link in that chain, sitting below the inuence of an elected adminis-
tration and other political elitesincluding members of congress, their staffers, and
experts. Under this theory, thoughts and ideas are activated based on discourse about a
topic. Once the idea has been activated, it sparks conversations among networks of
sources. Once a particular perspective is repeated by multiple sources, it will begin to
form a frame that can be reproduced through news content (Entman 2004). The cascading
activation model also explains that certain viewpoints are left out of discourse either
because they are dissonant with dominant perspectives, unfamiliar, or considered irrele-
vant (Entman 2004).
A similar notable approach explains the range of viewpoint diversity in the news
based on spheres of consensus, controversy, and deviance. Hallin (1989) argues that
where there is elite consensus, the range of viewpoints is narrow or appears as taken for
granted assumptions. When opinions are seen by elites as deviant, the voices expressing
those opinions are largely absent from news coverage. Only when elites appear to have
honest differences on an issue will there be some measure of diverse voices in the news.
Again, these sorts of studies rely almost exclusively on examination of role performance.
Still, role performance sheds light onor raises critical questions aboutjournalists role
conceptions and perceptions.
As noted above, journalisms institutional roles are a form of journalisms doxa and
cultural capital. In other words, these roles provide a guide for action (role performance)
and a means for reection and criticism (role perception). Perception, here, is not simply
a matter of internal dialogue, but a form of discursive action. It is through discourse that
institutional norms either take on normative expression or are challenged as inadequate
(Schudson 2001). Thus, this study seeks to address a broad research question:
RQ1: How do US journalists discursively construct the normative value of political view-
point diversity in the news?

Study Design
This study aims to explore the topic of political viewpoint diversity through semi-
structured interviews with US political journalists on both the national and local level.
These questions probed journalists about their understanding of political viewpoint diver-
sity, how they make decisions about what sources to contact, and for anecdotes of specic
circumstances related to political viewpoint diversity. Interviews provide a rich understand-
ing of the experience of the individual and also allow the researchers to target individuals
with personal experience with the issue (Fontana and Frey 1994).
6 TIM P. VOS AND J. DAVID WOLFGANG

Few, if any, scholars have examined the issue of journalists normative discursive con-
structions of political viewpoint diversity (Wildman 2007), leaving a gap in our understand-
ing of how journalists think and talk about political viewpoint diversity and what actions
they might take to rectify a perceived lack of political viewpoint diversity within a story
or publication. At least one attempt was made to study viewpoint diversity using
content analysis to measure and compare diversity among outlets (Alexander and Cunning-
ham 2007), and despite a policy goal of seeking viewpoint diversity, the Federal Communi-
cations Commission prefers to study proxies, such as outlet diversity, rather than attempt to
measure viewpoint diversity (Terry 2008). We are less interested in identifying the political
viewpoint diversity that exists in media content and more interested in understanding how
political journalists perceive the norm of providing political viewpoint diversity and how
they might go about attempting to achieve it through their reporting.
The researchers conducted interviews with a set of political journalists who all hold a
similar position and perform similar tasks. Such interviews are helpful for providing individ-
ual experiences and behaviors that can be compared with others from the same cultural
group such as journalists (Tracy 2013). The researchers chose to conduct interviews in
order to gain more insight into the subjective experience of the individual journalists
and to then use that insight to compare and contrast the experiences of similarly situated
political journalists for further understanding. Interviews, however, fall short of providing
reliable information about the practices and behaviors of the participants. However, inter-
views probe for tacit knowledge about the assumptions, or doxa, of how a journalist
approaches their work.
The researchers used a directory of political journalists from a public relations and
marketing database of journalists (Cision) to build a population of possible respondents.
Subdirectories of journalists were created based on the medium of the journalist (daily
newspaper, news service/bureau, magazine, news website, television, radio, and cable
network). Those directories were then divided based on whether the journalist worked
on the national level or in a specic local region. The researchers employed a quota
sampling design in order to have proportionate representation from each subdivision.
From the 14 subdirectories of journalists divided by medium and location, individuals
were randomly selected and invited to participate in the study via email. Out of the political
journalists contacted, 18 journalists agreed to participate. Thirty-seven journalists refused to
participate. The journalists who participated worked for newspapers, news bureaus, maga-
zines, online news organizations, and television and radio stations from 15 distinct news
organizations. Seven of the participants cover national politics in Washington, DC, eight
participants cover politics in their respective state capitals, two participants write about
politics in cities that are not a state capital, and one reporter covers national politics
from Chicago. (A guide to the participants is included in Appendix A.) Interviews were con-
ducted over the phone.
The researchers applied a questioning approach that relied upon exploratory ques-
tions that allowed the respondent to express their approach to achieving political view-
point diversity. This provided the researchers with additional insight into how the
journalists perceived the issue of political viewpoint diversity while also allowing the
researchers to probe deeper for additional insight. The researchers developed a set of ques-
tions based on the sensitizing concepts of viewpoint diversity and newsroom practices. The
researchers asked participants about sourcing in political stories rather than explicitly
NORMATIVE CONSTRUCTIONS OF POLITICAL VIEWPOINT DIVERSITY 7

referring to political viewpoint diversity. This strategy was meant to limit the likelihood that
participants would try to tell the researchers what they wanted to hear.
After all the interviews were complete, the researchers transcribed the interviews and
conducted a close reading in order to gain a better understanding of the participants
understanding of political viewpoint diversity and their approach to seeking political view-
point diversity through their reporting. In accordance with the constant comparative
method (Charmaz 2014), the researchers then met to compare notes on any patterns dis-
covered among the participants and ultimately agreed on a set of broad themes.

Constructions of Political Viewpoint Diversity


Since this is an exploratory study that is driven by a broad research question, a broad
range of ndings could be offered here. This paper will focus on four main themes that are
the most theoretically relevant. These all relate, in one form or another, to how the rep-
resentation of political viewpoint diversity in the news ts into the doxa and cultural
capital of the journalistic eld, particularly that part of the eld that deals with political
reporting. So, we examine how journalists think about political viewpoint diversity within
a normative institutional framework; how the contingencies of doing journalistic work
might enter a wedge between normative role conceptions, role performance, and percep-
tions of role performance; how journalists end up thinking about diversity within an implicit
hierarchy of normative roles; and how the journalists role perceptions are refracted by
those journalists assumptions about the nature of democracy.

Providing Diverse Viewpoints


The need to represent multiple viewpoints is seen as an assumed expectation of jour-
nalism. Journalists express the need for journalism that pursues diverse viewpoints so as to
provide greater perspective (participant 3), to serve the interests of the reader (participant
11), and to facilitate civil discourse (participant 12). This form of journalism gives the
public information from which to understand policy decisions and so citizens can make
their own political decisions. Political journalists said multi-perspective reporting is an
instinctive part of the job (participant 3) and involves incorporating a fair interpretation
of whats going on with as many points of view as possible (participant 12).
Given changes in the practice of journalism with the emergence of online news
outlets and the pressure to publish on rolling deadlines, some journalists express an
increased desire to consider political diversity. An online news reporter, who worked for
a newspaper for most of his career, said the internet has increased the presence of partisan
news, forcing him to become more vigilant in nding ways to approach complex political
news (participant 1). A news bureau reporter from Los Angeles shows similar concern,
saying that journalists should be in the business of presenting as much information and
viewpoints as possible and not just a kind of tunnel vision experience that [the public]
might get with reading something that they automatically agree with (participant 6).
But the changing nature of online publishing has forced some political journalists to
adapt by publishing stories with fewer than the ideal number of diverse sources. One news-
paper reporter admits he will publish stories online with just one source or viewpoint and
then update the story later, once he receives information from other sources (participant
10). This practice is apparent from other journalists as well. I dont worry about trying to
8 TIM P. VOS AND J. DAVID WOLFGANG

write the comprehensive piece on this issue because I can always come back at it later
with some different angles (participant 1). So, these journalists embrace viewpoint diver-
sity as a form of institutional capital in the new news ecology, but also allow for viewpoint
diversity that plays out over the life of a news story online.

Diverting from the Normative Role


Despite acknowledging a normative interest in providing diverse political view-
points through their reporting, political journalists describe following routines and
norms that make for efcient work but that divert them from this role. For example,
when on deadline, journalists admit to focusing on efciency rather than a diversity of
views (participant 17). Reporters also value the big get, those high-prole sources that
have power on a national or state stage. Journalists refer to actors who can bring substan-
tive value to reporting as being preferable to those who lack the ability to enact political
change (participant 12). One national newspaper reporter sees it as going to those who
have legitimate power. Im not seeking out the Green Party and what their opinion is
on what Obama should do in Syria (participant 15). This power to enact change is also
seen as a preference for those who can inuence policy (participant 2), those who are
directly involved (participants 11, 18), and those who have the ability to actually inu-
ence something (participant 4).
Beyond having inuence, journalists also prefer covering legislation that might plau-
sibly be passed by a legislature and potential candidates who have a chance at winning an
election. One reporter sees covering fringe candidates as a disservice to the reader, but
recognizes an inherent danger in purposely not giving coverage to a candidate. It
always makes me a little nervous because you want to make sure youre not including
someone for the right reasons (participant 3).
One of the most consistent journalist preferences is for sources who are intelligent
and informed. This includes sources who are substantive and relevant (participant 1),
or a source who knows about the scope of the problem (participant 15) or who can con-
tribute to a larger conversation (participant 12). Above all, journalists want sources who
are actually knowledgeable about the topic (participant 6) or have specialist knowledge
(participant 17), as opposed to those who can only provide a quick quote. A news bureau
reporter in Washington, DC refers to this as a bias toward the informed rather than a bias
toward a specic viewpoint (participant 2). This preference is also described as a need for
sources who pass some basic logic test (participant 6), those who know something and
can say something interesting (participant 11), those who are articulate on a topic (partici-
pant 18), and in some cases for those who have previous government experience (partici-
pant 9).
Outside of showing a preference for specic sources, journalists also said they prefer
not to go to specic sources they see as less worthy of inclusion in political coverage. This
includes those who show an interest in being quoted or appear to have knowledge of the
issue, but that the journalist sees as ill-informed or not able to speak with sufcient auth-
ority. There are a lot of people out there that pretend to know and want to spout off about
things, but there are very few people that actually know whats going on at any given time
(participant 11). Another political reporter expressed reservations about sources who might
be disinterested and objective, but are at an arms length from the issue, since he prefers
to quote the people that are actually closest to forming the policy (participant 12).
NORMATIVE CONSTRUCTIONS OF POLITICAL VIEWPOINT DIVERSITY 9

When considering political viewpoint diversity, journalists often express their intent
as an interest in nding sources who represent a specic viewpoint in order to meet a
routine journalistic need, rather than attempting to nd a broad array of viewpoints on a
topic. Frequently this happened when journalists had completed most of their reporting
and recognized a viewpoint was missing. In the interest of saving time and resources, repor-
ters would identify the missing viewpoint and then attempt to nd a person to t that per-
spectiveoften relying on previous sources or organizations. Ill have 90 percent of my
reporting done and I realize Im lacking some critical voiceIll say I just need this
one thing or I think we need to talk to more of these people (participant 3). One national
magazine reporter, who covers the US Senate, said he purposely reaches out to high-prole
sources in order to meet his audiences expectation of interesting people being quoted in
the story. They wont read your story at all if you are writing about someone that they have
never heard of (participant 11).
Going beyond nding specic voices to ll a gap in reporting, some journalists con-
sider viewpoints as de facto categories of ideological positions that can be incorporated by
speaking to specic individuals or types of individuals. In the simplest sense, this includes
reporters speaking of viewpoints as coming from both sides (participant 7) or from
specic places on the political spectrum (participant 4), including straight in the middle
(participant 13). When that specic political viewpoint cannot be found efciently, reporters
admit to using their own authoritative voice to state what people with a particular view-
point are saying. As one reporter put it, Even if you cant nd a specic person to say some-
thing new to you at that moment you kind of say here is the other view, even if you
dont have somebody saying it (participant 11).
Some journalists said they seek out individuals from different demographic back-
grounds in order to present more diverse viewpoints. A national newspaper reporter
said he is color-blind when it comes to race, but he does aim for gender diversity in
sources (participant 13). A White House reporter said she sometimes looks on Google for
women who can speak authoritatively about a topic in order to give the story more diver-
sity (participant 9) and a statehouse newspaper reporter said his former news organization
would require him to speak with a certain number of racially diverse sources in order to
meet diversity quotas (participant 10). Here, race and gender are proxies for diversity of pol-
itical viewpoints.
When faced with the difculty of trying to nd political sources while also completing
work on deadline, many journalists say they use the policymaking process as a catalyst for
nding sources. One statehouse news bureau reporter describes this process as starting by
looking at all the key stakeholders and then considering which groups have something to
benet or lose based on the outcome of the issue (participant 3). For another journalist,
deadline pressure means you can only afford to give space to the two parties that are actu-
ally legitimately shaping where that policy might end up (participant 12); and sometimes
those political groups are used as sources because you can get [them] on the phone in that
tight period of time (participant 2). Other journalists attempt to nd sources quickly by
relying on existing source relationshipseither asking sources for the names of other
experts on a topic (participants 3, 11, 13) or by relying on the same source consistently.
One other way to nd sources is to contact individuals who gave testimony before a leg-
islative body since they are knowledgeable about the topic and are not just another poli-
tician. These individuals are considered low hanging fruit because they are so easy to
locate (participant 1).
10 TIM P. VOS AND J. DAVID WOLFGANG

Journalists also rely on political organizations as sources, but often frame this practice
as necessary, though not ideal. Journalists describe organizations as having obvious
agendas that must be contextualized (participants 2, 13) and as being overly reliant on
written statements and unwilling to provide human sources (participant 3). However, jour-
nalists still rely on organizations because they are efcient (participant 2), responsive (par-
ticipant 3), informed on the issue (participants 10, 13), and helpful (participant 8). Clearly
they have an agenda. That doesnt mean they dont have a well-reasoned viewpoint (par-
ticipant 15).
In summary, the journalists, often working on deadline, say they seek out political
actorsusually individuals, but sometimes organizationswho have the power to make
policy, who have specialized or real knowledge, and who have the advantage of legiti-
macy or name recognition. The reporters are skeptical of persons or organizations with
an explicit political agenda. That these journalistic routines work to limit political viewpoint
diversity to sources within the corridors of power goes unacknowledged.

A Hierarchy of Roles
Journalists discourse shows they conceptualize political viewpoint diversity as one
role among many. As the above analysis indicates, journalists express support for a norma-
tive role of representing diverse viewpoints in the news. However, what emerges here is
that journalists prioritize other normative roles. When they set out to cover a story, they
all describe a process of identifying sources who are knowledgeable and have access to
information the reporters do not. As a public television journalist put it, its not a matter
of necessarily talking to enough people, its talking to the people who know what is
going on with the issue (participant 7). So, reporters look to craft good stories, which
they describe as timely, containing information from persons in the know, featuring articu-
late quotes, and, when possible, including well-known persons. Reporters also describe a
good story as balanced, which, as indicated above, is largely articulated as covering
both sides of an issue. So, a modicum of diversity does factor into reporters normative
conceptions, with some reporters saying they seek even more than a modicum of diversity.
However, once both sides have been represented, other considerations are more impor-
tant than representing a greater range of diversity. Even when working on a long-form
feature, where a news service reporter said he did 20 interviews, he nevertheless explained
that we sort of cherry pick the most compelling points that people have to make and
include those in a story (participant 6). Another journalist said that he attempted to be
balanced, but that the journalists subjective judgments always play a role in making
decisions (participant 17). Journalists describe their reporting as oriented to crafting com-
pelling stories and only secondarily to producing stories with diverse viewpoints.
While the literature (see, e.g., Cohen 1963; Johnstone, Slawski, and Bowman 1976;
Weaver and Wilhoit 1986) on role conceptions often implies that journalist embrace a
single role or that the roles represent types of journalists (Weaver and Wilhoit 1986,
117), survey-based studies (see, e.g., Weaver et al. 2007; Weaver and Wilhoit 1996) have
consistently shown that journalists express differing levels of supportbut support none-
thelessfor a range of normative roles. The discourse of the journalists studied here sup-
ports the idea that journalists hold a hierarchy of roles. Even among roles that are valued by
journalists, some roles outweigh others. For example, a gatekeeping role that excludes
whacko people from news stories (participant 13) and a truth-telling role are seen as
NORMATIVE CONSTRUCTIONS OF POLITICAL VIEWPOINT DIVERSITY 11

preferable to diversity for its own sake. Journalists voice support for the role of providing
diverse voices and claim that it is important (participants 5, 6), very important (partici-
pants 1, 3, 8, 9, 10, 12), critical (participants 7), very signicant (participant 4), and
incredibly important (participant 2); but the journalists own discourse ultimately indicates
that this role clearly takes a back seat to other normativenot to mention practical
considerations.
It is possible that these political journalists value viewpoint diversity more than they
are able to articulate; which might suggest that representations of viewpoint diversity
might operate at the level of journalistic doxaas a kind of tacit knowledge that cannot
be easily expressedrather than as cultural capital, which typically is articulated by
members of the journalistic eld. Journalists often said that determining a sufcient
range of diversity for a story was a matter of instinct (participants 3, 6) or feel (partici-
pants 2, 4, 9, 13, 14, 15). Interestingly, some of the journalists describe instances when
editors have sent them back into the eld to interview more sources to ll gaps or
because a story needed nuance (participants 3, 5, 6) or was too simplistic or maybe
were missing something (participant 6). While journalists could not always articulate
what was missing, it is plausible that the stories lacked sufcient viewpoint diversity. If
that is the case, it nevertheless underscores that representation of viewpoint diversity
remains an under-articulated and perhaps under-valued norm.

Views of Democracy
Ultimately, political viewpoint diversity is constructed through the journalists
assumptions about democracy. When the political reporters talk about their jobs, they
invoke assumptions about the role of journalism in democracy and about the nature of
democracy. All the journalists interviewed talk, in some version or another, about providing
audiences with news that will keep them informed about policies and politicians. But, this
relationship between journalism and democracy is anchored in competing versions of
democracy.
In one version of service to democracy, the political journalists conceive of the audi-
ence as distracted and disengaged from public life. They are getting news on their iPhones
while theyre, you know, sitting on the bus or on a toilet or God knows where (participant
12). Thus, the role of the journalist is to monitor those in power and alert the audience when
events merit their attention. Reporters focus their attention on top ofcials, because theyre
the ones who are directly involved in the process of governing (participant 11). If persons
are not directly involved they are conceptualized as outside groups (participant 14). This
version of democracy is what some theorists (see, e.g., Baker 2002) call elitist democracy
elites do the business of governing and journalism performs a checking function on behalf
of a disinterested public. Here the only viewpoints that are essential are those of elites and
diversity is simply a matter of monitoring both sides of the political aisle. Viewpoint diver-
sity is fairly narrow because sources with the power to make things happen are, as one jour-
nalist put it, a pretty narrow universe of voices (participant 11).
Sometimes, however, journalists describe a democratic function in more republican
terms, where politicians are not so much elite ofcials as they are public servants seeking
the public good (Baker 2002). The reportersparticularly statehouse reportersargue that
much of governing is done on a bipartisan basis, based on the needs of the public. They see
elected assemblies as representative of the public and thus envisage elected politicians as
12 TIM P. VOS AND J. DAVID WOLFGANG

representative of a diverse population. For example, one reporter concluded that the leg-
islature he covers represents a cross section of the state and all kinds of different view-
points and professions (participant 7). Thus, to provide coverage of elected politicians is
by its very nature representative of the viewpoint diversity in the electorate.
In another version of service to democracy, political reporters see citizens as ato-
mized individuals who sort through the news of the day to form their own political judg-
ments. This version assumes a liberal democracy where journalists job is to provide
legitimate (participant 10) and intelligent (participant 11) information from an informed
standpoint (participant 16) that serves the purpose of sound citizen decision-making. The
goal of multi-perspective journalism comes down to serving the needs of individuals to be
an informed citizen who understands what debates are happening and what policy is being
considered (participant 8). In this view, viewpoint diversity serves a backseat to the quality
of the information. Which is not to say that diversity is unimportantrather, the point of
interviewing multiple sources is to arrive at sound information. Diversity of viewpoints is
an unintended, but usually welcome, consequence.
What is largely absent in the reporters discourse is evidence of assumptions that gov-
ernance might reect a deliberative and pluralist democracy. In these versions of democ-
racy, citizens are members of social groups; in fact their identity is often tied to group
membership. This perspective on democracy recognizes intractable diversity in society
(see Baker 2002, 137). But, while this view of democracy is largely absent in the reporters
discourse; it has been central to much of the normative theorizing about viewpoint diver-
sity and pluralism (see Christians et al. 2009). In this view of democracy, journalists have the
task, in the words of the Hutchins Commission (Commission on Freedom of the Press 1947,
21), of projecting the opinions and attitudes of the groups of the society to one another
and of presenting and clarifying the goals and values of the society. This is similar to Raeij-
maekers and Maeseeles (2015) conception of the critical pluralism model of media plural-
ismwhere the media establish sites of struggle over the contestation of ideology
among many different actors, rather than promoting a space for a public forum; and in
this case, journalists determined who was capable of participating in this struggle. This is
a more robust view of diversity and its role in journalism than came to expression in the
journalists discourse examined here. Also absent was any adherence to the radical role
of journalism (Christians et al. 2009), which seeks to provide a voice for those critical of
authority and the establishment. The absence of a radical role and the diminished nature
of the pluralist approach suggest that journalists, in practice, support a conception of view-
point diversity that is rooted within the structure of existing categories of acceptable view-
points. In summary, although journalists discourse valued the representation of viewpoint
diversity, the journalists understood viewpoint diversityand the importance of the
breadth and nature of that diversityfrom within certain assumptions about the nature
of democracy.

Conclusions
The political reporters interviewed here, even in the face of a changing news and
media ecology, clearly embrace the normative role of providing audiences with a range
of political viewpoints, thus connecting modern political journalists with the long-standing
doxa and cultural capital of the journalistic eld (Benson and Neveu 2005; Karppinen 2013;
Nerone 2013; Weaver et al. 2007). The routines and source choices of political journalists
NORMATIVE CONSTRUCTIONS OF POLITICAL VIEWPOINT DIVERSITY 13

appears to favor those elite political sources who have the power to establish understand-
ings of consensus and deviance for journalistsleaving a swath of viewpoints largely
unconsidered by reporters. The result is that journalists show preferences for elite
sources and the two major US political parties. At this basic level, the ndings are wholly
unsurprising. However, the ndings also show that while journalists embrace the value
of political viewpoint diversity, their role perception is refracted through an implicit hierar-
chy of roles and through their assumptions about democracy. This offers fresh insights into
the literature on political viewpoint diversity and into eld theorys conceptualization of
capital.
The source selection choices expressed by these political journalistsfor informed
sources with the power to enact changeconnects with what content-based studies
have found about how journalists rely on elite sources (Reese, Grant, and Danielian 1994;
Schudson 2003). Demands on the political journalists to meet deadlines means they feel
pressured to seek out the most efcient and able sources on the topic, which means
looking for the informed and elite sources who can speak about what is actually happening
in the political sphere, rather than those who can merely speculate. These ndings comport
with previous observational studies, which showed how journalistic practices derive from
seeking the most efcient route to nding quality sources (Gans 1979; Tuchman 1978)
and underscore the weight of economic capital in journalistic work (Benson and Neveu
2005). More research could be done on how journalists perceive political power, where it
lies, and how it is expressed through political reporting, as political reporters appear to
see it as the most valuable aspect of a potential political source.
More than just relying on elite sources, the political journalists in this study used the
consensus and disagreement of elites as a guide for understanding whether public issues
should be represented based on a broad or narrow set of viewpoints. When elite political
sources agreed on an issue, diversity of viewpoints was unnecessary; however, when there
was signicant difference of opinion, then journalists justied looking for a broader set of
perspectives. This aligns with content-based ndings by Hallin (1989), who argued that the
spheres of consensus, legitimate controversy, and deviance dictate when journalists will
seek voices from a broad or narrow set of viewpoints. The political journalists interviewed
also appeared to index the diversity of viewpoints to existing categories of viewpoints on a
given issue, similar to how Bennett (1990, 2009) has explained indexing of political view-
points. This practice allows political elites to establish the categories of difference of
thought on a given topic so that journalists then mirror that categorization of viewpoints,
leaving minority viewpoints out of the discourse.
Thus, what we see in content-based studies of political viewpoint diversity have a cor-
ollary in how journalists think about their roles. However, what these content-based studies
could not address was whether journalists set out to limit viewpoint diversity or whether
the lack of diversity was the byproduct of practicing political journalism. The ndings
here, while exploratory, suggest reporters conception of viewpoint diversity is limited by
the routines of their work, how they place viewpoint diversity within a hierarchy of roles,
and how they understand democracy and journalisms role in it.
While one of the chief conclusions of this studythat journalists hold a hierarchy of
normative rolesmay seem obvious, this conclusion has typically not factored into how
journalistic or cultural capital is theorized. Cultural capital is typically conceptualized as a
pole, whose mass and polarity pulls journalists away from the expediency of economic
and political poles (Benson and Neveu 2005; Bourdieu 2005). But, this leaves cultural
14 TIM P. VOS AND J. DAVID WOLFGANG

capital largely undifferentiatedit is assumed to be an additive concept, where the pole is


simply the sum total of journalists cultural capital. However, perhaps the force of the pole is
at least partly a product of the priority of some forms of cultural capital over other forms.
Thus, the arrangement of the hierarchy of roles may gure into the pull of journalisms cul-
tural capital. Likewise, how these roles are anchored in assumptions about the nature of
democracyelitist, republican, liberal, pluralistmay also have a bearing on the power
of journalisms cultural capital. This merits further theorizing.
An exploratory study understandably comes with limitations. It should be recognized,
for example, that political reportersfor all their importance to the democratic mission of
journalismare likely unlike other reporters. The political reporters interviewed for this
study typically work in the nations capital or in state capitals and are thus not situated
in a geographical community in the same way that many journalists are. Nearly all of the
journalists expressed some distance from their audience, expressing typied notions of
what audiences want. These journalists, to put it mildly, are not at the forefront of audience
engagement trends in newsrooms (see Papacharissi 2009). This distance is consonant with
assumptions about democracy that see governing as a matter for elite ofcials rather than
via citizen debate and mobilization. This distance, however, could be rooted in the fact that
journalists see the audience as an ambiguous mass that is impossible to adequately
represent.
Nevertheless, what the study does offer are some insights into those reasons that
reporters can, on the one hand, express a strong commitment to political viewpoint diver-
sity as a vital normative role and, on the other hand, conceive of good journalism as reliant
on elite sources. This seeming contradiction points to the ways in which the representation
of viewpoint diversity remains an under-articulated and seemingly under-valued norm.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
The authors would like to thank Allison Pierce for her assistance in collecting and coding
the data in this study.

DISCLOSURE STATEMENT
No potential conict of interest was reported by the authors.

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Tim P. Vos (author to whom correspondence should be addressed), School of Journalism,


University of Missouri, USA. E-mail: vost@missouri.edu
J. David Wolfgang, Department of Journalism and Media Communication, Colorado State
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18 TIM P. VOS AND J. DAVID WOLFGANG

Appendix A
Political Journalists Interviewed

Participant Medium Region Date


1 Online organization State February 4, 2015
2 News bureau National March 3, 2015
3 News bureau State February 6, 2015
4 Online organization National February 9, 2015
5 Newspaper State February 6, 2015
6 News bureau State February 17, 2015
7 Television State February 19, 2015
8 Radio State February 13, 2015
9 News bureau National February 23, 2015
10 Newspaper State February 25, 2015
11 Magazine National March 5, 2015
12 Newspaper National March 20, 2015
13 Newspaper National March 31, 2015
14 Online organization National April 7, 2015
15 Newspaper National April 8, 2015
16 Newspaper State April 13, 2015
17 Newspaper State April 16, 2015
18 Newspaper State April 17, 2015