Professional roles are one of the key topics in journalism research. In this respect, journalistic roles become essential components of journalistic cultures that represent the cultural capital that journalists share. They may manifest themselves in values and ideals, and also in journalistic practices (Zelizer, 1993; Mellado et al., 2017; Schudson, 2003).
Over the past decade considerably attention has been paid to the theorization of the different concepts that come into play when analyzing professional roles, and specially the study of journalistic role performance, i.e., the manifestation of professional roles in both news decisions and the news outcome that reaches the public. In this respect, unlike studies on professional role conceptions alone, journalistic role performance studies appear to be a more autonomous object of study, which may offer different perspectives on the practice of journalism around the world, particularly in countries where evaluative elements are less articulated in practice.
All the studies conducted during the first wave of our JRP Project systematically found patterns of multilayered hybridization in journalistic cultures across and within advanced, transitional, and non-democratic countries. Our studies also show significant discrepancies in the performance of different roles depending on some societal, organizational and individual factors, as well as a wide gap between journalistic ideals and perceptions, and their professional practices.
Nevertheless, two major limitations of the first wave of our Project were that it focused on analyzing only print media, and that analyzed news from the National Desk only.
Taking up these limitations, the second wave of the JRP Project (2019-2022) proposes a path for the systematic analysis of how different professional roles materialize in the news content of different media platforms, as well as in different news topics/beats.
Professional Role Performance as Object of Study
The concept of role performance focuses on the connection between journalists’ beliefs about the role of journalism and the actual practice in different societal contexts, connecting studies on the professionalism of roles with those on news production and media systems research.
Our Project asserts that although the evaluative elements of journalistic cultures are a fundamental component for the study of professionalism, the constraints to which they are exposed within the profession limit the possibility of living up to their normative standards (Mellado & Van Dalen, 2014), even though journalists may have clear ideas about which professional roles are most important to them.
One of the main challenges that quantitative studies on journalistic professional roles have faced over time is the lack of theorization and of empirical focus on analyzing the link between role conception and practice. Basically, journalistic roles have mostly been used as an empirical concept to study the roles journalists give importance in society, while the definitions given to the construct “professional role” have varied quite widely (Mellado, Hellmueller & Weaver, 2017).
Our JRP Project distinguished four different concepts within the construct of professional roles in journalism.
a) Role conception: The purposes of the profession that a journalist conceives as most important at the individual level, and where the journalists’ evaluation of a specific role is not necessarily related to social consensus.
b) Role perception: Perceived role expectations in society. Role perceptions do not form a mental picture of a role for a particular journalist and do not necessarily have a location in the conceiver.
c) Perceived role enactment: Role enactment has been addressed mostly at the evaluative level of analysis, referring to what journalists think they do. Some studies have used the term “role enactment” to analyze the manifestation of journalistic roles in news content.
Nevertheless, given the internal and external constraints that impact upon journalism, the concept of role enactment may never be fully applied within the journalistic profession. In this respect, role enactment differs from role performance in that it is more difficult to accomplish in journalism, since it implies that journalists have autonomy and freedom over their work, thereby being able to individually put into practice what they think are the most important roles of their profession.
d) Role performance: Role performance deals with behaviors, and it can be seen as the collective outcome of concrete newsroom decisions and the style of journalistic reporting, taking into consideration the different factors that influence journalism as a professional practice (Mellado et al., 2017, 2021).
The gap between ideals of roles or normative values and role performance is measured as the degree of congruence or discrepancy between an individual’s role conception, role perception or perceived role enactment, and his or her professional performance.
Within this context, role performance can explain the extent to which journalists’ news decisions and reporting styles are influenced by a journalist’s specific role conception, perception, perceived enactment, or by other variables that are not in the mix of expectations perceived as legitimate.
It should be borne in mind that although its relevant components are inevitably determined by normative criteria, the concept of role performance is not a normative one. Indeed, roles are not good or bad per se, since they are not universal. They are historical, situational, and they can be mediated constantly depending on the specific contexts.
Studying professional roles
An important issue when studying every stage of professional roles, as well as the gap between ideals and practice, is the way in which these concepts are measured.
The JRP Project have generated a common methodology, with valid scales to measure journalistic role performance in the news, as well as role conceptions, role perceptions and perceived role enactment among journalists. Using these scales, scholars are able to analyze professional roles in different contextual settings to enable cross-national research.
Based on standardized measures, the JRP Project looked at three main areas in which both the ideals and practice of journalism can be analyzed: the “journalistic voice” domain; the “power relations” domain; and the “audience approach” domain.
Within these domains, the watchdog, citizen-watchdog, the loyal-facilitator, the interventionist-disseminator, the service, the infotainment and the civic roles, are measured by specific indicators and variables.
All these roles – with the exception of the interventionist and the disseminator roles, which are part of a one-dimensional structure – are independent but relate to each other to some extent. They cannot, therefore, be considered as poles of a continuum, but rather as independent dimensions in their own right.
Of course, these are not the only domains from which professional can be analyzed, nor are they the only roles that can be found at both the evaluative and the performative levels.
Also, taking into account that several concepts are inevitably culturally bound, it is likely that not all the indicators emerging from the literature will work in the same way in all societies, especially when considering that professional roles can be seen as reflective measurement models.