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Journalism Studies
ISSN: 1461-670X (Print) 1469-9699 (Online) Journal homepage:
Helpfulness as Journalism’s Normative Anchor
Ryan J. Thomas
To cite this article: Ryan J. Thomas (2017): Helpfulness as Journalism’s Normative Anchor,
Journalism Studies, DOI: 10.1080/1461670X.2017.1377103
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Published online: 10 Oct 2017.
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Date: 26 October 2017, At: 04:14
Addressing blind spots and going back to
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Ryan J. Thomas
This article addresses two blind spots related to normativity in journalism studies. First, the digital
journalism literature has led the field too far away from what journalism does for people and offers
a shallowly-theorized and technocentric conception of journalism’s social objectives. Second, the
emphasis on reporting and the journalism/democracy framework has privileged particular forms
of journalism over others and led to a thin conception of journalistic normativity. While the journalism/democracy framework should not be abandoned, it should be resituated as part of a more
expansive treatment of journalistic normativity. These blind spots mean that normativity in journalism studies must be both re-centered and broadened. To this end, this article argues that helpfulness ought to be considered journalism’s “normative anchor”—that is, the foundation upon which
journalistic normativity rests. It follows, then, that the fundamental objective of journalism is to be
helpful. Understanding helpfulness as journalism’s normative anchor satisfies the demand of recentering journalism’s public goods while also satisfying the demand of broadening the horizons
of journalism studies with regard to the range of journalistic specialisms.
KEYWORDS choice architecture; everyday life; helpfulness; journalism and democracy; journalistic roles; normative anchor; normative theory; normativity
Normativity is central to journalism studies. This is because journalism itself is “an
inescapably normative domain” (Blumler and Cushion 2014, 261) where questions of “is”
cannot easily be extricated from questions of “ought.” Journalism helps individuals to
orient themselves to the world around them, is considered central to the workings of a
democracy, and is an agent of both social control and social change; the importance of
journalism studies as a research enterprise, then, is derived from the importance of journalism as a social enterprise (Conboy 2013; Wahl-Jorgensen and Hanitzsch 2009a). As journalism studies carves out a distinct space for itself as a subfield within communication
research, it is important to review some of its intellectual currents and blind spots, lest
this process of maturity lead to calcification around certain ways of thinking. This article
questions the treatment of normativity within journalism studies, identifying two specific
blind spots.
First, it argues that trends in the “digital journalism” and “participatory journalism” literatures have under-emphasized what journalism does for people and over-emphasized
what people do with and through journalism (Peters and Witschge 2015; Witschge
Journalism Studies, 2017
© 2017 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
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2012a). This body of work instead offers a technocentric understanding of journalism’s
social objectives that does not adequately interrogate the possibility that the trends scholars celebrate may be democratically grievous (Kreiss and Brennen 2016; Siegelbaum and
Thomas 2016). Moreover, these trends threaten to marginalize attentiveness to journalism’s
external obligations and this disconnect journalism studies from its field of study (Blumler
and Cushion 2014).
Second, it examines the privileging of a particular conception of journalism, centered
around hard news reporting, within journalism studies that has, in turn, privileged a particular conception of what journalism ought to do (Zelizer 2004, 2009). This is to say that hard
news reporting is viewed as synonymous with journalism rather than a constituent part of
it. Unlike the digital journalism literature, this body of work exhaustively articulates the work
that journalism does on the public’s behalf but ignores the normativity of other domains
within the family of journalistic specializations. While hard news reporting is of course
important, this conception of journalism does not reflect the different things that different
“journalisms” do for different people. As a consequence, we have an incomplete picture of
journalistic normativity.
These distinct challenges ought to be considered in tandem, for they relate to the
normativity inherent to journalism and we ought to keep normativity at the forefront of
our discussions of journalism, the better to address “the values that journalism should
embody and the quality of news that could be produced” (Blumler and Cushion 2014,
262). My goal is to connect these arguments and suggest that, together, they indicate
that journalistic normativity needs to be both re-centered and broadened within journalism
studies. The first half of the article outlines the premise of this argument. However, if journalism is to be re-centered and broadened, it must be anchored. The second half of the
article suggests that helpfulness ought to be considered journalism’s normative anchor.
Drawing on the literature on virtue ethics and paternalism, I argue that it is journalism’s
first and most basic objective to be helpful, where to be helpful is to expand and improve
the opportunities of others.
The Terrain of Journalism Studies
Academic disciplines are identifiable by two criteria: a structural framework that
makes the discipline identifiable in academic programs, journals, and associations and an
academic culture centered around shared theories and methodologies (Steensen and
Ahva 2015). Certainly by the first measure, and increasingly by the second, journalism
studies is gaining disciplinary standing, as determined by the emergence of journals dedicated to it (e.g., Journalism Studies, Journalism Practice, and Journalism: Theory, Practice, and
Criticism), divisions of major communication associations (e.g., journalism studies divisions
within the International Communication Association and the European Communication
Research and Education Association), and texts authored by scholars mapping its terrain
(see, e.g., Conboy 2013; Franklin et al. 2005; Wahl-Jorgensen and Hanitzsch 2009b;
Zelizer 2004).
Journalism studies has been defined as “an attempt to assert the importance of journalism by exploring its mechanics and its impact, in negotiation with its producers, its products, and its audience” (Conboy 2013, 15). It aspires to be internationalist and
multidisciplinary, attempts to link theoretical with practical and professional concerns, considers the different contexts in which journalism is funded and produced, and “is attentive
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to the full range of journalistic specialisms” (Franklin et al. 2005, 128). It seems increasingly
the case that journalism studies “has generated enough critical and intellectual capacity to
be considered as distinct from Media Studies and as something more reflective than
implied by the word ‘Journalism’ used in isolation” (Conboy 2013, xi). This is a welcome
development, not least because it provides scholars with the theoretical and methodological tools to address the major transformations gripping journalism of late (Franklin 2014;
Steensen and Ahva 2015).
Four “distinct, but overlapping and co-existing” phases characterize the intellectual
emphases of journalism studies (Wahl-Jorgensen and Hanitzsch 2009a, 4). Its early, normative phase lies in the origins of communication and journalism research in nineteenth
century Germany, where scholars emphasized the role journalism ought to play in a
complex society rather than its mechanics or empirical realities. An empirical turn harnessed
social scientific techniques to the study of journalism, beginning with studies of audiences
and media effects and moving to the study of news production processes. A sociological
turn in the 1970s and 1980s saw the flourishing of qualitative research methods, the
exploration of journalistic routines and occupational norms, and the interrogation of the
relationship between journalism and ideology. Finally, a global-comparative turn has
emphasized the importance of cross-cultural research amid processes of globalization
and technological change.
More recently, scholars have focused on the impact of technological change on journalism, specifically how “digitization is changing journalistic practices, cultures, and institutions” (Steensen and Ahva 2015, 1). The emergence of digital journalism studies is a
byproduct of these transformations, as evidenced by a journal dedicated to the topic
(Digital Journalism) and textbooks focused on “digital journalism studies” (see, e.g., Franklin
and Eldridge 2017; Witschge et al. 2016). The rapid pace of change in journalism has been
mirrored by similar rapidity in the evolution of digital journalism studies. Domingo (2008)
identifies three waves of research, emerging in quick succession, approximately hailing
from the diffusion of the internet: a normative wave emphasizing utopian promises of
change; an empirical wave that tested the assumptions of the normative wave; and a constructivist wave that assessed matters of technological diffusion. Steensen and Ahva (2015)
offer a fourth wave that “theorizes the field beyond the traditional institutions and understandings of journalism” (1).
It bears noting that the four phases outlined by Wahl-Jorgensen and Hanitzsch
(2009a) occurred over a period of approximately 150 years (or more), whereas the
phases outlined by Domingo (2008) and Steensen and Ahva (2015) describe rapid
change over a much shorter period of time. This may be due to the rapid pace of technological and economic change and “disruption” within journalism itself over this period. Yet
it may also indicate restlessness within journalism studies, as scholars become enamored
with one technological possibility after another, in search of the digital utopia that logics
of creative disruption will surely bring about. This has become something of a blind spot
within journalism studies.
Journalism Studies’ Normative Blind Spot #1: Digital Journalism Studies
It is somewhat disconcerting that many of the transformations surrounding journalism—particularly those associated with digital technologies—are treated as a priori positives within digital journalism studies. A more skeptical set of scholars have suggested
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that we need, as a field, to embark on a course correction away from reflexively celebrating
technological transformations. For example, Witschge (2012a) describes how “the unreflective promotion of new media under the banner of democratization is used to put into place
changes that may actually harm rather than improve the news process” (121). Blumler and
Cushion (2014) suggest that journalism studies has turned its attention inward to the detriment of consideration of journalism’s external commitments, “marginalizing normative
concerns that should remain fundamental to the study of journalism” (260). Thomas
(2016) has expressed concern about the “balkanizing tendencies” (88) prevalent in this
scholarship that privileges participation in journalism yet says little about aggregated
public needs and goods.
With regard to the normative assumptions of the digital journalism literature, Kreiss
and Brennen (2016) argue that this body of work tends to valorize a vision of journalism
that is participatory, deinstitutionalized, innovative, and entrepreneurial. They suggest
that such scholarship works backwards from normative position to empirical assessment,
castigating journalism that falls short of these ideals. This scholarship, then, is a form of
metajournalistic discourse—a discourse about what journalism is and ought to be
(Carlson 2016). For example, references to the problems of the “we write, you read”
model of journalism (Deuze 2003, 220) and to journalists’ “aversion to opening up meaningful phases of the news process” (Lewis 2012, 850) are embedded with normative
assumptions of what journalism ought to be and what journalists ought to do. Digital utopianism can lead to frustration at journalists’ inability or unwillingness to realize the glorious possibilities afforded by the digital revolution; here, Usher’s (2010) analysis of the
“goodbyes” of laid-off journalists is a case-in-point, holding that we ought not shed a
tear for journalists who have lost their jobs because they “lack the vocabulary to talk
about new media” (922) and are “the people failing to see the opportunities for new
media and those who are unable to help newspapers be entrepreneurial in their attempts
to come through the crisis they face” (924).
A meta-analysis of the participatory journalism literature by Borger et al. (2013) identifies four themes: enthusiasm about its democratic potential; disappointment with journalists’ unwillingness to adapt; disappointment with economic motives to facilitate the success
of participatory journalism; and disappointment with news users’ passivity. Pointing to the
problems associated with treating technological transformations as an unqualified good,
Witschge (2012b) has warned that relentless optimism about technology “as a way to
put into effect changes in news production and to solve a myriad of problems that are
seen as a threat to the future of news” (99) can lead to a failure of imagination when confronted with the realities of journalists as imperfect humans having difficulty adjusting to
new demands placed upon them.
Peters and Witschge (2015) argue that there has been a discernible shift in the literature as journalism studies has entered its “digital” phase away from journalism as a mobilizer for citizen participation in democracy toward journalism as a facilitator for citizen
participation in journalism, which they describe as “democracy in journalism, rather than
through it” (20). This first became evident in the literature on citizen journalism, which envisioned a deinstitutionalized journalism that would subcontract news production away from
professional journalists into the hands of the public (see, e.g., Bowman and Willis 2003;
Gillmor 2004; Nah 2008; Nip 2006). This literature marries disillusionment with traditional
journalists with faith in citizen replacements, presenting journalism as so irreparably
damaged that rescue is impossible and a new set of saviors must be found.
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If citizen journalism is the apex of this trend, participatory journalism ought to be read
as a recalibration rather than a reconsideration, seeing scholars accept the role of the professional journalist in the news production process but positioning the creation of spaces
for citizen participation in those processes as a normative obligation (see, e.g., Heinonen
2011; Lewis 2012). This literature emphasizes the value of participation in journalism as
an end in itself (Peters and Witschge 2015) without asking if the setting of new normative
tasks for journalists is reasonable or if wider processes of media “democratization” are even
desirable (Kreiss and Brennen 2016; Thomas 2016; Witschge 2012a).
If we understand the shift from citizen to participatory journalism as points on a continuum, the shift from participatory to reciprocal journalism—defined as a practice of
exchange for mutual benefit (Lewis, Holton, and Coddington 2014)—can be read as an
attempt to correct the deficiencies of these earlier bodies of work while still preserving
the essence of the “democratized” journalism project. However, it also speaks to a subtle
but important shift in recognition of the distinct roles of journalist and audience.
The above summarized trends do not bode well for a rounded treatment of normativity within journalism studies (Blumler and Cushion 2014). However, a different problem
or “blind spot” confronting journalism studies is narrowness of focus.
Journalism Studies’ Normative Blind Spot #2: The Dominance of Hard
News Reporting
Writing about the breadth (or lack thereof) of journalism studies, Zelizer (2009) argues
that “the academy has pushed certain focal points in thinking about journalism that do not
account for the broad world of what journalism is” (34). She notes that “scholars have not
produced a body of material that reflects all of journalism” but “have primarily defined it in
ways that drive a specific form of hard news over other alternatives” (34). This concern is
echoed by Wahl-Jorgensen and Hanitzsch (2009a), who point to inattentiveness to “specialist journalisms which are removed from the excitement of the newsgathering process and
frequently occupy the lower rungs of the newsroom hierarchy” (12–13). Indeed, it may not
be too much of an exaggeration to suggest that much of what constitutes journalism
studies is in fact reporting or hard news studies, due to the conflation of “journalism”
with “hard news reporting” as though the former were wholly constituted by the latter.
Scholars have bemoaned the lack of sustained attention on, for example, lifestyle journalism (Hanusch 2012), music criticism (Powers 2009), and political cartoons (Hampton 2013).
While it is certainly not the case that scholarship has been silent on such topics, the relative
absence of research means we lack concrete and reasonable yardsticks for measuring their
One reason these genres have received insufficient attention in scholarship may be
that they do not cleanly fit into the “journalism and democracy” framework that is viewed
as the basis for journalism’s moral legitimacy. This framework, according to one influential
account, holds that journalists ought to disseminate information, investigative power,
provide analysis, generate social empathy, sustain a public forum, mobilize political participation, and publicize the virtues of representative democracy (Schudson 2008). However,
the journalism and democracy framework sits illogically next to the reality that “journalism
has always churned out information with no obvious connection to any model of democracy” (Waisbord 2013, 505).
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Scholars have suggested that the relationship between journalism and democracy
ought to be rethought or even abandoned as an organizing framework for journalism
studies. Josephi (2013) and Zelizer (2013) argue that the framework privileges the west
(and the United States in particular) in both journalism and journalism studies, in naturalizing understandings of what journalism ought to be and do. The result is that by hitching
journalism so tightly to democracy, scholars claim journalism “for an exclusive club of
countries only” and needlessly marginalize the journalism practiced in non-democratic or
transitional contexts as fundamentally inferior and inadequate (Josephi 2013, 475). Scholars
also note that despite the lofty rhetoric surrounding journalism’s centrality to democracy,
there is a gap between ideals and practice (Nerone 2013; Zelizer 2013). Reflecting on these
arguments, Zelizer (2013) suggests that the journalism-democracy framework has “overextended its shelf life” (459) and ought to be retired.
This seems rather hasty. It is a statement of the obvious that journalism frequently
does not live up to the idealized visions we have of it, yet that does not mean we
abandon those idealized visions. This portends a sloppy moral relativism where we ultimately lose the capacity to make claims of value and are reduced to banal observations
of difference. We have an imperfect press for an imperfect world; our energies instead
ought to be trained on ascertaining the forces that inhibit journalists’ abilities to live up
to the normative tasks set for them. In addition, the arguments against democracy as an
organizing framework now seem somewhat trite against the backdrop of growing authoritarian populism across the democratic world (Oliker 2017) and the use of state-sponsored
disinformation in support of it (Haigh, Haigh, and Kozak 2017). In light of the political exigencies of the present, the notion that journalism ought to be conceptually disarticulated
from democracy seems faintly silly.
Where these criticisms are on firmer ground is the acknowledgment that journalism
scholarship has prioritized a thin conception of journalism that in turn reflects a thin conception of journalistic normativity. It is also obvious that there are elements of journalism
with no immediate connection to democracy. What is the democratic value of the sports
section, for example, or of the crossword? Does food criticism enhance our capacity to
self-govern? Yet rather than abandoning the framework, we ought to instead situate it
within a broader prism of journalistic normativity where the sustenance of democracy is
but one of a kaleidoscope of goods that different types of journalism pursue in different
ways. Thus, while it is quite fair to suggest we ought to move “beyond democracy” in
our discussions of journalistic normativity (Hanitzsch and Vos 2016), we should not move
so far beyond democracy that we lose sight of it altogether. What we need to do to
achieve this is to first broaden our scope of journalism and then consider how journalism
beyond hard news reporting has the capacity to help people flourish.
Journalism’s Public and Private Goods
A promising area of literature where issues of normativity are brought to bear on journalism is on journalistic roles. A role can be defined as “a composite of occupational tasks
and purposes that is widely recognizable and has a stable and enduring form” (Christians
et al. 2009, 119). Roles are imbued with normative force, providing journalists with both
“institutional legitimacy relative to a broader society” and a “cognitive toolkit that [they
can] use to think about their work” (Hanitzsch and Vos 2016, 6–7). Roles link individual journalists to the normative underpinnings of their work and to the wider institution of
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journalism (Christians et al. 2009; Eide 2017; Hanitzsch and Vos 2016). Given the heterogeneity of journalistic practice, it follows that there will be variations in journalistic role conception and how those conceptions translate into role performance.
The aforementioned bias toward hard news reporting in journalism studies means
that the normative implications of journalism’s role in political life have long dominated
scholarship and perhaps become the default framework through which we consider journalistic normativity. Hanitzsch and Vos (2016) note that the literature on journalism’s role in
everyday life tends to be cast in negative terms, suggesting that such “service journalism” is
associated with an individualized conception of the self that is amenable to capitalism and
a hallmark of the decline of public, community-building institutions under a neoliberal
economic regime. They likewise argue that scholars have not adequately attended to normative issues within these genres of journalism and observe that journalists themselves
“have been slow to articulate this role in normative terms” (12). However, as Eide (2017)
notes, “normative aspects of journalism should not be restricted to news and democracy
in a traditional political sense” (93).
Recognizing the diversity of specializations within journalism across contexts,
Hanitzsch and Vos (2016) suggest that roles ought to be considered not only in the
context of political life but in the context of the “domain of everyday life—a domain
that cuts across spheres and points to the lived realities of all persons” (6). This represents
a decisive forward step in overcoming the hard news blind spot. It recognizes the role of
“securing daily provisions, self-maintenance, and entertainment” and understands such
“everyday activities” as “not without implications for politics and public life, but also not
reducible to the political” (6). With regard to political life, they offer eighteen journalistic
roles situated within six elementary functions of journalism: informational-instructive, analytical-deliberative, critical-monitorial, advocative-radical, developmental-educative, and collaborative-facilitative. With regard to everyday life, they offer seven ideal-type roles
(marketer, service provider, friend, connector, mood manager, inspiratory, and guide) that
pertain to the consumption, identity-building, and emotional needs of audiences.
To possess a role is to possess role-relative responsibilities. These roles can be seen as
directives to journalists to help them realize what they ought to be doing. Conversely, they
underline the needs that citizens have that those roles help to meet and the public and
private goods that journalists can bring about through the meeting of those needs in the
execution of their roles. Considered this way, we see the normativity embedded within journalism and spanning its range of flavors and contexts. The role-relative responsibilities of
journalists, then, are to help citizens find their way in both political and everyday life
and, in so doing, to produce public and private goods. Yet what remains missing is consideration of what holds these roles together—in other words, what is the glue that
binds them into a coherent whole? What is their unifying and organizing logic? The goal,
then, is to find a theoretical vocabulary that unifies these different roles—and their attendant practices—and anchors them as a whole.
In Search of a Normative Anchor
Caution must be taken in asserting new normative tasks for journalists. The language
surrounding journalism and democracy in particular has become so complex and multifaceted, commanding journalists to do this and not that, that it resembles a “normative
bidding war” (Nielsen 2016, 3) rather than a reasonable account of journalistic obligation.
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Normative theories must have empirical purchase; that is, they must correspond to an actually existing world and impose demands that account for what journalists are capable of
doing, what journalists are desirous of doing, and what audiences can reasonably expect
journalists to do (Nielsen 2017). This means that posing normative ambitions for journalism
must be grounded and modest.
We can only comprehend journalism in the context of what it does, returning us to
the most basic question: What is journalism for? This makes it apparent that journalism
needs to have a normative anchor. In other words, when confronted with the question
of what journalism is for, we need a response capable of addressing the range of journalisms that are practiced. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an anchor as a noun that
means “a reliable or principal support” and “something that serves to hold an object firmly.”
As a verb, to anchor means “to secure firmly.” A normative anchor, then, is a core focal point
to hold and cohere varied journalistic activities in light of their obligations. Therefore, I
suggest that the normative anchor of journalism is helpfulness. Put another way, I argue
that the most basic objective of journalism, the objective upon which all of its associated
obligations are built, is to be helpful.
Helpfulness as a Normative Anchor
To elucidate helpfulness as a normative anchor, I draw on distinct but complementary literatures from applied ethics and political philosophy: virtue ethics and paternalism.
Drawing these literatures together, I suggest that conduct is helpful when it creates opportunities that would otherwise be foreclosed. The complementary nature of aspects of
paternalism and virtue ethics has been noted before (Thomas 2016) and while they hail
from different philosophical traditions, this kind of theoretical syncretism is useful in
giving form and clarity to normative tasks. It also bears noting that any analysis has boundaries and my comments here are restricted to a democratic framework of government. This
is to say that while there are many varieties of democracy, many varieties of journalism, and
many varieties of journalism that have no connection to democracy altogether, democracy
provides the political context and legal framework that makes these journalisms possible
(Christians et al. 2009). Though normative models ought to have some elasticity, they
should not be formless and trying to incorporate non-democratic and authoritarian
systems into this framework would stretch its logic too far.
Defining Helpfulness
Helpfulness is a deceptively tricky concept, for it refers to a trait, an action, and an
outcome. This is to say it spans actor-centered, act-centered, and outcome-centered
ways of thinking about ethics. Virtue ethicists frequently list helpfulness as one of the
virtues (see, e.g., Koller 2007; O’Neill 1996; Solomon 1992), where virtues refer to “the character traits of persons, their practical attitudes or dispositions, which have some motivating
force for their conduct” (Koller 2007, 191). Rachels (1999) defines a virtue as “a trait of character, manifested in habitual action, that it is good for a person to have” (178). Virtues are
central to achieving the Aristotelian notion of eudaimonia, “a human life that is intrinsically
good from the individual’s viewpoint and the general perspective as well” (Koller 2007,
192). Virtues as traits of character refer to the dispositions possessed by individuals that
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manifest themselves in characteristic behavior; thus, helpfulness as a character trait refers
to an individual with a disposition toward helping others (Kamtekar 2004).
Helpfulness manifests itself in an action we recognize as “being helpful.” The website
of The Virtues Project, an international foundation dedicated to promoting awareness of
virtues, defines helpfulness as “being of service to others [and] doing thoughtful things
that make a difference in their lives.” Merriam-Webster defines being helpful as to be “of
service or assistance” (as a noun) and “making it easier to do a job [or] deal with a
problem” and “willing to help other people” (as an adjective). Each of these actions also
reflects an outcome—that is to say that we know an act has been helpful when it has
achieved a particular objective that is deemed helpful. This is illustrated in empirical
studies across disciplines using helpfulness as a dependent variable. For example, a
study of organizational socialization defines being helpful as enabling new employees to
become effective organizational members (Louis, Posner, and Powell 1983), while a
study of physicians’ communication behaviors with breast cancer patients treated helpfulness as the receipt of informational, emotional, and decision-making support (Arora and
Gustafson 2009). To be helpful, then, is to produce a good outcome and, in so doing,
create an opportunity that was otherwise foreclosed. It is this notion of opportunity that
I want to develop further, drawing on paternalistic philosophy.
Creating Opportunities Through Choice Architecture
Arguing for the importance of paternalism as a mechanism toward civic equality, the
political philosopher Ben-Porath (2010) describes the normative force that choice possesses
in liberal democracies as a cornerstone of modernity. “Choice,” she writes, “offers equality of
status, which stands in opposition to premodern and aristocratic visions of destined roles”
(3). Consequently, “allowing individuals to develop a life plan, to chart their own paths, to
be the authors of their lives, seems to offer an appropriate way to implement the values of
equal standing and equal dignity” (3). As intoxicating as choice is within liberal rhetoric,
choices are not made in a vacuum but are socially and politically situated; “an individual
in contemporary democratic societies is free to choose various facets of her life, but she
can only do it against the backdrop of her natural and social endowment” (41). This
trains our attention on how this backdrop can be overcome to expand opportunities to
choose. For Ben-Porath (2010), choice is comprised of three conditions, requiring autonomy
(the capability to discern options and act according to preference), freedom (the realization
of rights that are enshrined in a political structure), and opportunity (the availability of multiple, relevant options to choose from). If one of these conditions is not satisfied, choice is
impossible or, at best, constrained. While liberal political thought has devoted ample space
to discussions of autonomy and freedom, it has given relatively scant attention to
An approach that prioritizes opportunity acknowledges the relationship between the
public good of civic equality and the private good of enhanced well-being and “would be
based on a more robust responsibility of society toward the individual and on an active
attempt to achieve civic equality, understood to include wellbeing” (Ben-Porath 2010, 9).
This means that the end goal of social policy is to “enhance [people’s] opportunity to
improve their wellbeing and their standing as civic equals by properly constructing their
landscape of choice” (17). Centering opportunity pivots away from a libertarian vision of
society as a patchwork of atomized individuals and toward realization of our
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interdependence. It also acknowledges that opportunities to choose are inequitably distributed and makes it a normative obligation to level the playing field.
This turns our attention to how choices are structured and whether or not they are
structured in ways that maximize opportunity. This has been referred to by paternalist philosophers as the creation of “landscapes of choice” (Ben-Porath 2010) or “choice architecture” (Sunstein 2014; Thaler and Sunstein 2008). I prefer the latter, for it embeds an
implication of intent and therefore possesses greater normative force. Choice architecture
simply refers to the way that choices are provided and arranged, where the architect “has
the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions” (Thaler and
Sunstein 2008, 3). Choice architecture is “both pervasive and inevitable” (Sunstein 2014, 14).
This is to say that the provision of choice architecture is not in question; what is in question
is the helpfulness of said architecture. Drawing on the architecture metaphor, Thaler and
Sunstein (2008) note that “there is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ design” (3) for the design
of a building is imbued with aesthetic and practical questions, and a “good” design is
one which satisfies these questions. For Thaler and Sunstein (2008), “a good system of
choice architecture helps people improve their ability to map and hence to select
options that will make them better off” (94, emphasis added). For Ben-Porath (2010), “if individuals are to choose in ways that are conducive to liberal democratic ideals, their choice
sets have to be reasonably structured, and the options offered to them should be conveyed
in accessible and helpful forms” (145, emphasis added).
Journalism and the Provision of Helpful Choice Architecture
Questions of paternalism apply not only to the state but to the variety of institutions
that society is comprised of, including journalism (Thomas 2016). As noted, the provision of
choice architecture is not a matter of if but of how. This applies to journalism. In choosing
what stories to cover, how to cover them, for how long, and what resources to devote to
them, journalists—by which I not only mean reporters but also editors, designers, columnists, anchors, analysts, critics, and so on—serve as choice architects, where the architecture in question takes literal form in the pages of the newspaper or magazine, the
minutes of the newscast, or the columns online. The normative question at stake, then,
is how helpful that architecture is.
Though paternalism has been applied to journalism and defended as an organizing
framework (Thomas 2016), helpfulness as either trait or outcome has not. However, the literature on virtue ethics in journalism places emphasis on the importance of eudaimonia
and human flourishing as the telos or end goal of journalistic activity (Borden 2010; Craig
2011; Lambeth 1992). The virtue ethics approach does not treat ethics as a series of disaggregated dilemmas to somehow be “solved” but instead “suggests that the way to understand ethics is in terms of pursuing a telos, that is, the good of a whole human life; the telos
hinges partly on doing one’s role-related work well” (Borden 2010, 16). It calls journalists to
“embrace the … morally ambitious goal of helping people flourish as human beings”
(Borden 2010, 51). The specific application of virtues varies according to context, underlining how virtue ethics is an agent-relative enterprise. Thomas (2016) has suggested that the
literatures on paternalism and virtue ethics share concern for the ends of human activity
and the realization of socially productive goals. We could further argue that the “morally
ambitious goal of helping people flourish as human beings” is concomitant with the paternalistic emphasis on the expansion of people’s opportunities. Drawn together, this directs
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moral agents to properly construct landscapes of choice consistent with the telos of human
flourishing, of which the expansion of opportunity and the achievement of civic equality
are central components.
Applied to journalism, then, we could posit that journalism is helpful when it expands
and improves people’s opportunities. An opportunity might emerge through new knowledge
(whether about wrongdoing in local government or about a new album by their favorite
band) or new abilities (whether the acquisition of a new skill or talent or the ability to
appreciate diverse viewpoints). Expanded opportunities could also take the form of
acquired or expanded cultural capital or possibilities for political mobilization. Broadly,
this means that journalism has done its job when it has created a choice architecture
that opens up or expands an opportunity that hitherto did not exist or which was inaccessible or unnoticed. When these criteria have been met, journalism has been helpful and thus
achieved its most basic objective. Helpfulness as journalism’s normative anchor means that
helpfulness should be considered the generative glue that binds the array of practices that
constitute journalism together and grants them meaning.
The act of helpfulness is inherently relational, as helpfulness comes into being when
one does something in service of another. An accurate report on a corrupt political official
can be helpful as it kicks into action the corrective processes necessary for democracy to
function, thus helping rid the political sphere of corruption. A report on pending inclement
weather can be helpful because it can direct people to make wise decisions about where
they will spend their weekend and what clothes they will wear. An opinion column analyzing the issues of the day can be helpful if it broadens the perspectives of its readers and
provides deeper context to news. A movie review can be helpful through the provision
of a considered analysis of a cultural product that the reader can take into account as
they make purchasing decisions. Acknowledging helpfulness as journalism’s normative
anchor is to grant moral force to the sections of journalism that go under-studied and
under-appreciated. (It is also important to note how the above are qualified with “can be
helpful” rather than a definitive “is helpful,” for the normative question lies in the value
of the choice architecture provided, which is measured through its capacity for opportunity
expansion and improvement.)
Consider some examples. The menu that spans the top of the homepage of The Guardian (UK edition) offers different types of news depending on location and topic (United
Kingdom, world, and politics), as well as sections on opinion, culture, business, lifestyle,
fashion, the environment, technology, and travel. A weather report sits to the left of the
page, and links to job and dating advertisements and the crossword are not too far
away. Each of these sections, in their particular ways, can be helpful. In a US (and broadcasting) context, consider morning news shows such as NBC’s long-running program, The Today
Show. The show is a mix of hard news reporting, interviews, weather, entertainment news,
and lifestyle tips. Each of these sections of the show, in their particular ways, can be helpful.
This is not to position either The Guardian or The Today Show, or indeed any particular news
organization, as an exemplar for how journalism ought to be conducted. Rather that it is a
snapshot into the different ways that different types of journalism can be helpful.
Journalism and Public and Private Goods
With regard to public, political life, Christians et al. (2009) have mapped out the range
of roles that journalists play in service of democracy, specifically a monitorial role that
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prioritizes information dissemination and holding power to account, a facilitative role that
emphasizes journalism’s role in creating the conditions for high-quality discourse, a radical
role that sees journalists at the forefront of social change, and a collaborative role that
addresses journalism’s role in tandem with the state in times of development and crisis.
These roles flow from different theories of democracy. However, the underpinning of
any democratic framework is civic equality, “a main charge of a democratic society”
(Ben-Porath 2010, 19). The question then becomes one of how those different conceptions
of journalistic roles advance the goal of civic equality. They do so by being helpful—by providing opportunities for citizens to learn, deliberate, correct, and respond.
With regard to private, everyday life, it is important to move away from a default belittling of “softer” forms of news as though they have no inherent normativity. While we may
agree that reporting on government is of greater centrality to the public good than, say, tips
on how to manage your household finances, we do not need to belittle the importance of
the latter in order to advance the importance of the former. Much of the treatment of journalism pertaining to its role in “everyday life” is often critical in tone, associating it with
market-serving consumption and diversion from public problems (Hanitzsch and Vos
2016). Helpfulness means that we consider this from the perspective of the opportunities
that are provided through interaction with the journalism, not simply as a monetary transaction. In other words, helpfulness trains our attention to the concrete ways—however big
or small—in which an individual’s life is enriched through journalism.
Achieved by Excellence, Constrained by Circumstance
We might also consider the means by which helpfulness is brought about. Here,
the virtue ethics concept of excellence is instructive, for this is the means by which
the telos is achieved. The language of excellence provides journalists with moral yardsticks to measure their work against the best standards of their craft (Craig 2011). Pursuing standards of excellence “sets in motion a dynamic by which a practice’s very
capacity to achieve excellence can be systematically elevated and extended” (Lambeth
1992, 73). In the context of helpfulness, we could say that helpfulness is achieved
through journalistic excellence—journalists help members of the public become the
best possible version of themselves when they practice the best possible version of
their craft. This emphasizes the necessity to define excellence in the terms relative to
the particularized crafts each journalist is practicing, for “the telos hinges partly on
doing one’s role-related work well” (Borden 2010, 16).
Of course, journalism is not helpful by its mere existence. The goal is not to unduly
adulate journalism, which can often get it wrong, sometimes catastrophically so. Horse
race political coverage can mystify the issues at stake in an election; an opinion column
could be a cynical “hot take” trading in manufactured outrage to maximize page views;
an inaccurate weather report can leave you soaking wet when you thought it would be
okay to wear shorts. Journalism is not perfect. Likewise, it must be placed into a context
of news production that shapes and constrains output, and makes the creation of virtuous
work difficult (Adam, Craft, and Cohen 2004). This means that, analytically, we attend to the
forces that inhibit helpfulness as individual, organizational, institutional, and societal levels.
It also means, normatively, that we measure the success of journalism against this backdrop
and in light of its normative capacity.
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The Relationality of Helpfulness
Writing about the virtue of helpfulness, O’Neill (1996) writes that it can find many
expressions, for it “define[s] an obligation whose expression not only may but must vary
hugely” (139). This is to say that the normative power of helpfulness can rest on context
and, in particular, who is being helped, further underlining the inherent relationality of
helpfulness. Helpfulness is relational and is therefore politically and socially situated. Journalism that may be helpful to one person may be unhelpful to another—certainly, the
corrupt official whose conduct a newspaper exposes would find that journalism unhelpful,
as would the political partisans who support him. If, however, we reduce helpfulness to a
matter of individual whim it loses both its force and moral clarity and we must anchor it
to something that is both social and external to the self. This is where the literature on
paternalism—particularly the structured paternalism favored by Ben-Porath (2010)—is a
useful complement, for it underlines how civic equality must remain a central charge of
journalism, where opportunities are not provided for their own sake but for people to
“live a minimally decent life and to advance her chosen goals, consistent with others’ civic
equality” (Ben-Porath 2010, 39, emphasis added). Journalism is not obligated to be
helpful to those individuals and groups whose organizing ethos would undermine civic
equality and, indeed, is positively obligated to work against those individuals and groups.
Journalism has no obligation to be helpful toward, for example, white supremacists or
fascist groups, for to do so would be to undermine civic equality.
Helpful Journalism: Synthesis and Conclusion
The purpose of identifying blind spots is to intervene in the debate by pointing to
absences and problems in the current literature and offer a course correction. This is, inevitably, a value judgment regarding the priorities of journalism studies. Others will undoubtedly have different priorities; such is the nature of a dynamic discipline.
With regard to the digital journalism literature, following others (see, e.g., Blumler and
Cushion 2014; Kreiss and Brennen 2016; Peters and Witschge 2015; Siegelbaum and
Thomas 2016; Thomas 2016; Witschge 2012a, 2012b), I question whether the focus on participation in journalism has been—wait for it—helpful in expanding our understanding of
journalism’s normative nature. Instead, I fear it has led journalism studies away from
what journalism ought to do for people. I suggest we hold a moratorium on works that position journalists as moustache-twirling villains zealously protecting their professional autonomy from plucky citizens who yearn to participate in news production processes. Instead,
we should return to the simpler yet currently unfashionable starting position that journalism is a socially helpful activity practiced by individuals who, for the most part, desire to be
helpful and make a different in their communities, large and small. I suggest that we as journalism scholars already know this because we see them first-hand in the schools where we
work. I certainly do.
With regard to the breadth of journalism studies, it is clear that the field has only partially attended to the task of exploring the “full range of journalistic specialisms” (Franklin
et al. 2005, 128) that constitute journalism. Working from the starting position that different
journalists assume different roles in the context of political and everyday life (Hanitzsch and
Vos 2016), it follows that different varieties of journalism possess normative force and are
thus deserving of interrogation to ascertain the goods they yield. The task ahead, then, is to
more concretely map the ways that different types of journalism are helpful, so that journalism studies can better live up to the breadth implied in its name.
This article, then, posits that journalism’s underlying obligation is to be helpful. This is to
say that helpfulness is journalism’s normative anchor. Its argument is summarized as
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All journalists create a choice architecture that provides context for decision-making.
The value of that choice architecture lies in the extent to which it is helpful.
Journalism is helpful when it expands or improves citizen’s opportunities.
Helpfulness can occur across journalistic contexts and satisfy public and private needs.
Journalists achieve helpfulness through pursuing role-relative excellence though the
environment of news production imposes constraints on the capacity of journalism
to be helpful.
Journalism is not obligated to help meet ends that are antithetical to civic equality. (This is
the “circuit breaker,” so to speak, on helpfulness, and one of the reasons why this
article has adopted a philosophical syncretism that melds virtue ethics with paternalistic philosophy.)
The goal of this article has been to draw together different arguments in the literature
and simultaneously draw together different conceptions of journalism and argue for a particular way of thinking about journalistic normativity, positing that helpfulness ought to be
considered as journalism’s normative anchor. Selecting helpfulness as this anchor is deliberate because it centers our conversation on the concrete things that the range of practices
within journalism can do for people, specifically the opportunities it can open for them.
Rather than impose layer upon layer of demands upon journalism, as normative theorizing
is wont to do (Nielsen 2017), instead this article has attempted to turn our attention “underneath,” so to speak, to the glue that holds those layers together. As a contribution to the
vital debate on journalistic normativity it exists to be revised, clarified, expanded, and
argued against.
The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewers, who provided thorough, constructive, and challenging feedback. The author is also indebted to Amanda Hinnant and Tim
P. Vos for providing excellent, helpful feedback on an earlier version of this article.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.
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Ryan J. Thomas, School of Journalism, University of Missouri, USA. E-mail: thomasrj@
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