Matt Carlson: Journalistic Authority

reviewed by Katherine M. Engelke

Why should we listen to journalists? According to Matt Carlson, the answer to this question lies in their journalistic authority. Having found only superficial reference to this topic in the literature up to now, (cf. 3), Carlson addresses both it and another question – Where does journalism get its authority from? – in his book.

Journalistic Authority pursues two specific goals. Firstly, it aims to deliver a conceptual intervention by explaining in detail the individual components of the theory of journalistic authority. Secondly, it produces an analytical model that enables the current state of journalistic authority to be both recorded and criticized.

Carlson takes a holistic view of his research topic and applies a relational approach. He sees journalistic work as »a contingent relationship in which certain actors come to possess a right to create legitimate discursive knowledge about events in the world for others« (13). Arguments for why journalists should be listened to – arguments in favor of journalistic authority – are constantly (re)made, making it a continuous process. Carlson’s relational theory is built on three fundamental principles: (1) The relationships that give journalism its authority are diverse and include actors both inside and outside news editorial offices; (2) these relationships depend on context; (3) authority cannot be explained by a single variable, but by interaction between a wide range of factors (cf. 23).

In line with the objectives of his book, Carlson dedicates each chapter to a different component of journalistic authority. Apart from the introduction and conclusion, the book is divided into two large sections. The first details how journalists legitimize their authority. More specifically, this is explained based on journalistic identity and the (disputed) way journalism is understood as a profession (Chapter 1); various forms of journalism and the influence of digitalization in particular (Chapter 2); and, finally, narratives about journalism, which Carlson also refers to as meta-journalistic discourses (Chapter 3).

In the second section, Carlson discusses the relationships between journalists who aim to achieve an authoritative position in society and other actors who recognize this position. In doing so, he focuses his attention on the audience (Chapter 4), the sources (Chapter 5), technology (Chapter 6), and public critics of journalism (Chapter 7). His reflections build comprehensively on relevant current and historical studies from journalism research, which he links to this topic in a useful and beneficial way. Furthermore, he is also inspired by other disciplines, building his theory based on approaches from fields as diverse as sociology, political science, and philosophy.

The work is framed perfectly by its introduction and conclusion. The introduction provides a comprehensive overview of authority in general (cf. 7ff.) and journalistic authority in particular (cf. 13ff.). The model of journalistic authority designed in the conclusion (cf. 183) mirrors the structure of the book and encapsulates the crucial aspects: group identity, textual practices, and the meta-discourse on the one hand, and the relationships between journalists and the audience, sources, technology, and critics on the other. This brief tabular summary is backed up by the complex and dynamic concept that Carlson has developed in the preceding chapters, with the various influences on journalistic authority both depending on and influencing one another. The reader could thus gain a good understanding of the relationship theory of journalistic authority by reading the introduction and conclusion alone.

Were he to do so, however, he would miss out on many interesting insights and explanations, as those two chapters of course cannot contain all the detail of the model’s components. After all, many of the components provide interesting contributions to journalism research in their own right. Examples include the concept of meta-journalistic discourse (cf. 77ff.), on which Carlson has also published a journal article (Carlson 2016), and the (historicized) observations on technology as an actor in journalism (cf. 150ff.). Throughout the book, Carlson successfully underpins and illustrates his theoretical considerations with numerous concrete examples. This makes the book not only of interest to its target group of students and academics, but also easily accessible to practitioners and anyone interested in journalism.

One critical point worth mentioning is the overwhelming dominance of examples from the USA. However, Carlson himself is transparent in addressing this flaw, setting himself the challenge of developing his analytical model in such a way that it can be applied outside the American context, too – a goal that he achieves.

The fact that the research topic is worked through so comprehensively makes one stylistic shortcoming all the more irritating: The author uses end notes at the end of the book to refer to the literature used and to make further additions to his considerations. As a result, readers who want to understand the sources used and gain further explanation are forced to flip back and forth in the book, interrupting the reading flow.

There is no question that Carlson’s book fills a gap in research and provides a foundation for many further connections. Journalistic authority and the concept developed here can both be used as a background and basis for investigating questions of trust or mistrust in journalism, the blurred line between journalism and advertising, and options for audience participation, to name but three examples.

Translation: Sophie Costella


Carlson, M.: Metajournalistic Discourse and the Meanings of Journalism. Definition Control, Boundary Work, and Legitimation. In: Communication Theory, 4, 2016, pp. 349-368

This review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien (r:k:m).

About the reviewer

Katherine M. Engelke completed her doctorate in the DFG Research Training Group »Trust and communication in a digitalized world.« Since 2018 she has been a Lecturer and Researcher at the University of Münster’s Department of Communication. The focuses of her research include journalism research, trust research, political communication, and terrorism and the media.

The book

Matt Carlson: Journalistic Authority. Legitimating News in the Digital Era. New York [Columbia University Press] 2017, 256 pages, approx. EUR 25