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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


DE BEER, Arnold S. Looking back towards the future: news objectivity and Niklas Luhmann's concept of the "reality of the mass media". Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2011, vol.51, n.4, pp.613-630. ISSN 2224-7912.

Since the mid-20th century the theoretical study of journalism, and at that stage, its main component, news, has shown promising signs of becoming an "autonomous field" with a serious enough, if not alto gether coherent, body of scholarly literature and an ongoing process of research output. However, the internet revolution of the 21st century and the tumultuous descent of new (social) media on a rather unsuspecting traditional media world changed not only the stereotyped notions of media theory and production, but also the very notion of news itself, and consequently of news objectivity. The normative and historical study of news can be traced back to the very beginning of the newspaper in the 17th century, whilst modern journalism theory finds its social scientifi c roots in the application of functionalist theory in the mid-1950s in terms of news production, e.g. gatekeeper and later agenda-setting studies. These models became prototypes of what journalism and the study of news could achieve on an empirical level. However, at the turn of the millennium theory building in journalism was still appro priating theoretical building blocks from other disciplines, especially from sociology and political studies. What seemed missing was a clear theoretical focus on the role of journalism through its basic function, namely news, both in terms of macro-scale developments, as well as everyday life. In this context, journalism researchers seemed to draw progressively from the contribution of three European sociologists: Jürgen Habermas (public sphere), Pierre Bourdieu (field theory) and Niklas Luhmann (systems theory). The first two theorists are well known in the English speaking world and their work have been utilised widely. The third is almost un known in the non-German speaking media world, even though considered by some as arguably not only the foremost German sociologist, but also as internationally the most important social theorist of the 20th century. Internationally journalism and media studies journals, however, make little reference to Luh mann, with almost no reference at all in the South African journals. What makes Luhmann important to the discussion of journalism and news, and thus also to this article, is his contribution to a new paradigmatic understanding of the role the media plays in portraying "reality". And more to the point, is Luhmann's contribution to finally lay to rest the long-held (and cherished) notion in journalism practice and in positivistic journalism theory, that the media can report the "news reality objectively". This article then sets out to introduce the work of Niklas Luhman (2000)2 as it relates to journalism theory, and in particular to news production and the Anglo-American jour nalistic ideal of "objectivity". The departing point is that in some quarters journalism scholars still argue that it is possible to report the news "objectively". This "fact" is then utilized as a basis for not only research, but also for journalism textbooks and the way journalism students are educated on the role of the media in society and in the way that they should report the news, as though it is a given that the news the audience will receive will be "objective". Arguing (ironically) initially from a systems and functionalist point of view, Luhmann turns the Anglo-American journalistic standard-bearing concept of "news objectivity" on its head by introducing the concept of autopoesis, emphasizing the self-constructing of "news reality", not only by media organisations and their journalists, but also by the audience. Luhmann does not only do this on micro- or meso-level, but on macro-level as well. As he states in The reality of the mass media (2000:1): "Whatever we know about our society, or indeed about the world in which we live, we know through mass media. ... On the other hand, we know so much about the mass media [i.e. its inability to portray "reality"] that we are not able to trust these [news] resources.3 According to Luhmann the mass media creates to all intents and purposes its own reality through the latent and manifest effect of the functional differentiation of modern society and the recursively stabilized functional mechanisms that the media employs to produce news. It is this "media reality" which appears to the media itself, as well as to others [i.e. the audience, or media users] to be the reality that in, traditional journalistic terms, can be conveyed "objectively". However, this "media reality" is a self-generated transcendental illusion (Luhmann 200:5). The manner then in which the illusion of "objective news" came to be the prime standard bearer and raison d'être of professional journalism is assessed in the first part of this article, whilst in the second part Luhmann's media reality paradigm as a counter-argument is explored. The purpose and outcome of the article is to contribute to the academic as well as the didactical and practical discussion about the untenability of the idea of news ever being "objective".

Keywords : Constructivism; functionalism; news and objectivity; news theory; news reality; Niklas Luhmann; perception.

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