Digital Communication Networks and the Journalistic Field: The 2005 French Riots


The 2005 riots and protest in France sparked by the death of teenagers Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna in the Paris suburb Cliché-sous-Bois were both facilitated in part by new-media technologies and covered extensively by new-media consumers and journalists. French youth used digital communication tools and networks to coordinate with one another, exchange opinions and information, and to circulate calls to action. Activists used digital media to critique mainstream media coverage, complaining about what they viewed as biased and inaccurate reporting at some of the major national and international news outlets. The deaths of Traore and Benna, and the ensuing unrest, generated heated debate about immigration and racial discrimination in France—but also about representations of these issues in the news media and about the role played by new-media in facilitating a new level of coordinated social protest and violence. Government officials claimed the riots were orchestrated through mobile phone instant messaging. Police arrested bloggers and threatened hip-hop artists for supplying the provocative and downloadable soundtrack to the violence. Bloggers from all over the world critiqued coverage in realtime and engaged mainstream journalists in online debates. Mainstream outlets adopted new-media tools and tactics. Politicians submitted to interviews by bloggers and used the internet to garner support for their plans to restore order and to address the issues at the heart of the unrest.

The unrest as a fully mediated extended news event offers rich examples of journalism products and practices emerging as part of the new-media environment. This paper argues that the nature of these emerging products and practices, when considered in light of Pierre Bourdieu’s influential field theory, point toward a significant evolution in the field of journalism, one facilitated by new media and that features the rise of the news-media consumer-participant as a de facto member-architect of the profession. The paper examines ways new-media use may be expanding the field as it was outlined by Bourdieu in what he saw as a previous era of change.

Just before the dawn of the digital age, Bourdieu lamented the declining quality of the news and described an expanded field of production, pulled closer to the economic field, which he believed was responsible for the decline. To understand journalism, he argued, it is necessary to consider how it is practiced and to examine the power relationships at play. For Bourdieu the key "unit of analysis" for media research is the universe of journalists and media organizations acting and reacting in relation to one another, the "institution" shaped by the participant responses to varying degrees of political and economic pressure and to each other, the ways they position themselves within a tradition and among their peers. Bourdieu’s field approach to media studies is more relevant than ever given the context of today’s media landscape, where the codes and norms that guide the behavior of reporters and editors and that shape the content of news stories are being worked at by increasing numbers of people contributing news product through, for example, weblogs, so-called meta-news or commentary sites, mobile-phone instant messaging, do-it-yourself (DIY) journalism and realtime video sites—all of which play loosely with standards and stream easily across editorial borders. Indeed, debates over news standards and practices are now a routine part of the news cycle, discussions concerning clashes among old- and new-media products carried out across the cultural spectrum—by journalists, but also by scholars, politicians, artists, filmmakers, and religious leaders. Nearly a decade ago, Pope John Paul II sent out a special message stressing the need for greater responsibility in the age of the internet. He called on journalists to "transmit information while respecting truth, fundamental ethical principles and personal dignity" (Grossman, 1998). As much as a warning against new-media information culture, the Pope’s message is evidence of how broadly the mostly American ideology of the professionalized journalism of the past hundred years has been exported and accepted around the world; that is, that the norms and procedures of professional journalism make those who practice them most qualified to discover the truth and to convey it to the public. In recent years, new-media news material has sparked heated debate and hand wringing among commentators time and again, from the details of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair to weblog accounts of life in post-Hussein Iraq and images of war, torture and terror.

Centered on the debate over coverage of the French riots and on the expanding digital-information environment, this case study attempts to underline the relevance of field theory to studies of new media, interrogating Bourdieu’s influential configuration of the journalistic field and in the process raising key definitional questions about emerging journalistic communication. Bourdieu’s national and mainstream institutions and practitioners have become transnational and networked, augmented by non-institutional mass media and by new forms of news product. This analysis therefore provides a snapshot of select "new-form" journalism as it engaged events in France in 2005 and presents a reading of French- and English-language meta-discourse, the coverage of the coverage, as it appeared at mainstream as well as at autonomous or DIY news outlets. The controversies surrounding the coverage constitute a record of the ways journalists and members of the news public are articulating their conceptions of journalism—its usefulness, obligations, successes, failures and so on—the ways they create working definitions of the field.

Of course field theory stresses the fact that the perceptions and practices of journalists are shaped by multiple and various factors—economic, cultural, political, technological—that the "universe of journalists" is influenced by the universe of businesspeople and of politicians, etc (Bourdieu, Benson, Couldry). This analysis, however, centers on the forces at work "within" the field because questions concerning the place of new-media participants in journalism are yet to be fully articulated, the demographic of contemporary field participants being in particular an area of potential flux. The question of identifying participants of the field or of noting potential significant alterations to the participant demographic is an issue to be addressed, I would argue, at the starting point of any further field analysis. It is also an issue that touches on other key areas of Bourdieu’s theory—areas that distinguish field theory from, for example, so-called new institutionalism, such as those concerning the variability of institutionalization itself—the way the rules and practices are naturalized over time through power dynamics in the form of competition for scoops, the constant monitoring of material produced by rival outlets, the fight for access to sources, the changes in relative prestige of news media and brands, the social class and training of people entering the profession, the number of positions versus the number of applicants—all of what media sociologist Rod Benson refers to in short as the "relational construction of journalistic identity." (2005:12) Acknowledging that many additional "outside" factors must be considered before drawing any wider conclusions and also taking into account research that has persuasively argued that journalism norms are particularly subject to contestation and debate in times of political crisis (Gitlin, 1980:273), this analysis maintains that just now as the field is widely but mostly instinctually held to be in transition it is worth systematically noting and describing emerging forms and deliberation that shed light on challenges to contemporary understandings and practices of journalism, pointing the way to further research, which could, in a more extended comparative fashion, suggest the strength of these challenges and the nature of their influence over time.

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