Journalism as a function system

Luhmann, of course, wrote a book on the mass media system; however, he came to this subject late in his career and the book has flaws.

To begin, the concept of mass media is extremely broad, probably too broad to be of much use. If were are interested in the news aspect of mass media, it might be more productive to look at journalism, rather than the mass media, as a function system. Journalism is a system of communication that operates according to the news/non-news code, which is a variation of the wider information/noninformation code. Luhmann’s lumping of entertainment and advertising with news and in-depth reporting has been criticized on the grounds that these three mass media “programs” don’t have enough in common to justify being placed in one function system (Gorke and Scholl, 2006).

Additionally, Luhmann’s treatment of the mass media leads to a focus on the technology of dissemination media (printing press, radio, TV, Internet, etc.) rather than on communication. Although Luhmann states that these technologies belong to the environment of the mass media system, there is nonetheless a tendency treat the mass media system as material. As Gorke and Scholl (2006) write,

Luhmann defines mass media as dissemination media in a technical sense enabling the public to communicate without interaction. How can a technical criterion be effective to define a social system’s boundaries, which in Luhmann’s theory should be communicative boundaries? (650).


I agree. Communication systems have communication boundaries. The Internet is not an autopoietic communication system; it does not reproduce itself. If servers break, the can’t rebuild themselves. But journalism as a communication system does reproduce itself. We might consider journalism a function system alongside politics, the economy, art, education, science, health, etc.  Mass media might be removed from the list of function systems without much harm. I would not argue, however, that journalism is as influential as politics or the economy because these function systems emerged before journalism ad were necessary preconditions for the emergence of journalism. Just because function system are operationally autonomous this does not mean they are equally influential in world society. For instance, the influence of religion has declined greatly since the 18th century, but is hasn’t ceased to function.

Journalism, or “the press,” evolved alongside other function systems in the 18th century. Its autonomy is recognized in doctrines of freedom of the press. Here is an ngram with the search terms journalism+press+newspaper+journalist:





  1. That’s an interesting criticism. Luhmann indeed has two notions of mass media, one of media of distribution and one of a functional subsystem of society. If one sticks to the latter, as Luhmann does in in book on the reality of mass media, it indeed features three different programs, all of them focusing on the binary code of information/noninformation: news tell the news, entertainment delivers new themes of entertaining character (and you can entertain by old issues if they still are not worn out), and advertising is all about information qualifying as pertinent in the sense of solving the problems of need, desire, or distinction of today.


    1. Maybe the issue of “newness” if overly broad, as in new entertaining characters and new products advertised?

      In that article by Gorke and Scholl I cited, they also state that other function systems also deal with the information/noninformation code; however, (this is my thought) the information in science, for instance, has specialized audiences, whereas the audience for journalism is the public. We might speculate that “the public” is a creation of journalism.

      By the way, can you help understand your concept of catjects? Maybe something else I can read other than the very difficult The Network Synthesis of Social Action II: Understanding Catjects.


      1. I struggled myself with Luhmann’s idea to have information/noninformation the binary code of mass media. Don’t all other social systems deal with information (as uttered and as understood) as well? But the interesting idea, I think, is the sharp distinction from noninformation. That indeed seems peculiar to mass media: the quick and decisive distinction of the new from the old, in news of course, but in advertising and entertainment as well. The only social system competing with mass media as regards newness would be the art system.

        Yes, I apologize for the difficulties of the catjects paper. I am at it, so to speak. In 2013 I published a reading of Spencer-Brown’s laws of form in the context of both German idealism and social systems theory (Beobachter unter sich, Suhrkamp). In 2014 I published an attempt to put some, to me, important developments in culture theory since Vico into the form of catjects (Kulturkalkül, Merve). And this year, I hope, or next, I publish another catject which I use for many years now in seminars with systemic consultants (Produktkalkül, Merve). The idea is to get used to Spencer-Brown’s cross with respect to various theoretical and empirical material and to then go back to the calculus itself and get explicit about an interpretation of the cross as the operation of negation-and-implication very much like, I think, Wittgenstein’s truth function in proposition 5 of his Tractatus.


      2. Thanks for update on the catjects project.

        The other thing about entertainment and advertising is that the public is the audience. As in news, it’s not specialized information.


      3. No communication without an audience (Goffman). Luckily enough, for mass media, audiences or publics come as their own plurality. It’s them who decide new versus old, information versus noninformation.


  2. Perhaps another important idea about the mass media (in opposition with other functional systems) is this idea of “generating information out of information” almost the sake of information’s alone. I am thinking about the list of “selectors” that Luhmann identified in his book. Hence, for example, the system of mass media is always interested in (or attracted by) numbers, because it is always possible (even easy) to compare numbers with other numbers so as to produce even more information. The same thing goes for personal opinions: the expression of anyone’s opinion enables the expression of counter-opinions (and thus the production of more information as more news). Accordingly, in the mass media, we never try to “close a debate.” The goal is to find ways for generating more communication by keeping the debate alive. Journalists ask questions, but they are not searching for the “correct answer.” Once they get an answer, they start looking for another one and then present the difference between the two answers as “tonight’s news” (like “scientists disagree on global warming”). Scientists rarely achieve consensus among themselves, yet I think they are not simply trying to multiply answers just like that.


    1. Thanks for reminding of all this. It makes me think of the way journalists have drawn false equivalencies between the dishonesty of Trump and Clinton. They are working hard to even out this presidential race.

      Sent from my iPhone



    2. “Accordingly, in the mass media, we never try to close a debate.'”

      Good point. Every bit of news must be able to serve as the premise for the next bit of news. Information in journalism must be forward looking, able to lead to the next bit of information.


  3. Good point, Jean-Sebastien, there are no news without their own “form”, linking to an outside of their distinction which, if the system is to go on, new news. It takes second-order observers to always be on their search for issues and item that “fit” the unmarked state.


  4. The question of how journalism can be conceptualised as a social system was one of the hottest topics of debate in German journalism studies in the 90s. Alexander Görke and Armin Scholl, the authors of the 2006 article cited here, were two prominent figures in this debate. Manfred Rühl had already provided a system-theoretic perspective on journalism in his dissertation “Die Zeitungsredaktion als organisiertes soziales System [The Newspaper Newsroom as an Organised Social System]” (1968/69) and in his habilitation thesis “Journalismus und Gesellschaft. Bestandsaufnahme und Theorieentwurf. [Journalism and Society. Inventory and Theory Draft.]” (1979/80) and had since been pushing systems theory in German journalism studies. This was an important departure from the overly simplifying normative and individualistic theories prominent in German journalism studies beforehand (cf. Löffelholz, 2008: 16–22). However, the development of and debate around system-theoretic models of journalism really took off only when early drafts of Luhmann’s “Die Realität der Massenmedien [The Reality of the Mass Media]” began to circulate in the 90s (the book wasn’t published officially until 1996).
    While Rühl’s approach had been developed before the autopoietic turn and did not provide a suggestion for a binary code of a journalism system, these new theories strove to reflect the latest developments in Luhmann’s works and to meet the demands Luhmann himself had implicitly or explicitly formulated for any system-theoretic concept. The approaches differ as regards
    (1) whether journalism is seen as a function system or a subsystem of a superordinate function system (like “the public”), [BTW: What’s the English translation for “Leistungssystem”?]
    (2) the symbolically generalised communication medium and respective binary code attributed to journalism,
    (3) whether the audience is considered part of journalism or its environment.
    The authors more or less agree as regards the societal problem journalism (or the respective superordinate function system) tackles. In Görke and Scholl’s (2006: 650f.) words:
    “As a result of functional differentiation of modern society, interdependencies of functional systems increase, but integration of functional systems becomes a new problem to be solved. This problem can be translated into a problem of mutual perception: What happens if separate function systems, despite their mutual dependency, cannot take each other into consideration sufficiently because their instruments to observe the environment are not complex enough? Such societal needs for integration or at least synchronization give rise to the need for a new system – the public. The public provides a synchronization function by momentarily interrupting the routine operations of other societal systems through an external perception. The public perceives every other system from an external viewpoint and confronts the perceived systems with the result of its perceptions. The observed systems are thus offered – and strained by – new, surprising, unexpected and often creative opportunities for follow-up communication within the system. Mainly the profession of journalism constitutes the public system and can be considered the dominant subsystem of the public.”
    Another similarity is, that many of the scholars mentioned have worked or now work at the Department of Communication (or its predecessors) in Münster.
    Here’s a short (and not even close to exhaustive) overview:
    (1) Frank Marcinkowski (1993): “Publizistik als autopoietisches System: Politik und Massenmedien. Eine systemtheoretische Analyse. [‘Journalism’ as an Autopoietic System: Politics and the Mass Media. A System-Theoretic Analysis.]”
    Function system: “Publizistik” (perhaps best translated as “anything published”) with journalism as a subsystem
    Generalised communication medium: publicity
    Binary code: published/not published
    Miscellaneous: The audience is considered the ‘inner’ environment of the journalism system.
    (2) Bernd Blöbaum (1994): “Journalismus als soziales System. Geschichte, Ausdifferenzierung und Verselbständigung [Journalism as a Social System. History, Differentiation and Becoming Independent.]”
    Function system: journalism
    Generalised communication medium: not specified
    Binary code: informative/not informative (adopted from Luhmann)
    Miscellaneous: Blöbaum offers a description of roles and programs in the journalism system.
    (3) Matthias Kohring (1997): “Die Funktion des Wissenschaftsjournalismus. Ein systemtheoretischer Entwurf. [The Function of Science Journalism. A System-Theoretic Draft.]”
    Function system: the public with journalism as a subsystem
    Generalised communication medium: “Mehrsystemzugehörigkeit”, perhaps best translated as: “belonging/referring to more than one social system”, which means that a communication clearly originating from one societal system is considered (by the journalistic observer) to very likely have implications for the functioning of another system
    Binary code: belonging/referring to more than one system/not belonging/referring to more than one system
    Miscellaneous: Public relations is considered a potential second subsystem of the public; advertising is placed in the economy system; Detlef Hug (Kohring & Hug, 1997) provided a similar approach using the binary code “relevant to the environment/irrelevant to the environment”.
    (4) Alexander Görke (1997/99): “Risikojournalismus und Risikogesellschaft. Sondierung und Theorieentwurf. [Risk Journalism and Risk Society. Probe and Theory Draft.]”
    Function system: the public with journalism as a subsystem
    Generalised communication medium: topicality
    Binary code: topical/not topical
    Miscellaneous: Entertainment is considered a potential second subsystem of the public represented by the negative side of the leading difference “not topical” (this, however, leads to the strange situation that anything not coded as “topical” is automatically coded as “entertainment”…); advertising is placed in the economy system.
    One aspect leading to this variety of approaches and different suggestions for journalism’s binary code is that journalism scholars were unsatisfied with Luhmann’s own suggestion for the mass media’s leading difference which, in their view, did not meet the demands Luhmann himself had formulated for this “building block” of a system-theoretic approach. As Dirk Baecker already noted in a comment above, Luhmann himself had identified information/noninformation as one of the three selections that are part of any communicative act (besides utterance and understanding). As such, this selection cannot be considered the leading difference of a particular function system that distinguishes this system from any other communication. Luhmann’s idea of adding the condition of technological mediation is than dismissed as neither convincing since – as also noted above – social systems are supposed to have communicative boundaries, i.e. “meaningful” boundaries between areas of different logics similar to Max Weber’s ‘value spheres’.
    However, all the proposals mentioned above do have their flaws, as well. To me, the most convincing suggestion is Görke’s code of topicality which has been picked up by Scholl and Weischenberg (1998), as well, and which explicitly goes beyond the notion of “newness” suggested in the post above: Topicality is not only understood in a TEMPORAL sense, as “newness”, but comprises two additional dimensions Luhmann scholars are already familiar with: “Relevance” is the SOCIAL aspect of topicality, which means that journalistic communication is of (potential) concern to wide audiences (Kohring’s “Mehrsystemzugehörigkeit” could be interpreted as a special case of this aspect); “facticity” is the FACTUAL – or in this case perhaps better: contentwise – dimension, which means that journalistic communication refers to facts and not to fiction. I also agree with Görke, Kohring, and Hug that journalism can best be conceptualised as a subsystem to the superordinate system of the public, and that, as any communication, journalistic communication cannot be complete without being received by an audience, so that the audience has to be considered part of the journalism system.
    FYI: A colleague of mine has been begging Martin Löffelholz to translate the influential handbooks of theories of journalism he has edited (2000, 2004, 2016) into English. These handbooks are a great starting point for anyone interested in system-theoretic models of journalism as well as in applying social integrative theories on journalism, i.e. approaches combining systems and actor theories like the concept of actor-structure dynamics pioneered by German sociologist Uwe Schimank. The only text in English giving at least a short overview over this tradition of German journalism theories is a chapter by Löffelholz (2008).

    Kohring, Matthias; Hug, Detlef Matthias (1997): Öffentlichkeit und Journalismus. Zur Notwendigkeit der Beobachtung gesellschaftlicher Interdependenz – Ein systemtheoretischer Entwurf [The Public and Journalism. On the Necessity of Observing Societal Interdepence – a System-Theoretic Draft.]. In: Medien Journal. Systemtheorie der Medien [Systems Theory of the Media], 1/1997, 15–33.
    Löffelholz, Martin (2008): Heterogeneous – Multidimensional – Competing: Theoretical Approaches to Journalism – an Overview. In: Löffelholz, Martin; Weaver, David Hugh (eds.): Global Journalism Research: Theories, Methods, Findings, Future. Malden, Oxford, Carlton: Blackwell, 15–27.
    Scholl, Armin; Weischenberg, Siegfried (1998): Journalismus in der Gesellschaft. Theorie, Methodologie und Empirie [Journalism in Society. Theory, Methodology and Research]. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag.


  5. Wow! Thanks very much for this informative comment. I need some time to read and think about all this. I think his will help me understand the journalism issue.


      1. Google translates Leistungssystem as power system.

        . . . whether journalism is seen as a function system or a subsystem of a superordinate function system (like “the public”)

        The public seems to a product of the journalism or mass media system.


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