Journalistic Autonomy

If we can speak of journalism as an autopoietic system, which might be more useful than discussing or theorizing the (very broad, amorphous) mass media system, we might look at the rise of concern with journalistic autonomy in the following ngrams:

Below is a graph for the terms journalism+press+newspaper+journalist.


There is clear rise from about 1905 to 1942.

Below is a graph for censorship. If journalistic autonomy is rising, then concerns about censorship should rise. The graph is strikingly similar.


Of course, censorship also concerns literature, music, film, etc. (censorship of the arts) not strictly censorship of journalism, but the graph may still be useful. And we can also think about the rising autonomy of the art function system.

Here is an ngram for freedom of the press. Again it is quite similar, with a sharp rise from the early 20th century until the 1940s. World War II seems to have had some effect.


In a functionally differentiated society, journalism should be autonomous; it can’t be controlled by governments or religious authority, and it cannot simply serve the economy. Journalism establishes its autonomy when it produces news out of news, or when one news story serves as the precondition or premise for another news story. In other words, the communication becomes self-referential.

Here is a graph for the German term Journalismus. We see it rises sharply from 1915-1945; then it takes off in 1974.


Here is one for the French term journalisme:


Here is the graph for English journalism:


Dirk Baecker, in comments to a previous blog post, maintains that Luhmann’s mass media system is still a coherent function system. But I’m not sure. I think it might be more productive to focus research more narrowly on journalism as an autopoietic function system.

Some conjectures, speculation, thinking on the screen . . .

Journalism is an operationally closed system. It can be perturbed by its environment but no meanings can be imported from the environment–or ported into the system. There are no input-output mechanisms. Meaning must be constructed by the system through distinctions–distinguishing between news and non-news. News and non-news must be symmetrical, meaning the distinction can be crossed. Non-news can become news, and news can become non-news. Power, money, scientific truth, faith, love and other symbolic communication media can never become news; they cannot be imported into the system. Journalism makes news out of news, as one piece of news–published information–serves as the premise of the subsequent news. News must be linked to news. News can only be made from news, and news never leaves the journalism system. If news were to leave the journalism system, it would have nothing to connect to. Similarly, money never leaves the economy, and power never leaves the political system.

What I mean is, if news leaves the journalism or mass media system and is taken up by another system it has to be translated into another medium. For instance, if the politician take the news, she would have to translate it into power or a premise for a political decision. So news doesn’t enter the political system because all politics can observe is power/non-power–or the power to make collectively binding decisions and the lack of that power. . . . Still speculating.

The public is part of the journalism system, as it closes the communicative loop. Public communication is circulation of news, and information is only public information if it published.  Journalism marks news through publication.


  1. That’s facinating. Problems arise as soon as you take account of readers/users/watchers. It takes two sides to have one communication. They switch between all kinds of mass media, forcing producers to switch as well, to offer, for instance, packages of news, entertainment, and advertising to just track, keep, and bind their publics.


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