What are the factors affecting journalists’ editorial decision-making?

In 2011, I conducted a qualitative study on the factors affecting journalists’ editorial decision-making. Using data collected from interviews conducted with four journalists from the Trinidad and Tobago print media, the study explores the following research questions:

  1. How do journalists describe the factors affecting their editorial decision-making?
  2. How do journalists describe the importance of the principles of truth-telling and harm minimisation in editorial decision-making?
  3. How do journalists describe their performance of truth-telling and harm minimisation in editorial decision-making?

Results of the first research question revealed that a complex variety of interrelated factors contributed to the editorial decision-making issues that journalists face.  Several conversations exposed a number of individual, organisational, institutional and social factors affecting informants’ editorial decisions. Responses revealed individuals’ diverse ideological, entrepreneurial, utilitarian and self-interest approaches to editorial decision-making.

Journalists drew upon a variety of philosophies and experiences during the editorial decision-making process. Participants’ respective professional role conceptions and personal belief systems appeared to play a seminal role in their identification, description and response to editorial decision-making factors.

Journalists’ testimonies suggest that their publishing decisions were affected significantly by several organisational factors such as informal organisational socialisation and formal organisational policies, as well as institutional factors such as pressure from advertisers. Relative to other key themes discovered, source media and management styles appeared to play a less significant role in journalists’ editorial decision-making. Ultimately, journalists made editorial decisions by negotiating through a combination of social, institutional, organisational and individual factors.

Results of the second research question revealed that the journalistic imperative to disclose information to the public is highly valued by journalists but the counterbalancing imperative to avoid harm is not always demonstrated among journalists’ considerations in editorial decision-making. Informants communicated, both explicitly and implicitly, interesting connections between their understanding of the journalistic enterprise, the factors affecting their performance of self-perceived roles in that enterprise, their apprehension of the nature of journalistic truth and their practices for minimizing harm while disclosing journalistic truth.

In various ways, all informants connected truth-telling with increasing the integrity the information being disseminated to the public. Participants expressed the belief that the right and responsibility to disclose information to the public and the moral imperative to avoid harm were active considerations in their editorial decision-making. However, testimonies revealed some degree of internal contradiction in informants’ respective conceptions of the nature of journalistic truth and potential for some degree of disagreement among informants regarding the nature of harm. Ultimately, informants’ testimonies concerning truth-telling and harm minimisation reflected understandings that were complex, fragmentary and, at times, internally dissonant.

Key elements that are generalisable from this study may not be narrow findings but the concepts, the ways of thinking or ‘making sense’ of the world. These findings are suggestive rather than definitive, although more specific generalisable statements may become possible after comparable studies have been conducted over time. These findings focus on the sub-community of journalists from the Trinidad and Tobago print media, but similar micro-studies will enable journalists and media scholars to come to greater understanding of editorial decision-making throughout the broader media and communications-related industries of the region.

Journalistic practice in Trinidad and Tobago is best understood in its regional context, to the extent that such a thing as a Caribbean media community can be said to exist. In this sense, this study exposes several paths for future research regarding civic journalism, convergence journalism, gatekeeping theory, journalism ethics and media sociology, particularly in the context of Caribbean media.

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