My thesis examines the possibility for journalists to challenge authoritative sources in the pursuit of professional goals such as the public accountability envisaged in theories of the 'Fourth Estate.'
Ethnographic studies of how journalists relate to their employing organisation and their news sources have identified a range of impediments to the achievement of this particularly professional charter. However, these studies take no account of conversation analytic studies that examine the specificities of how journalists 'do' tasks that are identified as important to their professional claims such as neutrality, objectivity and how challenges to sources to account for their actions relate to these professional constraints.
The conversation analytic work undertaken had identified that journalists might ask questions that challenged the credibility of the source in a manner acceptable to the form of institutional talk that is the broadcast interview. However, in seeking to identify how journalists 'do' neutrality, these analyses tended to take a defensive approach that positioned journalists as necessarily deferring to their sources' interests in order to maintain a cooperative interview approach and maintain their contacts as sources for information. Such analyses then tended to indicate that the possibilities for a sustained challenge were importantly controlled by the source.
To this end, I concluded that the studies which relied on data gathered from small excerpts from unrelated interviews, tended to strip individual sequences of their context. Consequently, I contend that if the challenges that were identified in isolation in such data were examined in relation to other features in interviews conducted over time, then different conclusions might emerge. To undertake such a task, I conducted a data analysis designed to track the history of a particular set of journalism challenges across the entire course of an issue. My analysis concludes that the interview form allows journalists the power to pursue challenges to the credibility of the sources they interview over time. Further, I conclude that the understandings of neutrality and objectivity that govern the form, allow journalists to pursue such challenges on a topic without fear of sanction from the source.
I also conclude that the modus operandi for journalistic challenges to authority figures emerges from a need for journalists to actively attest to their professional status. It is the journalism professional claim that journalists alone are equipped to pursue authoritative sources in the public interest. My thesis concludes that these findings are important to the debate on the limits of other arguments which claim journalists necessarily allow authorities to construct the 'primary definition' of what is at issue in the coverage of major news stories. It indicates that it is necessary to have an understanding of the professional basis on which journalists gather and present their news, in order to properly investigate journalist/source relations. My study provides important information for those conducting other examinations of the influence of strategic media campaigns on news coverage, and similarly for those examining the series of informal relations that occur between various sources, and between journalists and these sources. Evidence indicates media campaigns and media relationships are both affected by journalists' use of a professional approach.