Soft Power, Hard News: How Journalists at State-Funded Transnational Media Legitimize Their Work

Kate Wright, Martin Scott, Mel Bunce | Sage Journals
Published: May 2020

How do journalists working for different state-funded international news organizations legitimize their relationship to the governments which support them? In what circumstances might such journalists resist the diplomatic strategies of their funding states?

We address these questions through a comparative study of journalists working for international news organizations funded by the Chinese, US, UK and Qatari governments. Using 52 interviews with journalists covering humanitarian issues, we explain how they minimized tensions between their diplomatic

role and dominant norms of journalistic autonomy by drawing on three – broadly shared – legitimizing narratives, involving different kinds of boundary-work. In the first ‘exclusionary’ narrative, journalists differentiated their ‘truthful’ news reporting from the ‘false’ state ‘propaganda’ of a common Other, the Russian-funded network, RT. In the second ‘fuzzifying’ narrative, journalists deployed the ambiguous notion of ‘soft power’ as an ambivalent ‘boundary concept’, to defuse conflicts between journalistic and diplomatic agendas. In the final ‘inversion’ narrative, journalists argued that, paradoxically, their dependence on funding states gave them greater ‘operational autonomy’. Even when journalists did resist their funding states, this was hidden or partial, and prompted less by journalists’ concerns about the political effects of their work, than by serious threats to their personal cultural capital.

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