Journalism as civic empowerment: The virtues of theory and practice in journalism studies research

Inaugural lecture: Professor John Steel

Part of journalism's historic role within the liberal democratic public sphere has been to scrutinise power and enable publics to hold their representatives to account. Though this 'fourth estate' model of journalism is a contested ideal, there is no doubt that journalism's democratic role, at least in principle, is fundamental to the effective working of democratic political participation. However, contemporary anxieties about 'fake news' and 'post-truth', in part driven and exacerbated by digital media, have eroded faith in journalism's ability to uphold its normative democratic aspirations.

Misinformation, distraction, spin and outright propaganda, given greater traction by digital media, have further muddied the already clouded public discursive space. There is no doubt that, like other civic institutions, journalism's claim to authenticity and legitimacy is under severe duress.

Professor Steel's lecture explored recent research which has sought to reinvigorate the promise of journalism and address its contemporary crisis of legitimacy. Looking at examples of his published work drawn from the fields of political theory, critical pedagogy, history, sociology, philosophy, and journalism studies, Professor Steel reflected on his own personal academic pathway and how it has led him to seek to focus on both the theory and practice of some of journalism's key civic responsibilities. Rather than retreating into the abyss of cynicism or despondency, the lecture argued that a focus on the notion of civic empowerment, particularly with regard to journalism's ethical standards, can contribute to the reinvigoration of journalism and its civic obligations.

Journalism as Civic Empowerment - Professor John Steel inaugural lecture

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Professor John Steel

Starting higher education later in life and after various career starts in catering, graphic design and the print industry, John left full-time work to begin his undergraduate studies in Politics at the University of Sheffield in 1991. John was invited to stay on to study for his PhD in the history of political thought and later gained employment as a researcher of educational development at Sheffield Hallam University. In September 2020, John left his job at the University of Sheffield as Senior Lecturer in Journalism and Political Communication to take up the Research Chair in Journalism at the University of Derby.