Soft power, hard news: How journalists at state-funded transnational media legitimize their work

Kate Wright, Martin Scott, Mel Bunce

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


How do journalists working for state-funded international news organizations conceptualize and legitimize their relationship to the governments which support them? In what circumstances might such journalists seek to resist the diplomatic strategies of their funding states? To address these questions, we conducted 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. 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 loose notion of ‘soft power’ as an ambivalent ‘boundary concept’ (Allen 2009; Star 2010), 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’ (Murdock 1983). While all three strategic narratives involved different forms of ‘boundary work’ (Gieryn 1983), unlike other kinds of ‘boundary work’, these narratives accommodated state interests and objectives. Even when journalists did resist their funding states, this tended to be hidden or partial. Journalists’ resistance also tended to be prompted less by concerns about ‘media imperialism’ than by severe threats to their personal cultural capital. Thus we suggest that if transnational news is a field, it is very weakly autonomous.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)607-631
JournalInternational Journal of Press/Politics
Issue number4
Early online date28 May 2020
Publication statusPublished - 17 Aug 2020


  • state-media relations
  • censorship
  • comparative research
  • global news agencies
  • journalism
  • satellite television


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