The Humanitarian Journalism project is seeking to better understand how the news media report on humanitarian crises and what shapes their coverage.

State-funding of international news (Article)

Kate Wright

June 17, 2020


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

By Kate Wright, Martin Scott and Mel Bunce

International Journal of Press/Politics

The full article is available open access here.



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.



How do journalists working for state-funded transnational news organizations justify their relationships to the governments that finance them? When might they try to resist the diplomatic strategies of these governments, thus modifying the operation of state influence abroad? Are there any common patterns in journalists’ approach to state–media relations that cut across Western and non-Western news organizations?

In this article, we explore these underresearched and important questions. In so doing, we illuminate how journalists imagine their relationships to funding states, as well as the limits of their willingness to cooperate with them. Discussing these issues necessitates attending to multifaceted diplomatic struggles (Seib 2009), involving notions of state “propaganda” (Bakir et al. 2018; Freedman 2020) and “soft power” (Nye 1991, 2004, 2008). However, it is very difficult to neatly divide coercive “propaganda” from the noncoercive, persuasive communication commonly associated with “soft power.” Instead, a “grey” spectrum seems to exist between the two, involving different kinds and degrees of selectivity, deception, incentivization, and coercion (Bakir et al. 2018).

Even Nye’s (1991, 2004, 2008) classic work makes a notoriously unclear distinction between “soft power” and “propaganda.” He stressed that governments should prevent state-funded media, like Voice of America, from being dismissed as “propaganda” by taking steps to support journalists’ credibility. These include refraining from intervening in editorial matters and allowing journalists to criticize the state (Nye 2008). But Nye (2004) also suggested that states may accrue “soft power” by using international media to develop a sense of “shared values” across borders (p. 7). As Rawnsley (2015) has observed, this description could easily apply to Chinese and Russian approaches to international broadcasting, which are often regarded in the West as state propaganda.

It may, therefore, be more useful to consider how “soft power” and “propaganda” are deployed strategically by different actors, including the journalists who work for state-funded transnational news organizations. These journalists must engage in numerous position-taking strategies to negotiate their relationships to funding and host states, to dominant journalistic norms, to one another, news audiences, and media markets, in order to compete effectively for material and cultural capital (Bourdieu 1998; Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992). These complex and different forms of positionality cannot be reduced to organizational differences. Indeed, the growth of freelancing in transnational news (Hellmueller and Konow-Lund 2019) means that some journalists frequently work for multiple outlets, thus adding another layer of complexity to previous research that highlighted flows of editorial staff between different kinds of news organizations (Kraidy 2007; Seib 2012).

A nuanced relational approach is also required to assess the cumulative impact on transnational news of several significant shifts in state–media relations that took place during 2015–18. During this period, the Chinese and American governments restructured their relationships to the transnational news organizations they fund, and the U.K. government discursively reframed its relationship to BBC World Service Radio. Although the Qatari government does not appear to have pursued either of these courses of action, its relationship to Al Jazeera has been seriously threatened by a major diplomatic crisis with its Gulf neighbors, which demanded that Qatar close the TV network down.

This article examines how state-funded journalists responded to these pressures using fifty-two semistructured interviews with staff and freelancers working for Al Jazeera English, BBC World Service, China Global Television Network (CGTN, previously known as CCTV), Voice of America, and Xinhua. Using Bourdieusian field theory, we demonstrate that the ways in which journalists experienced and coped with such tensions were shaped by their particular position in the field. However, we also show that journalists tended to use similar kinds of legitimizing narratives, involving the strategic deployment of “soft power” and “propaganda.” We then go on to interrogate the circumstances in which journalists ceased to find their previous legitimizing narratives convincing, and explain why their resistance to funding states tended to be limited. Finally, we conclude by discussing the theoretical implications of this study, including the extent to which transnational news is “fielded.”


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