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Instrumentalization in Italian Journalism

By Paolo Mancini

Television coverage of the Marcegaglia case demonstrated the traditional partisanship of Italian news media: this is what the new report by the Osservatorio di Pavia shows.

This coverage also confirms two other deeply rooted habits of Italian journalism. First, it illustrates the traditional tendency towards instrumentalization that has characterized Italian journalism since its early development. For decades, the main goal of Italian journalism has not been the diffusion of news but rather to serve as an instrument for reaching goals beyond the circulation of news. And this remains the case today.

In 1956, Enrico Mattei, the legendary head of ENI, Italy’s giant oil company, established a newspaper, Il Giorno (The Day). This paper represented an important novelty in the Italian media landscape for many years. By founding it, Mattei did something not so different from what the Marcegaglia case shows. For Mattei later admitted that he established Il Giorno because ENI needed an instrument to intervene in the public decision-making process, in order to support the interests of State industry against the other newspapers that, being the property of private industrial groups, were advocating for their own interests.

Hence, Mattei’s newspaper was an instrument to reach goals beyond the diffusion of news: above all, to create and support a consensus around the positions of State-owned companies. In the same way, the individuals who initiated the Marcegaglia case were prepared to use a newspaper to attack the head of the employers’ federation. This is instrumentalization in a pure form.

Secondly, the Marcegaglia case points to something that is very widespread in all kinds of news-making but is often especially problematic in Italy. The literature on the topic talks about a situation of “sleeping together” when there is a very close relationship between journalists and their sources: politicians, PR people, businessmen, judges, soccer players, and so on. They spend much of their working day together, attend the same meetings, eat at the same restaurants, and at the end of the day they very often “sleep together”.

This symbiosis provides all journalists with most of their news. And it is very dangerous, particularly when it involves the coverage of public affairs, most of all when it involves politics and economics. In most situations, because of the symbiosis, the separation and distance that are preconditions if journalism is to exercise its essential watchdog function are simply not to be found. Sources and journalists are friends, they have interests in common, they come to share the same outlook, and so forth.

The words that were exchanged by the different actors involved in the Marcegaglia case reveal a shared familiarity, a framework of frequent contacts and exchanges that may prevent the emergence and existence of a “fourth estate”. The missing degrees of separation among supposedly competing actors may give rise to the sort of particularistic and clientelistic links that are so evident in this case. The instrumentalization of mass media is built on the foundation of these very contacts and exchanges.

Paolo Mancini teaches the sociology of communication at the University of Perugia. He is the co-author, with Dan Hallin, of Comparing Media Systems (Cambridge University Press, 2004). His latest book is Elogio della Lottizzazione. La via italiana al pluralismo [In Praise of Sharing the Spoils. The Italian Road to Pluralism] (Laterza, 2009).

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