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Field Theory, Cultural Capital, and the First Amendment: Two Paradoxes in the Legitimation of News


Elizabeth E. Martinez is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Fresno Pacific University and an attorney licensed to practice law in the State of California. She is grateful to Daniel J. Myers, Omar Lizardo, and other colleagues in the Department of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, for valuable comments on earlier versions of this article.


Does law influence the legitimation of news? I examine legitimations offered during ethics debates about news stories in which private people are thrust into the media spotlight. When navigating the space between what can be published lawfully and what should be published, journalism organizations offer legitimations that vary in ways that reflect the hierarchy of legal frameworks for decision. According to field theory, the cultural capital of the juridical field is constitutive of status hierarchies in the journalism field, even though the First Amendment leaves journalism to structure itself. This structuring leads to two paradoxes. First, in the performance of negative legitimation, news organizations justify ethics violations by converting the minimum standard of lawful speech into claimsmaking about laudable speech. Second, in acts of displacing legitimation, reporters suggest that more publicity is the remedy for invading privacy, translating the valorization of speech rights over privacy rights into a puzzling norm.