Did Graduate Journalism Education Make a Difference? A Study of British Journalism Students' Views on News Media Roles

Article excerpt

Journalism educators in democracies aim to produce journalists motivated to scrutinize the powerful. This study of British journalism students in graduate programs considers whether their views on the news media's societal roles changed during that education. Students grew more adversarial as regards public officials, but became less likely-in an era when media audiences are fragmenting-to see journalism's role as addressing the widest possible audience. Students' views differed by gender and by whether they were in print or broadcast specialties. Their views are compared with those of experienced British journalists. Findings are contextualized with those of international studies.

Imparting the Watchdog Ideal

In open societies, journalism educators hope that, beyond the provision of skills training, they help produce journalists motivated to fulfil a public service remit, including barking as the classic watchdogs.1 But research into the extent, if any, to which journalism students' attitudes are shaped during their education is rare and exhibits mixed findings. Our study of whether graduate students' views on journalistic role concepts changed during their journalism education is the first of its kind in Britain.

Most research in this field has been conducted in the United States. For example, in his 1974 study, Bowers found a positive link between the number of journalism courses (i.e., modules) taken by students and their tendency to think journalism was highly useful to society.2 Becker et al., in their 1987 study of U.S. journalism and mass communication undergraduates, found little evidence that students' experiences at university had much impact on their professional orientation, but differences existed between sequence groups (e.g., specializations in print or broadcast) in views on ethics.3 Schultz, examining data gathered in 1992 and 1996 from U.S. journalists on conceptions of some journalism roles, compared the views of those with a graduate education in any discipline, those who trained in journalism/communication in graduate schools, those with a college (undergraduate) education in any discipline, and those who majored in journalism/communication as undergraduates. Some notable differences were found, but these four different education groups were, in general, very close in such views.4

Bjørnsen, Hovden, and Ottosen, after sampling journalism students in Norway near the beginning and then near the end of their two-year programs (by which time most were in the 23-26 years age range), noted in 2007 that the ideals of watchdog journalism remained highly rated in their responses, but that there was some decline in the importance students placed on journalists having "a sense of justice," a finding that may indicate "a kind of reality-orientation," perhaps influenced by time spent in internship.5

Such studies suggest educators can take some comfort from data indicating that, at the very least, their students' idealism about journalism has not decreased. Wu and Weaver's study of journalism students in China, a nation with a restrictive political system, found that the further a cohort had progressed in four-year programs, the less importance students attached to all the professional roles of journalists as listed in the questionnaire used.6

As studies cited above recognize, self-selection, including choice of a route through education, is an element of professional socialization in any career. By the time journalism students arrive for this education, they already have formed ideas and views about news media roles, perhaps influenced by internships spent with journalists. These "pre-arrival" influences and perceptions may affect the impact of experiences during that education's timespan, which may also include internship.

Some studies cited above included data analysis relevant to our aim of exploring gender differences in students' views. Bowers, in his sample of U. …