Exploring Journalists' Perceptions of Media Impact

Article excerpt

How journalists perceive media influence was explored by comparing results from a survey of Israeli journalists (n = 200) and a survey of the Israeli adult population (n = 1,203). As predicted, journalists demonstrated significant third-person perceptions (TPPs), but these were actually smaller than those of the public. Journalists tended more than the public to perceive media influence as positive. Journalists perceiving a stronger media influence were relatively new journalists and worked for local media, but had some formal education in journalism.

The concept of influence has been central to the study of journalism from the outset. Questions of whether media can influence society and change the beliefs and behaviors of both public and politicians have fueled an entire tradition of communication effects research.1 As Zelizer noted, "an interest in journalism's effect on the public became a natural part of sociological inquiry on journalism."2

While assessment of media influence has been prominent in communication research, journalists' own perceptions of media influence have remained relatively unexplored. The current investigation explores journalists' perceptions of media impact, comparing results of surveys of Israeli journalists and of the Israeli general public, and is theoretically and methodologically guided by past research on the third-person perception (TPP).

Journalism and the Notion of Media Impact

As a professional community, journalists maintain a tenuous relationship with the concept of influence. On the one hand, journalists perceive their work as influential in providing vital information enabling the public to keep track of current events and make rational political choices.3 On the other hand, journalists shy away from the idea that their work may impact "reality" rather than merely reflecting it. The dominant professional ideology of journalism, as epitomized in the objectiveneutral model of journalistic practice, maintains that journalism is (or should strive to be) an objective, value-free endeavor, and that journalists are detached observers of social life who avoid letting their beliefs and actions influence coverage.4 While the "pure" form and the coherence of this model are exaggerated and no longer embraced unequivocally by most journalists,5 and while alternative conceptions of the public role of journalists have been formulated," the continued impact of the objectiveneutral model should not be underestimated.7 In particular, Israeli journalists appear to share wide agreement over the importance of objectivity and neutrality, even if a significant number of journalists view these as unattainable.8 Perceiving their own impact may be incongruent with these core constituents of the objective-neutral model.

As Cans and others have demonstrated, the complications arising from perceptions of influence have led journalists to develop a complex professional discourse that acknowledges that their work may be influential while simultaneously rejecting responsibility for potential effects of their work.9 Journalists' discourse about influence is thus riddled with ambivalence, with journalists employing the concept strategically to emphasize their public mission, and obscuring it when it does not serve their interests. This study's focus on journalists' perceptions of influence is thus grounded in the problematic role this concept occupies in journalistic discourse.

The Third-person Perception

Davison10 suggested that people believe that the media's greatest impact "will not be on 'me' or 'you,' but on 'them'-the third persons."11 He defined the "third-person effect" as the perceptual gap between beliefs about the effects of media on the self and on others. A meta-analysis investigating 121 separate findings established robust support for this third-person thesis.12 The prevailing explanation for the TPP is that it reflects "a universal human tendency to perceive the self in ways that make us look good or at least better than other people. …