Perceptions of the News Media's Societal Roles: How the Views of U.K. Journalism Students Changed during Their Education

Article excerpt

Abstract

A longitudinal study of U.K. journalism undergraduates records how their attitudes on societal roles of the news media changed during university education. Students became more likely to endorse an adversarial approach toward public officials and businesses as extremely important. Yet students did not support these roles as strongly as an older generation of U.K. journalists did. Students also became less likely to support the role of giving "ordinary people" a chance to express views. This may indicate a "generation gap" in attitudes that journalism educators need to understand. The authors also are concerned that the U.K. journalism workforce-now including many students from such programs-has become more socially elite.

Keywords

adversarial, journalism education, journalists, news, society

An ideal of journalism educators is that, as well as teaching professional skills, they encourage students to reflect on journalism's role within society and how it should hold power to account. To this end, in many journalism programs the teaching in skills is blended with an academic, "conceptual" education. But studies of students' attitudes about journalism's societal roles, and of how these change during such education, remain rare.

As we noted in 2008, those studies that exist exhibit mixed results.1 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 that 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, who trained in journalism or communication in graduate schools, with a college (undergraduate) education in any discipline, and who majored in journalism or communication as undergraduates. Some notable differences were found, but these four different education groups were, in general, very close in such views.4 More recently, a longitudinal survey by Plaisance sought to assess the efficacy of a media ethics course taught to U.S. undergraduates, including journalism majors, during a semester. They were asked to rank a given set of values as guiding values for the mass media. Plaisance found that the average ranking for the value "civic-minded" did not change in the course of their studies.5 A 2007 study in Norway sampling journalism students 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 that the ideals of watchdog journalism remained highly rated in their responses. But that study also found some decline in the importance students placed on journalists having "a sense of justice," and its authors suggested this finding may indicate "a kind of reality-orientation," perhaps influenced by time spent in internship.6 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.7

In our study of U.K. undergraduate journalism students, we wanted to establish whether their views and attitudes about journalism changed during their education and to ascertain if any change indicated that the students' views and attitudes had grown closer to the known views and attitudes of U.K. journalists. Therefore, we compare data from students with data gathered in 1995 by Delano and Henningham in their survey of U.K. …