What British Journalism Students Think about Ethics and Journalism

By Ball, Amanda; Hanna, Mark et al. | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

What British Journalism Students Think about Ethics and Journalism


Ball, Amanda, Hanna, Mark, Sanders, Karen, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


The study reports the results of the most extensive survey of its kind conducted in British journalism education, examining attitudes towards journalism ethics and news media roles held by 653 first-year undergraduates as they began British university journalism courses in 2002 and 2003. Findings are compared with similar data for British journalists. Influences such as social background, gender, and time spent in newsrooms are examined. The findings provide some evidence for a distinct British journalistic "culture " already embedded in students' attitudes when they begin formal journalism education, as well as for a gender difference in views of journalism ethics.

Journalism Education in Britain

This study examines the views and attitudes about journalism ethics and news media roles held by 653 first-year British undergraduates when they began university journalism courses in 2002 and 2003. Its findings are part of a larger data-set provided by the most extensive survey of its kind in British journalism education, conducted by the authors, reporting on students' backgrounds, views, and expectations.

Journalism education programs in British universities proliferated in the 1990s. However, research into journalism education and its relationship to the development of professional ethical standards is relatively unexplored territory.1 Work has been done in the United States, where university-based journalism education has a longer pedigree than in Britain.2 There have been some pioneering studies in Europe.3 But it is rare for the voices of the students themselves to be heard. The only previous major survey to include British journalism students is that of Splichal and Sparks in 1994, which included ninety-six students from four British institutions among a sample of students from twenty-two countries.4

Journalism Ethics and Roles

The backdrop to the research is the debate in Britain and the United States of a public crisis of trust in journalism, fuelled at the opening of the twentyfirst century by ethical lapses by journalists at those supposed citadels of responsible journalism, the New York Times and the British Broadcasting Corporation.5 However, while journalists' ethics have been studied by scholars, we know little about the views of students hoping to be journalists.

These two related areas-perceptions of journalism practices and of news media roles-were explored in Weaver's collection of twenty-two case studies of journalists from across the world. That research made valuable use of two questionnaire formats, pioneered in the United States in 1971 by Johnstone, Slawski, and Bowman and in comparative research by Donsbach and Kocher, in which journalists were asked to assign importance to various news media roles or state whether they approved or not of various methods used by journalists to obtain information." Our study examines the responses of undergraduate journalism students to a questionnaire including these two formats.

Examining Influences

The questionnaire was designed to collect data about possible major, pre-arrival influences on such views. These included personal characteristics such as ethnic group, gender, and any close family link with journalism; the social class of the student, as indicated by the occupational background of their parents/guardians; any time spent working in one or more newsroom(s) as an intern or employee; exposure, as consumers of news, to journalism in various types of publication; and any previous study of the media.

The proportion of students with a family link to journalists was found to be small, and the numbers with a previous media studies qualification were thinly spread across different types of qualification. Therefore these two influences are excluded from our analysis here.7 Given the concern expressed about the under-representation of minority ethnic groups in the British media workforce, relevant data are included in our findings but not in analysis as the numbers involved are too small for meaningful conclusions. …

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