Professional Roles of Russian and U.S. Journalists: A Comparative Study

By Wu, Wei; Weaver, David et al. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn 1996 | Go to article overview

Professional Roles of Russian and U.S. Journalists: A Comparative Study


Wu, Wei, Weaver, David, Johnson, Owen V., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This study compares the perceptions of Russian and U.S. journalists regarding the importance of various professional roles. It also identifies predictors of three key journalistic roles - the timely disseminator, the interpreter, and the adversary - and compares these predictors across countries. These findings are based on interviews with 1,156 US. journalists during the summer of 1992 and 1,000 Russian journalists during autumn of 1992. These interviews suggest that there are similarities between Russian and U.S. journalists' views, but also some notable differences.

Although the question of what causes journalists to make the choices they do has often been asked, no satisfactory answer has been given.1 Answers are even more wanting when attempts are made to compare Russian and U.S. journalists. Scholars have looked at political systems, cultural backgrounds, professional constraints, newsroom socialization, and training of journalists with mixed results. Some see journalists in the two countries as so different that they exemplify two polarized and "irreconcilable" systems, especially under Soviet rule.2 Some see similarities as well as differences.3 Some have seen an emerging trend of increased similarity between these two groups of journalists.4

What do Russian and U.S. journalists think about journalistic roles? Are there more differences or more similarities between the journalists from these two countries? This study addresses these questions, as well as identifies some factors that may influence journalists' perceptions of professional roles in both countries.

Studies of Professionalism

Professionalism has been a concept central to U.S. journalism since the late nineteenth century.Yet there is a lack of consensus about what professionalism means in journalism.5 When evaluating Soviet journalists, Tolz commented that "of course Soviet journalists have not been able in such a short space of time to attain the standards of the best Western journalism. Many provincial and especially recently-created independent newspapers are not professional [emphases ours] as regards either content or appearance."6 However, she did not explain what she meant by "professional journalism" or what the "standards of the best Western journalism" were supposed to be.

The concept of professionalism has been debated vigorously over the years. Attempts at devising an index to measure journalists' professionalism have produced mixed results. Indices developed by various scholars often do not appear to be measuring the same things, leading to different conclusions about professional journalists' demographic characteristics and attitudes.7 Weaver and Wilhoit find in their surveys of journalists that even journalists are not sure of the exact meaning of professionalism. The "professional spirit" of journalists has not been forgotten, but has never been fully developed, Weaver and Wilhoit conclude in their 1992 study.of U.S. journalists.8

Similarly in Russia, although journalism is one of the few occupations that have moved toward professionalization since the reforms started, as Jones points out, "the process will take a considerable amount of time and we should not expect the full flowering of professions in the former USSR in just five or six years."9 He notes that discussing the status of professions in the USSR is difficult. "The use of the term 'profession' is itself not wholly defensible" because of the disagreement among scholars as to what exactly a profession is, and which occupations can truly be called professions.10 Johnson also points out that it is unclear in Russia and other East European countries what professionalism will mean and what the role of the journalist will be. "With so many journalistic jobs in jeopardy because of financial uncertainty there has been little consideration of these issues; with so many old journalists discredited and so many new, untrained reporters flooding into the profession, the defining characteristics of the journalist are in flux.

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