The Making and Unmaking of Civic Journalists: Influences of Professional Socialization

By McDevitt, Michael; Gassaway, Bob M. et al. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

The Making and Unmaking of Civic Journalists: Influences of Professional Socialization


McDevitt, Michael, Gassaway, Bob M., Perez, Frank G., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This study explores the origins of civic journalism values as a function of professional socialization. Findings from a survey of college students and professional journalists reveal a progression of socialization that begins with students supporting civic journalism. However, the transition from the classroom to the newsroom is accompanied by the adoption of a professional identity in which autonomy tends to preclude purposeful attempts at community engagement. Results highlight the need for college instruction to encourage a broader conception of autonomy.

Perhaps more than any other profession, journalism grapples with an apparent contradiction between autonomy and public service. Sociologists define professional autonomy as wide latitude of judgment in executing occupational duties.' Autonomy provides discretion in the application of techniques and separation from influences that threaten a professional's ability to apply expertise in service to the public. Thus, practitioners adhere to norms of public service even as the lay public itself is excluded from formal decision making.2 This conception of autonomy becomes problematic when applied to the press, according to advocates of civic (or public) journalism. This reform movement is based on the premise that news media should go beyond the mere reporting of information to act as a catalyst and as a forum for the revitalization of democracy.3 But according to civic journalism opponents, these goals threaten the institutional independence of the press and thereby jeopardize journalistic autonomy. Under the traditional view of journalism, autonomy allows the press to cover public affairs with some protection against partisan bias and other corrupting influences.

If civic journalism is to succeed in the long run as a reform movement, it must meet head on the tension between the profession's autonomous identity and its role in democracy. Civic journalism has focused on the implementation and consequences of professional values, but it has been less concerned about understanding the origins of these values as a function of professional socialization. The purpose of this study is to model the process by which professional socialization predisposes college students to reject or embrace civic journalism. We will first assess the extent of support for various dimensions of civic journalism within two groups: journalism students and professional journalists living in the same community. Our general expectation is that students will be relatively supportive of civic journalism while professionals will express reservations in light of their commitment to autonomy. We will then consider college experiences that might help to explain when and why this gap emerges.'

Our intent is not to argue for the merits of civic journalism, but to provide insight into why support for it might erode as a consequence of professional socialization. For those who do support civic journalism, this line of inquiry could suggest implications for curriculum reform geared toward enhancing-or preventing the erosion of-civic journalism support. This approach will also allow us to make an empirical contribution to the ongoing debate as to whether civic and traditional journalism principles coexist in harmony, or whether the two perspectives necessarily conflict as values take shape during professional socialization.5

Why Autonomy Is Important to Journalists. While autonomy for all professions is ostensibly a mechanism of public service, it also accommodates the psychological needs of the practitioners. Autonomy contributes to group identification-the perception of belonging to a particular human group.6 Cheney and Tompkins observed that identification helps to sustain "an individual's or a group's 'sameness' or 'substance' against a backdrop of change and 'out side' elements."7 Prior research shows autonomy strongly correlated with both professional identification of journalists and job satisfaction. …

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