Watchdog role still important to Australia’s future journalists

Tracey Nearmy/AAP

Watchdog role still important to Australia’s future journalists

Journalism programs at Australian universities came under industry fire last year for ill-preparing students to work in mainstream journalism.

But a new study suggests that students do learn to think like journalists as they progress in their courses, and learn to increasingly value the traditional journalists’ watchdog role of monitoring and scrutinising the activities of the powerful.

The study, published in the latest issue of the Australian Journalism Review, is the largest survey of journalism students ever undertaken in this country. It includes responses from 1884 students across 10 universities.

Last year, commentators argued that journalism students were being indoctrinated to be hostile towards The Australian’s owner, News Corp Australia, while in 2012 some argued a great divide existed between journalism academics and journalists’ views on the proper limits to press freedom. This divide, they claimed, was undermining student learning.

Such assertions have often been based on sporadic or anecdotal evidence. Interestingly, the perspectives of journalism students themselves are very rarely canvassed in such discussions.

Therefore, we aimed to take a broader, more representative view in our survey, which is part of a global effort to better understand what happens to journalism students at university.

The survey examined students’ backgrounds, motivations, role perceptions, ethical views, views of the media, and their news habits. Participating universities included Queensland University of Technology, University of Tasmania, Edith Cowan University, University of the Sunshine Coast, University of Newcastle, Monash University, University of Sydney, University of Technology Sydney, University of South Australia and La Trobe University. The overall response rate was just over 60%.

The survey shows that the closer students are to graduation, the more likely they are to share similar beliefs about the media’s role in society with working journalists, supporting the concept that journalism plays a critical role such as monitoring and scrutinising leaders in politics, business and civil society.

While only 45% of first-year students thought it was very or extremely important to monitor and scrutinise political leaders, this number grew to 56% among final-year students.

We found that a key area where the university experience appears to have an impact on students is in their views of the media’s role in society, a key measure of journalists’ professional views that is believed to be related to how they will actually act.

Apart from becoming more supportive of journalism’s watchdog role, students also became less supportive of consumer-oriented roles. This includes roles like wanting to provide entertainment or news that attracts the largest audience.

Support for so-called “loyal roles”, such as wanting to provide a positive image of political leadership or to support government policy, also diminished.

It is important to point out that we did not conduct a true longitudinal study. That is, we compared cohorts of students rather than tracking individual students throughout their degree. Nevertheless, we believe the survey provides some evidence to suggest journalism programs around the country do appear to be “moulding” students in the image of working journalists.

Our survey also suggests that exposure to a journalism program improves students’ news consumption habits. The longer they have studied, the more often students access a variety of news platforms. For example, while only 45.9% of first-year students accessed news websites at least once a day, among final-year students that number was 60.6%.

But more generally, students prefer news websites and Facebook to traditional media platforms, such as newspapers, radio or magazines. This trend is consistent with recent shifts in news consumption behaviour.

While 52% of students accessed a news website at least daily, only 10% read a printed newspaper daily. Twitter, a key journalistic tool today, shows a strong increase among final-year students. Overall, however, its use is still the most polarised, with one-third never using the service, while another one-third do so at least daily.

By moving beyond polemics to evidence-based assessment of the student experience, we hope our study can be a first step in better understanding what journalism programs around the country actually do in preparing students for the media industry.

The author would like to acknowledge the work of Katrina Clifford, Kayt Davies, Peter English, Janet Fulton, Mia Lindgren, Penny O’Donnell, Jenna Price, Ian Richards, and Lawrie Zion in conducting the study.