Professional Role Orientations and Perceived Influences among Canadian Journalists: Preliminary Findings from the Canadian Worlds of Journalism Study

Heather Rollwagen, Ryerson University.
Lindsay Fitzgerald, Aporia Media.
Lauriane Tremblay, Laval University.
Geneviève Bonin, Ottawa University.
Ivor Shapiro, Ryerson University

Abstract

Using data from the Canadian Worlds of Journalism Study (N=361), this research note explores how journalists orient themselves in their professional work and the extent to which various influences impact journalistic practices. Results indicate that Canadian journalists overwhelmingly understand themselves to act as monitors of political and business interests, and resist an identity of supporters of government policy. Canadian journalists feel their work is heavily influenced by their available resources, including access to information, media laws and regulation, time, and the constraints of journalism ethics. Results also suggest that these role orientations and perceived influences are explained in part by the employment context in which a journalist works, and to a lesser extent, the journalist’s political orientation.

Corresponding Author

Corresponding Author
Heather Rollwagen
Assistant Professor of Sociology
Department of Sociology
Ryerson University
350 Victoria Street
Toronto, ON  M5B 2K3
hrollwagen@ryerson.ca

Lindsay Fitzgerald (fitzgerald@aporiamedia.org)  is an independent film producer with Aporia Media.

Lauriane Tremblay (ltrem081@uottawa.ca) is a PhD student in Communications at Laval University.

Geneviève Bonin (gbonin@uottawa.ca) is an Associate Professor of Communications at Ottawa University.

Ivor Shapiro (ishapiro@ryerson.ca) is a Professor of Journalism at Ryerson University.

Introduction

Professional journalists in Canada have lost the monopolistic influence they once were widely believed to exert over public information and attitudes. Today, nearly anyone can proclaim themselves to be a journalist (Hargreaves, 1999, p. 4), and the “death” or “end” of journalism is widely proclaimed (Charles & Stewart, 2011; McChesney & Nichols, 2010). Yet “legacy” media, especially, TV and newspaper-based media organizations, remain preeminent sources of news; indeed, even “new” sources of news, such as aggregators, blogs and users’ own searches and preferences, still lean heavily on professional journalists’ reports (Newman & Levy, 2014; Nuernbergk, 2014; Reese, Rutigliano, Hyun, & Jeong, 2007; Singer, 2014). Thus, journalists still have an important role to play in the media landscape, albeit one that is changing.

The implications of the changing media landscape for journalists merit consideration. In recent years, there has been a dramatic “blurring of the boundaries between journalism and other forms of public communication, and between journalists and those formerly known as media audiences” (Deuze, 2005; Singer, 2003; Weaver & Willnat, 2012, p. 529). This shift places question marks behind journalists’ own professional self-identification (Berkowitz & Gutsche, 2012, p. 644). The influences on journalistic work are also shifting. Workload pressures on news workers have increased markedly worldwide with resource cutbacks, new-media expansions of responsibility, and increases in social and user-generated content. Furthermore, advertising demands, audience measurement, and professionalized public relations have challenged editorial independence (Bruns, 2005; Lasorsa, 2003; Peer & Ksiazek, 2011; Reich, 2010; Vos, Craft, & Ashley, 2012; Zelizer, 2009).

This research note provides a first glance at how Canadian journalists see themselves amidst these professional dynamics. Using survey data collected from a random sample of Canadian journalists, we explore how journalists orient themselves in a professional capacity, and perceive the impact of various influences on their work.  Further, we explore those factors that might explain these perceptions and role orientations. While preliminary in nature, this analysis offers a glimpse of how Canadian journalists are navigating the fluctuating media landscape.

Scholarship since the 1970s has been accumulating knowledge about the makeup of, and some core values held by, journalists globally. In this country, studies of journalists’ self-identification and norms have largely confined themselves to two areas: (1) journalists’ demographic makeup, and (2) their perceived roles with respect to social and political institutions. A series of studies conducted by Pritchard with various partners identified a journalists’ “creed” of accurate and quick reporting of publicly significant statements, providing a forum for ordinary people’s views, investigating government and public institutions’ activities, and explaining complex issues (which found apparent deviations in Quebec over recent years) (Pritchard & Bernier, 2010; Pritchard, Brewer, & Sauvageau, 2005; Pritchard & Sauvageau, 1999). These studies have provided some insight into the professional experiences of journalists.

Despite the importance of this scholarship to understanding the people who provide essential political, economic and social information for mass consumption, no national Canadian study for at least two decades has investigated the sources of influence upon their work. The present research note makes a modest attempt to fill this gap by examining data that was obtained as part of a larger study global study called the “Worlds of Journalism Study” (hereinafter WJS). The WJS is being conducted across 67 countries, with data allowing for important national and regional comparisons. While further (global) comparisons of Canadian journalists are forthcoming, this research note offers preliminary insight into the professional role orientations and perceived influences among Canadian journalists.

In understanding professional role orientations, we ask how journalists understand, legitimize, and render meaningful their collective function in society. These perceptions rest upon culturally negotiated professional values and conventions, and they include both normative ideals and performative conventions of practice (Cohen, 1963; Patterson & Donsbagh, 1996). With respect to perceived influences, we seek to understand the extent to which journalists believe that their day-to-day work is shaped by news routines, the organizations for which they work, and the larger national context (Preston, 2008; Shoemaker & Reese, 1991; Whitney, Sumpter, & McQuail, 2004). Influence on news work may be exercised by employers, advertisers, audience-research data, relationships with sources, time limits, friends and family, government, and public relations (Hanitzsch et al., 2010). In understanding both professional role orientations and perceived influences, we explore factors that explain these differences, and consider what this means for journalists working in the Canadian context.

Methodology

According to the 2011 National Household Survey, there are an estimated 13,000 journalists in Canada. A stratified random sampling approach was used to reflect the nature of journalistic employment in Canada (freelance versus salaried journalists), and to ensure journalists working for small, medium, and large news organizations were appropriately represented. The sample of freelance journalists was drawn from a list of self-identified journalists registered with the Professional Writers Association of Canada. The sample of salaried journalists was drawn from within each of three strata reflecting the news organization size (small, medium and large). Descriptive analyses of our sample suggest that it includes journalists from a range of owners, media type (newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, online and agencies), reach (national, regional and local), primary ownership (public and private), and audience orientation (“quality”/broadsheet vs. popular/tabloid). This sampling strategy ensured that the sample was selected randomly, while conforming to the requirements set forth in the WJS field manual. Telephone interviews were conducted between 2014 and 2016. The response rate was 22%, yielding a sample size of 361.

The purpose of this analysis is to explore the factors that relate to Canadian journalists’ professional role orientations and perceived influences. All measures were obtained from survey questions included as part of the standardized WJS questionnaire. Journalists’ understanding of their professional role is queried by asking about the importance of 21 potential roles, with response options measuring the strength of the importance (extremely important, very important, somewhat important, little importance, and unimportant). Perceived influences on journalistic work is examined by asking about the relative influence of 27 possible influences, with responses options that included extremely influential, very influential, somewhat influential, little influential, and not influential. To reduce the number of outcome measures and render the analysis more meaningful and concise, these 48 questions were reduced to fewer measures of role orientations and perceived influences.

The measures of role orientations and perceived influences are modeled after those constructed for the WJS global data set. Despite using these established measures, the construct validity and criterion reliability of these measures is assessed using factor analysis and Cronbach’s alpha scores. Results of the factor analysis indicates that the measures fall onto the hypothesized constructs, and that all underlying constructs have Eigenvalues of greater than 1.0. The criterion reliability is assessed using Cronbach’s alpha. These results suggest that most measures meet the established threshold for reliability of 0.70 (Spector, 1992). In selected cases (noted in the table), measures fall slightly below the 0.70 standard, indicating that there may be some concern with the internal reliability of the scales used to measure the constructs. This limitation is accepted given the value of using a scale measure to assess the underlying construct, and the desire to remain consistent with measures constructed in the global WJS data set. Table 1 provides a table outlining the various indicators used to measure each of the concepts used in this analysis, along with relevant statistics related to reliability. Descriptive statistics of the outcome measures are listed in Table 2.

Concept Indicators Eigenvalue Cronbach’s Alpha
Monitorial role Provide political information 4.29 0.80
Monitor and scrutinize political actors
Monitor and scrutinize businesses
Motivate people to participate in political activity
Interventionist role Advocate for social change 3.16 0.66
Influence public opinion
Set the political agenda
Support national development
Collaborative role Support government policy 1.62 0.71
Convey a positive image of political leaders
Accommodative role Provide entertainment and relaxation 1.30 0.62
Provide news that attracts the largest audience
Provide advice, orientation and direction for daily life
Political influences Politicians 6.36 0.89
Government officials
Pressure groups
Business representatives
Organizational influences Managers of news organizations 2.05 0.75
Editorial supervisors and higher edits
Owners of news organizations
Editorial policy
Procedural influences Information access 1.97 0.64
Journalism ethics
Media laws and regulation
Available news gathering resources
Time limits
Economic Profit expectations 1.26 0.64
Advertising considerations
Audience research and data
Personal networks Friends, acquaintances and family 2.93 0.65
Colleagues in other media
Peers on the staff

Table 1: Measurement of outcome variables (professional roles and perceived influences)

Using ordinary least squares regression, we explore both individual and employment-related factors that are hypothesized to predict role orientations and perceived influences. Employment-related factors include whether the individual works for a public newsroom, private newsroom, or is a freelancer; whether the individual works for a large news organization; whether the news organization has a local or regional reach; and whether the journalist works for an English outlet (as opposed to a French one). Individual factors include the gender of the journalist, the number of years they have been working in journalism, and their political stance (as measured on a spectrum of 1-10, where 1 is very left-leaning and 10 is very right-leaning). Descriptive statistics of these variables are presented in Table 2.

 

Variable Percentages (95% CI) or mean (st.error) Number of valid cases (N)
Outcome variables Monitorial role 3.59 (0.06) 360
Interventionist role 2.65 (0.05) 361
Collaborative role 1.26 (0.03) 355
Accommodative role 2.64 (0.05) 360
Political influences 1.65 (0.04) 360
Organizational influences 2.80 (0.05) 360
Procedural influences 3.88 (0.03) 361
Economic influences 1.91 (0.04) 350
Personal networks 2.30 (0.04) 361
Demographic correlates Respondent identifies as female 43.21% (38-48%) 361
Political stance (scale of 1 to 10) 4.21 (0.09) 323
Employment-related correlates Years working in journalism 18.67 (0.59) 360
Employed full-time 78.67% (74-83%) 361
Working primarily as a freelance journalist 16.62% (13-20%) 361
Outlet is privately owned 87.09% (83-91%) 302
Works for a large organization 46.54% (41-52%) 361
Organization has a local or regional reach 40.44% (35-46%) 361

Table 2: Descriptive statistics of all variables

Results

Univariate statistics indicate that, more than any other role, Canadian journalists identify themselves within the monitorial role (µ=3.59) more than as interventionists (µ=2.65) or accommodators (µ=2.64). Canadian journalists are least likely to perceive their role as to collaborate with government interests or leaders (µ=1.26). There is also the least amount of estimated error around this mean ( compared to for all other roles), suggesting that, on average, Canadian journalists are in greater agreement that they are not collaborators, but have slightly more disagreement on what exactly their role should be.

Interestingly, the regression models indicate that the variables measured in the WJS survey are not entirely helpful in understanding the variation that exists in journalists’ professional role orientations. For example, no variables in the model predicting monitorial role orientations are statistically significant, and the R2 value of 0.04 indicates that very little of the variance is explained by these correlates. The model predicting an interventionist role orientation indicates that journalists working with a local or regional reach are related to a higher average score of interventionism as a professional role of journalists. Also, those who have been working in journalism longer are less likely to see themselves as collaborators. These statistically significant findings are interesting; however, it is important to keep in mind that these models explain very little of the variance in the outcome variable. The exception, of course, is the model predicting accommodative role orientations. These results indicate that English-speaking journalists and those whose work has a local or regional focus are more likely to understand their role to be one that serves audiences and provides relaxation, entertainment, advice and direction for daily life. Interestingly, those who express more conservative political orientations are also more likely to understand their journalistic role as one that accommodates the audience needs and desires.

There are five measures of influence on journalistic work. Canadian journalists report that procedural influences are the greatest impact on their work (µ=3.88), followed by organizational influences, then personal networks. Economic influences and political influences are perceived to be the lowest sources of influence (µ=1.91 and µ=1.65 respectively). In contrast to the measures of professional role orientations, journalists’ perceptions of the various influences are slightly more consistent, with standard error estimates ranging from 0.03 (procedural) to 0.05 (organizational).

The models regressing individual and employment-based correlates on the various measures of perceived influences provide further insight. While procedural factors constitute the greatest influence over their work; however, regression models indicate that journalists working in privately-owned news organizations are less likely to feel constrained by these factors. Journalists working in private organizations are also less likely than those working in publicly-funded organizations to feel influenced by organizational factors, such as managers, supervisors, owners, and editorial policy. Freelancers, who would not work in any organization, also report lower levels of procedural influence, and report lower levels of political influence in their work.

Conclusion

Our stratified random sample of 361 journalists across Canada helps us to provide a preliminary understanding of the way that journalists understand their professional roles and perceive their work to be influenced by various sources. Overall, our results indicate that Canadian journalists overwhelmingly understand themselves to act as monitors of political and business interests, and resist an identity that would frame them as supporters of government policy. Despite the blurring of boundaries between journalists and other communications professionals, it is evident that journalists still understand themselves to have a clearly defined role as scrutinizers of affairs in the public interest. At the same time, Canadian journalists feel their work is heavily influenced by their available resources, including access to information, media laws and regulation, time, and the constraints of journalism ethics. Canadian journalists are also less likely to feel that they are influenced by political or economic interests – a finding that is consistent with their role as monitors of political and business interests. These preliminary results also suggest that certain factors are likely to influence these role orientations and perceived influences. In other words, even working within the same broader media system, there are important differences among Canadian journalist. For example, journalists working in private organizations are less likely to feel influenced by procedural and organizational factors. These results are perhaps not surprising when considering that Canadian journalists have previously been located within a North Atlantic or Liberal media system – a system that is characterized by a relative dominance of market mechanisms and commercial media, strong professionalization, and strives for information-oriented journalism (Hallin and Mancini, 1994).

This research is preliminary in nature, but provides some direction for future analysis. Specifically, this analysis examines professional role orientations and perceived influences, but has yet to consider other conceptual ideas measured as part of the WJS study, such as editorial autonomy, journalism ethics, and perceived changes in journalism. Further, future analysis will examine Canadian journalists in the global context. Using data from the WJS global data set, it is possible to compare Canadian journalists to those working in other similar political and economic cultures. In a recent study, for example, we collaborated with journalists working in other French-language minority countries (Switzerland and Belgium) to consider the extent to which a Francophone journalistic culture exists (Bonin, Dingerkus, Dubied, Mertens, Rollwagen, Sacco, Shapiro, Standaert and Wyss, 2017). Future research might make similar use of the global data set to compare Canadian journalists to those working in the United States, those working in G8 countries, and those working in distinctly different social contexts. This will allow for a richer and nuanced understanding of where the Canadian journalist fits in the global context. Lastly, as part of the Canadian study, we have conducted follow-up interviews with 51 journalists across Canada. These data will provide further insight into the Canadian journalist at a time of significant change and complexity in this profession.

 

Monitorial Interventionist Collaborative Accommodative
Correlate B Beta B Beta B Beta B Beta
Large org. -0.10 -0.05 0.24 0.13 0.05 0.05 0.11 0.06
Private ownership -0.25 -0.08 0.10 0.04 0.05 0.03 -0.01 -0.00
Freelancer -1.42 -0.12 0.69 0.08 -0.23 -0.03 0.40 0.05
Local/reg. reach -0.09 -0.04 0.39 0.22* 0.08 0.08 0.29 0.16*
English outlet -0.12 -0.06 0.18 0.09 0.09 0.08 0.57 0.30*
Yrs. in journalism 0.00 0.01 0.00 0.02 -0.01 -0.13* 0.00 0.03
Female 0.25 0.13 -0.02 -0.01 -0.09 -0.08 -0.07 -0.04
Political stance 0.04 0.04 0.04 0.06 0.03 0.11 0.10 0.18*
Constant 3.75 1.94 1.08 1.61
Model N 264 265 260 265
R2 0.04 0.05 0.05 0.15

* Significant (p<0.05)
Table 3: Measures of professional roles regressed on demographic and employment correlates

 

Political Organizational Procedural Economic Personal
Correlate B Beta B Beta B Beta B Beta B Beta
Large org. -0.16 -0.10 0.15 0.08 0.11 0.09 0.05 0.03 -0.05 -0.03
Private ownership 0.02 0.01 -0.51 -0.19* -0.25 -0.13* -0.14 -0.06 -0.15 -0.07
Freelancer -1.20 -0.16* -0.77 -0.07 -1.49 -0.25* -0.41 -0.05 -0.24 -0.03
Local/reg. reach 0.08 0.05 0.05 0.03 0.17 0.14 0.15 0.10 0.07 0.04
English outlet -.0.13 -0.08 0.72 0.37* 0.15 0.11 0.28 0.17* 0.32 0.20*
Yrs. in journalism -0.01 -0.17* -0.00 -0.05 0.00 -0.03 -0.01 -0.09 -0.01 -0.07
Female -0.11 -0.07 0.05 0.03 0.15 0.12 0.02 0.02 0.01 0.01
Political stance 0.10 0.20* 0.04 0.07 -0.01 -0.02 0.07 0.14* 0.03 0.06
Constant 1.65 2.54 3.87 1.56 2.17
Model N 264 264 265 259 265
R2 0.09 0.19 0.12 0.06 0.05

* Significant (p<0.05)

Table 4: Measures of perceived influences regressed on demographic and employment correlates

 

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