Degree motivations and reported work experience for Canadian journalism students

Aneurin Bosley, Carleton University

Abstract

Past international studies have attempted to ascertain the motivation students have for studying journalism but they have not focused on Canadian students. In this study of the two largest journalism programs in Canada we found that undergraduate students appear to be motivated more by the perception that journalism is a creative activity and by perceived job characteristics than by other factors. We also found that in general, fourth-year undergraduate students have a noticeably lower desire to pursue a career in journalism than first-year students. However, this decline in interest is much smaller for those fourth-year students who reported certain kinds of work experience, than for the group as a whole. We discuss these findings in the context of the challenging conditions of Canada’s news media environment.

Author

Aneurin Bosley is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University, Richcraft Hall, 1125 Colonel By Drive, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K1S 5B6.

Introduction

A study of journalism students at Carleton University and Ryerson University found that students’ reported desire to pursue a career in journalism falls off steadily through the years of their undergraduate programs, a finding that is consistent with international studies. However, these results vary considerably when we control for work experience. Students with paid work experience appear far less likely to report a reduced desire to pursue a career in journalism. This suggests that their work experiences are generally positive and reinforcing of their degree choice, which would be welcome news for journalism educators. But this also presents a challenge for educators and news organizations. As the news industry in Canada continues to struggle with the collapse in advertising revenues, there are fewer opportunities for aspiring journalists to acquire meaningful work experience, let alone solid career prospects. But this research may offer one silver lining. According to what the undergraduate students in this study report about their degree motivations, they are much more interested in an exciting career that revolves around creative work than they are about money and job security. This suggests that graduating students may be willing to tolerate some period of uncertainty (contract and/or freelance work, for example), as long as they find satisfaction in the creative aspects of the work.

Methodology

This study is based upon an online survey administered to journalism students at all levels at Carleton University and Ryerson University in the fall of 2015. The survey, which was designed using SurveyMonkey, had 35 questions, which were developed by a research team lead by Claudia Mellado at the University of Santiago, Chile, and Folker Hanusch at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia as part of an international comparison involving more than 30 countries.

In total, 616 students at Carleton and Ryerson responded (though questions were not mandatory so not all 616 respondents answered every question). This is a response rate of roughly 55 per cent.

Students were first given a verbal orientation on the survey at the start of different classes by the researchers (Aneurin Bosley at Carleton and Anne McNeilly at Ryerson). Students then received an email that provided background on the research and a link to the online survey.

The survey was approved by the research ethics boards at Carleton and Ryerson.

Results

Demographics

Of the 616 respondents, 365 identified themselves as female, 115 as male and 136 declined to specify a gender. Also, 447 reported being undergraduate students, 34 as graduate students and 135 did not specify. (The results discussed in this paper are confined to the respondents who identified as undergraduate students.)

Of the 447 undergraduate respondents, 121 reported being in the first year of a program, 144 in the second year, 100 in the third year and 75 in the fourth year. Three respondents did not specify a year and 4 respondents reported being in the fifth year.

Desire to work in journalism careers

Since journalism is a professional program with a generally well-defined career path it might seem natural to assume that a large majority of students enter the programs with a desire to work in the field. But as illustrated in Fig. 1, this study found that only 43.2% of first-year respondents indicated they “absolutely” want to pursue a career as a journalist. For fourth-year respondents, this number dropped to 32%.

Fig. 1. Reported desire to pursue a career in journalism for undergraduate journalism students (n=435), by year of program, as a percentage.

Most of the first-year respondents indicated they were “likely” (39.9%) or “absolutely” (43.2%) going to pursue such a career. For respondents in the fourth (and ordinarily final) year, responses had shifted to the negative side of the scale, with increasing numbers of students’ responses falling under the “unlikely” or “definitely not” choices.

For first-year respondents, 83% were in either the “absolutely” or “likely” categories. For those in the fourth year, only 54.7% were still in these categories.

Fig. 2 illustrates this drop as an average of the Likert-scale response.

Fig. 2. Average Likert-scale response for undergraduate students (n=435), by year of program.

This average value drops from 4.23 (which is just above “likely”) for first-year respondents to 3.64 (which is just above the midpoint between “unsure” and “likely”) for fourth-year respondents, a decrease of 13.9%.

The survey also asked students about career aspirations in a slightly different way. Question one asked: “If you could choose, in which field would you like to work when you finish your studies?” Responses could be given by checking one of a number of boxes: “journalism”; “public relations/corporate communications”; “advertising”; “teaching and research”; or “other.” (The “other” option allowed participants to type in their own response.)

Fig. 3 shows responses for undergraduate students who identified themselves as being in a particular year of their respective program.

Fig. 3. Preferred field of work reported by undergraduate journalism students (n=439).

As Fig. 3 shows, the reported desire to work in the field of journalism drops steadily for respondents in years one through four. In the first year, 79.3% of respondents chose journalism. For fourth-year respondents this number drops to 62.1%, with “public relations/corporate communications” seeing the largest gain. Overall the percentage of respondents selecting the “journalism” field drops by 21.7% between the first year and the fourth year. The pattern in responses to this question is similar to the pattern in the average Likert-scale responses to the previous question: A larger drop between second- and third-year students and smaller drops between first- and second-year students and between third- and fourth-year students.

These results are broadly consistent with previous international studies. In a British study (Hanna and Sanders, 2007), researchers asked journalism students the following at the beginning and at the end of their programs: “Do you want to pursue a career in journalism?” They found that only three-quarters of beginning journalism students were sure they wanted to pursue this career path, with that number dropping over the course of the program.

“The proportion of students in the completion sample who were sure they wished to be journalists was, at 53 per cent, substantially lower than the proportion of ‘sures’–75 per cent–among the arrival students” (Hanna and Sanders, 2007, p. 410).

Hanusch et al. also cite studies from Australia and Brazil: “An Australian study also found that students had diverse career expectations and goals, and ‘not all those who aspire to work in journalism seek entry-level employment in a newsroom, a general level of competence across a broad range of news gathering and reporting skills, or a life-long career in journalism.’ Similarly, a Brazilian survey of four hundred students has indicated that 39 percent of them intend to work in the public relations (PR) sector, which is almost the same number as those who intend to work in journalism (40 percent)” (Hanusch et al., 2015, p. 144).

One factor that has not been widely examined in previous studies is the relationship between reported career aspirations and work experience.

Work experience

As a professional program, work experience is an important aspect of a journalism degree. Undergraduate students are expected to complete internships before they graduate. The survey asked students: “Do you have any work experience or have you completed an internship in journalism?” Fig. 4 shows the results of this question for all undergraduate respondents.

Fig. 4. Reported work experience for undergraduate journalism students by type of work (n=447).

Overall, “unpaid (off campus)” was the most common response with 179 respondents, followed by “campus newspaper” (159) and “no” experience (155). “Paid part-time or casual” was in fourth place (81) followed by “paid full-time” (27).

By filtering by year of program we can see a more detailed picture, as shown in Fig. 5.

Fig. 5. Reported work experience for undergraduate journalism students by year of program (n=447).

As expected for a professional degree with internship expectations, the “no experience” response drops off between years one and four and is the smallest category for fourth-year respondents.

Note that students could provide more than one answer to this question so the total number of respondents for all questions does not add up to 447. For example, 38 respondents reported experience in at least three categories, while 5 respondents reported experience in all four of the categories.

This is one of the reasons the work experience charts show the number of respondents rather than percentage of respondents, since the job types are not discrete categories. The exception is the “no experience” response, since this would ordinarily preclude the other categories. (One respondent did select both “no” and “campus newspaper,” though this may have been inadvertent.)

In other words, this chart should be read as illustrating more of a threshold than a series of discrete categories.

Work experience and stated career intentions

 While the number of journalism students who reported having had some kind of paid work (either full-time or part-time) are in the minority overall, work experience in general appears to make a noticeable difference to the responses to questions about career aspirations. Specifically, it appears that the students who do have some work experience, especially those who have paid experience, are not being turned off journalism after that experience. The ‘journalism enthusiasm’ factor is strongest among this group, which may suggest that their journalism work experiences appear to be generally positive and reinforcing of their degree choice.

Let’s consider question one in the context of reported work experience: “If you could choose, in which field would you like to work when you finish your studies?” As noted above, the “journalism” field drops from 79.3% for first-year respondents to 62.1% for fourth-year respondents.

Fig. 6 shows responses to the same question filtered by all undergraduate respondents who reported some kind of paid work, either full-time or part-time.

Fig 6. Preferred field of work for undergraduate journalism students who reported some paid work experience (n=93).

In this case, the “journalism” field is the choice of 89.5% of first-year respondents (though paid work experience appears to be a rarity for first-year respondents so the first-year sample size is small) and only drops to 79.3% of fourth-year respondents, which is a 27.7% increase over the number of fourth-year respondents overall who reported a desire to work in the field.

(This trend is even more evident among students who reported paid full-time work, though the sample size is very small, since this kind of work experience is rare even among fourth-year students surveyed in this study.)

However, the ‘enthusiasm factor’ remains higher than the overall number even among students who reported some unpaid work, including work at a campus newspaper. Fig. 7 shows the desired field for those students who reported some unpaid work, either off-campus or at a campus newspaper.

Fig. 7. Preferred field of work reported by undergraduate journalism students who also reported some unpaid work experience (n=245).

For these respondents, 76.4% in the fourth year indicated a desire to work in journalism, which is still 23% higher than for all respondents.

A similar trend can be seen by filtering the responses to the career question. For respondents in the fourth year who reported some paid work (either full-time or part-time), 71.1% indicated that they “likely” or “absolutely” wanted to pursue a career as a journalist, as seen in Fig. 8.

Fig. 8. Reported desire to pursue a career in journalism for undergraduate journalism students who reported paid work experience (n=93).

This is a 30% increase over the unfiltered responses (where 54.7% of respondents were in the “likely” or “absolutely” groups).

Even among respondents who reported some kind of unpaid work (either off-campus or a campus newspaper), 64.3% of those in fourth year were in either the “likely” or “absolutely” groups, a 17.6% increase compared with the unfiltered responses, as seen in Fig. 9.

Fig. 9. Reported desire to pursue a career in journalism for undergraduate journalism students who reported unpaid work experience (n=243).

There are many questions this survey can’t answer. For example, were the students who reported “no experience” turned off journalism because they couldn’t get any experience or had they already decided they didn’t want to work in journalism (for other reasons) and so didn’t try to get such a position? We don’t know. At the same time, it’s likely that some students who decide not to pursue a career in journalism had left the programs before the fourth year.

As a result, Hanna and Sanders suggest that some students who lack either the desire or aptitude for a career in journalism are not even captured in upper-year responses. “Because some students had already left these programmes, by choice or because they failed coursework or exams, these completion data under-represent the proportion of students who, at some time after enrolment, decided not to be journalists” (Hanna and Sanders, 2007, p. 410). The same could be true in this case.

It’s impossible to draw any firm conclusions about any relationship between journalism students’ career aspirations and the type of work experience achieved during the programs. However, as noted above, for the students who do achieve some kind of work experience, that experience appears to be reinforcing of their degree choice. We now turn to the factors that motivate Canadian students to study journalism in the first place.

Motivations

As a professional program with at least one obvious career path, the answer may seem obvious. But many international studies have found that beginning journalism students are motivated more by the desire to be creative or by perceived career characteristics than by fulfilling a watchdog role typically ascribed to the profession, for example. The responses from Carleton and Ryerson students are broadly consistent with the results of those other studies. In general, the students in this study are more strongly motivated by a desire to be creative than they are by the prospect of acting as a kind of watchdog. However, all but one of the motivation factors declines between first-year and fourth-year students. The only factor that becomes slightly stronger is related to the watchdog role of journalism. We will consider some of these motivational factors in the context of the changing media landscape.

According to Serena Carpenter and her colleagues, “[p]revious research suggests the motivations of those seeking a career in journalism fall generally into three categories: intrinsic motivations related to personal creativity; motivations related to the importance of journalism in society; and motivations related to the practice of journalism as an exciting profession” (Carpenter et al., 2015, p. 61).

A study published in 1987 examined data from journalism programs at three midwestern U.S. universities. As part of that study, researchers looked at the reasons students gave for choosing the program.

“The most highly endorsed item is that students chose journalism as a major because they felt it was an exciting occupation. The only other reason receiving majority endorsement was that journalism was chosen because it provided opportunities to write” (Becker et al., 1987, p. 32).

More recent studies have found similar results. Hanusch et al. identified roughly similar themes. They found that “students appear to focus mostly on their own achievements in journalism by ranking those items most highly that focus on how well they can advance in their career, the prestige they will have, and the level of autonomy or specialization” (Hanusch et al., 2015, p. 153).

Hanusch et al. also found that “[o]verall, the most strongly expressed motivation was that students simply liked journalism as a profession, with more than one in three choosing this option. … Relatively close behind was students’ assertion that they were talented and/or liked to write, which received 28.5 percent of support.” (Ibid., p. 149)

These findings are generally consistent with the survey data from Carleton and Ryerson students. In the survey, students were asked: “Please rate the following aspects in terms of the extent to which they motivated you to study your degree.” Answers were given on a Likert scale between 1 (“not important at all”) and 5 (“extremely important”). Fig. 10 shows the overall responses to this question for respondents who identified as undergraduate students.

Fig. 10. Reported motivations for undergraduate students to study in journalism programs (n=441-447 for different responses).

The responses are ranked according to the total number of ‘positive’ responses (top) to the total number of ‘negative’ responses (bottom). The results suggest that the Canadian journalism students in this survey are also highly motivated by what Carpenter refers to as intrinsic motivations, i.e. “those related to personal creativity” (Carpenter et al., 2015, p.61). For Carleton and Ryerson students, the desire to be creative and the pleasure of writing were the most highly ranked of the motivational aspects. The next most highly ranked aspects were ‘the chance to meet different people’ and ‘the varied and lively work,’ both of which relate to what Carpenter describes as “motivations related to the practice of journalism as an exciting profession” (Ibid). Under the final category Carpenter identifies, namely “motivations related to the importance of journalism in society” (Ibid), we see “the chance to help people in their everyday life” in fifth place and “to fight injustice” in eighth place.

Fig. 11 shows the average Likert-scale score for each of the aspects.

Fig. 11. Average Likert-scale responses (1-5) for motivations reported by undergraduate students to study in journalism programs (n=441-447 for different responses).

Note that a couple of the aspects change position in the ranking. For example ‘the pleasure of writing’ and ‘to be able to be creative’ swap places, as do ‘varied and lively work’ and ‘chance to help people.’ This is due to the higher proportion of respondents who rated ‘the pleasure of writing’ as extremely important (49.1%) as compared with the proportion who rated ‘to be able to be creative’ as extremely important (45%), thus pushing up the average value of the former.

But this is just part of the picture. Previous studies (Hanna and Sanders, 2007; Carpenter et. al, 2015) have sought to quantify how stated degree motivations change over the course of a journalism program. Fig. 12 shows how the aspects change for respondents in the four years of the undergraduate programs.

Fig. 12. Average Likert-scale responses (1-5) for motivations reported by undergraduate students to study in journalism programs (n=441-447 for different responses), by year of program. (Spheres get darker and larger between years one and four.)

All but one of the aspects drops in importance between first- and fourth-year respondents (“To hold people in power accountable”). This is a similar pattern to what has been described in other studies.

“Exposure to journalism curriculum may negatively influence students’ perceptions of journalism as a path to being a writer and gaining notoriety in media venues. In fact, most perceived motivations on the JDM (journalism degree motivations) scale also reflected lower means in the more mature student category. This may mean that their perceptions become more realistic rather than idealistic” (Carpenter et al., 2015, p. 66).

Interestingly, the aspects that are already the lowest-ranked by first-year students also drop the most as compared with fourth-year students. The least important aspect, ‘the possibility of being famous,’ and the second-least important, ‘the amount of money one can earn,’ both decrease by nearly 20% between first-year and fourth-year respondents. While this study is not longitudinal, this might highlight one difference between the Canadian students in this study and some of the U.S. counterparts. Coleman et al. found that “[t]oday’s US student journalists in this sample are still motivated to enter the profession for the same reasons as yesterday’s – self-realization and improving the world – but more are motivated by fame than before” (Coleman et al. 2015, p. 15).

Fig. 13 shows the aspects sorted by the percent change in the average Likert-scale response between first- and fourth-year students.

Fig. 13. Percent difference in the average Likert-scale responses for undergraduate journalism students, year four compared with year one of program.

As noted, the only aspect that actually rises (though modestly) is ‘to hold people in power accountable,’ a motivation that would normally be associated with the watchdog role of journalism. Other than this, student responses show a similar pattern noted by other researchers.

As hypothesized by Carpenter, first-year journalism students may have more idealized notions of what a career in journalism actually entails. Some of the students may have been attracted to journalism programs in part because of the way journalists are portrayed in popular culture, though films such as Spotlight and The Post, for example.

However, it’s also notable that while most of the motivational aspects drop between first- and fourth-year respondents, the drops in many cases are small. For example, some of the ‘exciting career’ aspects (‘varied and lively work,’ ‘autonomy’ and the ‘chance to meet different people’) drop by only 3.2% or less. This may suggest, as Hanna and Sanders observed, that “particular motivations were deeply internalized before these students arrived at university” (Hanna and Sanders, 2007, p. 413).

Fig. 14 shows the average Likert-scale responses for fourth-year students.

Fig. 14. Average Likert-scale responses (1-5) for motivations reported by fourth-year undergraduate students to study in journalism programs (n=73-76 for different responses).

Notwithstanding the fact that most factors decline between first- and fourth-year students, aspects related to creativity and writing as well as to perceived job characteristics are still rated very highly by fourth-year students. It should also be noted that “the chance to help people in their everyday life” is also among the most highly ranked factors, which might arguably fall under Carpenter’s ‘social responsibility’ motivation category (Carpenter et al., 2016, p. 18). This observation might also relate to a lively debate in the social sciences about characterization of millennials. See, for example, Arnett et al., who argue that “they are a strikingly laudable generation, from their high rates of community service to their concern about global issues to their low rates of risk behavior” (Arnett et al., 2013, p.20).  While outside the scope of this study, examining the characteristics of Canadian journalism students as they relate to some broader generational characteristics could be a useful area for further research.

Discussion

This study provides some insights into the motivations and career aspirations of students in the two largest journalism programs in Canada. The data suggests that intrinsic factors related to writing and creativity are strong motivators for Canadian journalism students, along with factors related to perceived job characteristics. This is generally consistent with past international studies.

This study also suggests that reported work experience appears to be generally positive and reinforcing, since the reported desire to pursue a career in journalism is highest among those students who indicated some kind of paid work experience.

For fourth-year respondents, among the lowest ranked motivational factors were the desire for fame, the amount of money one can earn and the ability to get a secure job. In part, this may reflect a more mature and/or realistic understanding of the challenges that news organizations face in Canada. It may also suggest that journalism graduates could be reasonably resilient in the face of these changes. According to what they report about their degree motivations, they are far more interested in an exciting career that revolves around creative work than they are about earning money and job security. This is not to suggest that students would do the job on a voluntary basis and nor should they. However, the survey results suggest that they may have the ability to endure a period of uncertainty as long as they find satisfaction in their work along the intrinsic and job characteristics motivational factors.

A certain amount of resilience may be necessary. As noted in the Public Policy Forum’s 2017 report “The Shattered Mirror” (citing the Local News Research Project), “169 news outlets either closed outright or were merged into other outlets between 2008 and late 2016” (44). The same report also noted that the number of newspapers sold per 100 households in Canada dropped from 102 in 1950 to 18 in 2015, a worrisome trend of which journalism educators are all too well aware. Changes in the news industries will also continue to present challenges for journalism students and educators. As illustrated in the survey data, a relatively small proportion of students reported paid work experience (particularly paid full-time), even in the upper years. Should Canada experience a catastrophic event in the news industries, for example the failure of Postmedia, opportunities for work experience – not to mention career prospects – would be even more diminished. And while some of the U.S. news organizations have shown promise in becoming more sustainable on digital platforms by means of different business models (the Washington Post, the New York Times, ProPublica, etc.), those models have yet to be replicated in Canada on a large scale. And notwithstanding the current Canadian government’s stated commitment to provide more funding to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (see “Federal budget pledges $675-million in CBC funding,” the Globe and Mail, March 22, 2016), the public broadcaster also faces considerable challenges, as described by DeCillia and McCurdy. “For at least the past three decades, Canada’s national public broadcaster has existed in a state of crisis. During this time, it has downsized, digitized, and restructured. The ongoing squeeze has resulted in multiple rounds of cuts to services and jobs, with estimates that the CBC will eliminate up to 1,500 additional positions by 2020” (DeCillia and McCurdy, 2016, p. 548).

Apart from internship and job prospects, it would be useful for journalism educators to have a better understanding of whether some kinds of learning activities would be better aligned with the more highly ranked motivational factors, particularly with emerging forms of information delivery. For example, Carpenter found that since journalism tends to attract creative kinds of people, “research showed people interested in photography select journalism as a major” (Carpenter et al., 2016, p. 18). Does this extent to other types of media? Does the process of creating infographics and data visualizations appeal to students who place a high value on creativity? Carpenter also identified the issue of science and number anxiety among journalism students (Ibid, p. 19). Could infographics and data visualization help put numbers into a more visual (or even creative) context? Journalism educators may know from experience what kinds of assignments and learning activities work well and don’t work so well, although these might be confined to an educator’s area of expertise and not necessarily cover emerging media types (interactive data visualization and 360-degree video production, for example). And as news organizations adapt to new forms of digital news consumption this is one of many questions that could be addressed in a more systematic manner.

References

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