Watchdog or Entertainer? Views of New Journalists

January 21, 2014 • Ethics and Quality, Research • by

A comparative study into the professional views of journalism students show that most of them are influenced by their country’s political history and by the views of their predecessors.

Researchers working with Claudia Mellado (University of Santiago, Chile) interviewed journalism and mass communication students from Australia, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Switzerland, Spain, and the United States about their views of journalistic professional roles. In total, 3,880 students from public and private universities in the seven countries studied have replied to the researchers’ questions between 2010 and 2012.

In all countries involved in the study, with the exception of the U.S., the journalists-to-be favor a citizen-oriented role. In their role as journalists, they want to “develop the intellectual and cultural interest of the public”, “provide citizens with the information they need to make political decisions”, and “educate people about controversial and complex topics.” Journalism students from the United States in contrast prefer the consumer-oriented approach. They want to “concentrate on news that is of interest to the widest possible audience” and additionally “provide entertainment and relaxation”.

Although Swiss and Australian journalism students do not prioritise a consumer-oriented approach, they attach greater importance to it than their colleagues in the Ibero-American countries. This finding may be explained by the fact that these countries are the most economically developed among the seven countries studied, the researchers say. There, media usually address audiences as consumers, as demonstrated by the fast growing trend of lifestyle journalism.

For the journalists-to-be in Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Spain it is much more important to address their audience as citizens than as consumers. The researchers suggest this view might be a consequence of the historical development in these countries. The populations of all four countries experienced dictatorships and repression over the past five decades, and have gone through long periods of time during which citizens were not allowed to express their opinion. Therefore, one of the main tasks of journalists after times of political change has been to educate the citizens by, for example, providing them with information they needed to make political decisions.

All surveyed journalism students from the seven countries studied reject the need to take a loyal approach towards the government of their countries. However, the Mexican journalists-to-be are not as critical as their colleagues in the other countries of journalists who“actively support government policy on national development”, “cultivate nationalism and patriotism”, “highlight the benefits of the current economic model”, and “convey a positive image of political leadership”.

Furthermore, they attach less importance to the role of the journalist as a watchdog. One of the reasons could be the strong and long influence of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which governed Mexico for 70 years. During this time the Mexican journalists were regarded as the “lapdogs” of the government, and they developed a journalism style called “oficialismo”. This situation may have affected also the students’ perception, the study authors say.

Surprisingly, journalism students from the U.S. do not set a high value on the watchdog role neither – despite the United States’ history as a bastion of watchdog journalism. The findings from Mellado and their colleagues echo the most recent surveys of U.S. journalists (for example from Beam, Weaver and Brownlee 2009*) which have found a trend away from watchdog journalism in the United States more generally.

Journalism students in Australia, Brazil and Chile believe most strongly in the role of journalists as watchdogs. The Australian finding does not surprise the researchers as the Australian media are known for their watchdog journalism. In Brazil and Chile however the journalists do not have a long tradition as watchdogs. In the beginning of the 1990s, when both countries held their first presidential elections after the end of long dictatorships, journalists had to decide how they would behave in a democratic environment. Since then, most of them attach great importance to the possibility of acting as a watchdog, the researchers say.

Mellado and her colleagues compared the journalism students’ answers with results from previous studies on the professional views of journalists in the countries studied which supported their findings: “Assuming that professional journalism culture influences what is taught at university, it would appear that journalism students are adopting those values held by their professional counterparts”, they conclude. Hence, in all countries studied the next generation of journalists models itself on its predecessors.



Beam, Randal A., Weaver, David H. und Brownlee, Bonnie J. (2009): Changes in Professionalism of U.S. Journalists in the Turbulent Twenty-First Century. In: Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Vol. 86, No. 2, 277-298.

Mellado, Claudia; Hanusch, Folker; Humanes, María Luisa; Roses, Sergio; Pereira, Fábio; et al. (2013): Pre-Socialization of Future Journalists. An Examination of Journalism Student’s Professional Views in Seven Countries. In: Journalism Studies, Vol.14., No. 6, 857-874.


This article was translated from the German “Angehende Journalisten übernehmen Vorgänger-Rolle” by the author

Photo credit: Chris Corwin / Flickr CC

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