Saturday, August 04, 2007

Do "Harry Potter" Books Damage Image of Journalists?

Over the last several years the journalism profession has taken a lot of hits. Headlines on topics like unethical practices among journalists, accusations of media bias, loss of circulation make it seem that journalism is in a downward spin.

One researcher at the University of Missouri decided to investigate the impact of popular literature on the image of journalism. Specifically, the student asked whether or not the portrayal of journalists in the Harry Potter books negatively impacted young readers' perceptions. Much to his surprise, the MU reseacher found the opposite to be true.

When it comes to how journalists are portrayed in J.K. Rowling's immensely popular Harry Potter book series, University of Missouri-Columbia doctoral student Daxton R. "Chip" Stewart expected perceptions to meet reality. The negative depiction of Rita Skeeter and the Daily Prophet, Stewart figured, would push readers' attitudes toward journalists in an adverse direction.

A recent study of 657 students at MU, however, proved differently.

"Basically, I did a media effects study of Harry Potter reading to see if the negative image of journalists in the books carried over," Stewart said. "I expected kids who read the books, particularly the fourth and fifth books, to have more negative thoughts about news media credibility. Instead, the study showed that Harry Potter readers had greater feelings about media credibility in spite of the negative portrayal."

The study employed second-level agenda setting theory to provide a framework for examining any effects that could result from Rowling's choice of attributes associated with journalists, such as untrustworthiness, immorality and lack of credibility. Second-level agenda setting maintains that news media - and in this case entertainment media - not only tells us what events and issues to think about, but also how to think about them.

The subjects of the study were non-journalism students who ranged in age from 18-22. First-year students were chosen because they were most likely to be born between 1987 and 1989, making them between the ages of 10 and 12 when the books began to peak in popularity in 1999. Participants were given either extra credit or entered into a drawing for $100 as an inducement to take part in the Internet survey, which was held over a three-week period in February 2007.

Five scales were created to measure the attributes identified in the framing analysis, i.e. journalists invade people's privacy, and readers’ responses were compared to those of non-readers. Across the board, readers of the fourth and fifth Harry Potter books showed less salience of negative attributes, suggesting that readers had more positive views of journalists.

Next week, I'll take another look at journalism and democracy.


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