Documentary to highlight 2017 Worlds of Journalism study results of Canadian journalists as ‘detached watchdogs’

Jan. 8, 2017

Staff reporter

Researcher and Ryerson School of Journalism professor Ivor Shapiro. (Courtesy Ryerson School of Journalism)

Scholarly research that explores how Canadian journalists view their role in society will be highlighted in a new documentary and accompanying website based on the results of the Canadian Worlds of Journalism Study.

“SHATTERED” directed by Lindsay Fitzgerald, a graduate of Ryerson’s Bachelor of Journalism and documentary-media MFA programs, will explore the working lives of Canadian journalists at a time of major disruption. The documentary, set to be released in 2019, will place these journalists’ stories in the context of Worlds of Journalism survey results that suggest Canadian journalists, more so than journalists in many other countries, see themselves as “detached watchdogs.”

“Scholars have used the phrase ‘detached watchdogs’ to mean the role of finding out information and reporting it, independently of political and business interests,” said Ivor Shapiro, a professor of journalism at Ryerson and the principal investigator for the Canadian study.

The Worlds of Journalism Study is a collaborative effort by international scholars who are comparing how journalists in different countries describe their values and practices. The idea is to help journalism researchers, practitioners, media managers and policymakers better understand the worldviews and changes that are taking place in the professional orientations of journalists, the conditions and limitations under which journalists operate, and the social functions of journalism in a changing world.

The Canadian documentary now in production will supplement traditional scholarly publication to generate wider understanding of journalists’ sense of professional purpose, said Shapiro, who is also associate dean of undergraduate education and student affairs in Ryerson’s Faculty of Communication and Design. “This is a very precarious time to be a journalist and great change is (underway). So the documentary will bring the basic findings to life by following real -life journalists through their work and interactions while reporting.”

The Canadian Worlds of Journalism Study is one of 67 country studies in a global project that involved interviewing more than 27,500 journalists between 2012 and 2016. The questionnaire elicited views of journalists on journalism’s place in society, journalists’ ethics and autonomy, influences on news coverage, journalistic trust in public institutions and transformations of journalism. The Canadian study, which is now funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), received seed funding from the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre in 2014.

In addition to Shapiro and Fitzgerald, the research team for the Canadian study includes Geneviève Bonin, an associate professor in the department of communication at the University of Ottawa; Heather Rollwagen, an assistant professor with the department of sociology at Ryerson; RSJ assistant professor Lisa Taylor; and Lauriane Tremblay, a doctoral candidate in communications at Laval University in Québec.

Shapiro said the team conducted telephone interviews with 361 journalists in Canada. The researchers then followed up on the survey with 50 in-depth interviews conducted in person and by Skype with anglophone and francophone journalists, freelancers and journalists working at large, medium and small organizations.

The global questionnaire asked journalists to rank, from one to five, their agreement with various possible descriptions of their attitudes and influences. Rollwagen, the Ryerson sociologist, then analyzed these indicators to discover four ways in which individual journalists tended to group their answers . These groupings suggested four distinct approaches to journalists’ understanding of their social role – monitorial, collaborative, interventionist and accommodative.

“An interventionist role is an advocacy role,” Shapiro said. “The collaborative role is supporting government policy and the accommodative role is providing material that entertains audiences and finds large audiences (for content) like kittens playing or funny videos of people doing ridiculous things. But Canadian journalists see themselves playing a more monitorial role, because their job is to be independent from the government and power.”

The Canadian team’s findings have been presented at several conferences, and a scholarly journal submission is in progress. The team researchers also collaborated with colleagues in Belgium and Switzerland, where French is a minority language as well, and published a separate study called Quelle Différence? Language, culture and nationality as influences on francophone journalists’ identity. The combined group found that francophone journalists in all three countries were slightly more inclined than their German-speaking, Flemish and anglophone compatriots to identify with a politicized role that included agenda-setting, citizen-motivation and scrutinizing power. Conversely, the francophone journalists were less likely to identify with an audience-serving role of entertaining readers, according to the results.

Shapiro, whose research focuses on ethics and excellence in journalism, said the next phase of the Worlds of Journalism study will include another round in the global survey and new questions.