Journalistic roles, perceived influences, and journalistic ethics: An empirical study of journalists from mainland China


Background: Ethical issues arise from practices (Tang, 2014). In practice, journalistic ethical concepts are embodied in controversial interview behavior, relationships with information sources, and conflict of interests (Weaver & Willnat, 2012). Few empirical studies focused on the relationship between journalistic roles, perceived influences, and journalistic ethics. However, journalistic roles articulate journalism’s identity and social position, reflect broader public expectations. Perceived influences reveal journalists’ perception of multiple forces that shape the news production process. These two factors jointly affect journalists’ reporting routines, as well as their sense of justifiable practice (Shoemaker & Reese, 1996; Hanitzsch & Mellado, 2012). This research intends to probe this relationship in the Chinese context, which is largely overlooked by existing studies.

Methods: Data comes from a large-scale transnational survey named the Worlds of Journalism Study (WJS). Responses of 652 journalists from mainland China were extracted from the second round of WJS. Exploratory factor analysis was adopted to discover the underlying structures of each concept. Journalistic ethical behavior contains content tampering, improper use of information, and controversial interview behavior (the higher the value, the lower tolerance towards corresponding practice). For journalistic roles, we employed disseminator and infotainment orientations summarized by previous studies (Mellado, 2013; Hellmueller & Mellado, 2016). As for perceived influences, five factors (competitive pressure, etc.) were incorporated. Perceived autonomy, working experience, and some other indicators were adopted as control variables.

Results: We conducted binary logistic regression and multiple linear regression based on dependent variables’ distributions. Statistical results demonstrate that 1) disseminator orientation and age are positively related to the intolerance of content tampering. 2) Age additionally facilitates the intolerance of improper information use. Television journalists are also more intolerant of this behavior than journalists from the online outlet. 3) For the controversial interview behavior, journalists who are older, involved in other paid activities, occupy a high degree of autonomy have more intolerance of this item. Journalists from television and radio media are more likely to oppose this behavior than those from online outlets.

Conclusion: This research suggests that journalists’ role perception and perceived influences have a limited effect on their journalistic ethical behaviors in mainland China. Only the disseminator orientation significantly affects the intolerance of content tampering. This result is different from studies conducted in other countries. Our research implies that journalistic ethics is a somewhat idiosyncratic concept, which holds unique connotations in different contexts. Compared with the two factors we stressed in the title, a high degree of autonomy (both economic and reporting) decreases journalists’ approval of unethical behaviors. Besides, journalists engaged in television and radio media show higher adherence to ethical practices than those from online outlets, this may be related to media attributes, because it is hard to fabricate the audio and video than words. Older journalists also know how to avoid risks and more committed to ethical codes than the young. Therefore, improvement of professional autonomy, value the leadership of senior journalists in nurturing professionalism may be effective approaches to regulate unethical reporting behaviors in the context of mainland China.