Building bridges in a digital and globalized world? Results of a Q-sort survey on journalistic role perceptions


Relevance and aim

Although journalistic roles are well-researched, they remain an important issue as they are renegotiated in the digital age (Weaver & Willnat, 2012). Researchers have long been analyzing “what journalism is and what it should do” (Hallin, 2017, p. xi). Besides theoretical modelling, they have often asked journalists about their roles and professional practices (Mellado et al., 2017). Roles or role perceptions are defined as “generalized expectations which journalists believe exist in society and among different stakeholders, which they see as normatively acceptable, and which influence their behavior on the job” (Donsbach, 2008, p. 1).

Journalist surveys typically suggest roles such as the watchdog, analyst or disseminator (Hanitzsch, 2011; Hanitzsch et al., 2019; Mellado & Lagos, 2014). Few role typologies also include roles that explicitly address the challenges of globalization and digitalization, especially those of fragmentation and division, e.g. between ethnic or cultural groups or between the privileged and the marginalized in a society–roles that could be labelled as “bridging” or “boundary-spanning” (Lewis, 2012; Steindl et al., 2017). How has such roles been addressed in journalism studies so far? In what way do (future) journalists include them in their set of roles? The proposed presentation addresses these questions in two steps.


Firstly, a systematic literature analysis was carried out with regard to “bridging” roles in journalism studies. Secondly, a Q-sort survey was conducted based on the Q-methodological theory of subjectivity (Brown 1994; Stenner, Watts & Worrell, 2017). It offers an integration of qualitative and quantitative methods and enables journalists’ roles to be explored on the basis of a socio-psychological sorting technique (Stephenson, 1967; Watts & Stenner, 2012). In contrast to one-dimensional scoring, it assesses role perceptions in a comprehensive, interdependent, and subjective way, while identifying similarities between respondents in order to typify them (Serfass & Sherman, 2013; Stephenson, 1935, 1953). By focusing on a sample of German journalism students (n=38), one obtains clues about role perceptions of a generation that is often seen as both global and digital.

Results and benefit

When applying Q-methodology, four types of role perceptions can be found, showing divergent opinions about the above-mentioned roles: from hardly important to relevant and valued. While the first type (named “relaxing entertainer” because of her claim to entertain and relax her audience) rejects a “bridging” role regarding ethnic or cultural differences (Z-score: -1.05), type two–named “cultural bridge-builder”–considers it important and is defined by it (Z-score: 1.19). The two other types (“reality presenter” and “detached watchdog”) are neutral to slightly positive towards such a role perception (Z-scores: -0.3; 0.49).

The presentation is intended to offer two benefits for journalism studies. Firstly, it aims to contribute to a better understanding and analysis of journalistic roles perceptions, especially with regard to “bridging” roles in a globalized and digitalized age. Secondly, both a theory and a method will be presented that have rarely been applied in journalism studies so far, but which offer potential with regard to the analysis of journalists’ subjective and interdependent perceptions.