Newspapers Already Struggling - and 'Harry Potter' Doesn't Help

July 29, 2009

Media contact: Lori Fogleman, director of media communications, (254) 710-6275

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As if declines in subscription and advertising revenue weren't damaging enough, now the newspaper industry has to contend with the world of a certain bespectacled boy wizard.

The portrayal of the news media in the Harry Potter series of books may have a significant impact on children's understanding of journalistic integrity or journalism as a career, according to a study by Baylor University researchers.

The analysis finds an overwhelmingly negative representation of journalism throughout the first six books, raising concerns that child readers will view journalism as corrupt, deceptive and an unattractive career choice.

"The books present an unnecessarily pessimistic view of journalism today," says Dr. Amanda Sturgill, senior lecturer in journalism at Baylor and one of the study co-authors. "Since literature can play an important role in helping children learn and possibly empathize with situations experienced by the characters, the potential for influence on journalism is strong."

Sturgill, along with study co-authors Jessica Winney of the University of Houston-Clear Lake and Tina Libhart of Baylor, analyzed quotes from the first six books that made any mention of the media, including newspapers, magazines, radio and textbooks. The study was originally published in the 2008 American Communications Journal.

The researchers categorized the quotes and determined three frames in which media is viewed:

    Government Control of Journalism

    Misleading Journalism

    Unethical Means of Gathering Information

In the Harry Potter books, government control of the media was seen primarily in the wizard world between the Ministry of Magic and the newspaper The Daily Prophet. The Daily Prophet appears to pressure the government and go around official sources, and several characters feel that the Ministry of Magic "leans heavily" on The Daily Prophet.

In other instances, The Daily Prophet contains misleading journalism - information that, while accurate in fact, leads readers to the wrong conclusion. In this category, the study also includes occasions when the newspaper contained inaccurate or libelous content. Attacks by the media on the character of a protagonist and speculation on the media's motivations are cited by the study.

The study's third category - unethical means of gathering information - encompasses activities that would be deemed illegal by U.S. law, as well as unethical in the profession.

The study points out that Rita Skeeter - the prominent but "corrupt journalist who writes with a complete disregard for accuracy, truthfulness and objectivity" - often conducts interviews with a "Quick Quotes Quill," a magical quill that writes automatically as the subject speaks. However, the quill does not record verbatim what the subject says. Instead, it takes a subject's words and creates sensational and inaccurate tales that bear little resemblance to actual events, the study says.

Overall, the study finds that there is little regard for accuracy in any form and there are no consequences or accountability for poor journalistic practices.

"In no situations was there recourse on The Daily Prophet or the Ministry of Magic for what was published," Sturgill says. "This could convey the message to young readers that there are no ill effects of poor journalism in the real world."

The study also includes extensive research on the power and influence of children's literature on young audiences.

"While the Harry Potter books are valued for their ability to entertain and engage readers, children are reading about things they may not experience," Sturgill says. "A lot of exposure to careers and appropriate social behaviors can come through children's literature. The implications of the negative portrayal of journalism are quite broad when one considers the popularity of the series."

Neither the Ministry of Magic nor The Daily Prophet were available for comment on the study.

The full study can be found at: http://www.acjournal.org/holdings/vol10/01_Spring/articles/sturgill_etal.php

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