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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Does ‘Harry Potter’ misrepresent journalism and newspapers?

A new study in the American Communication Journal frets that children are getting the wrong ideas about journalism and newspapers from Harry Potter. (The study looks at the books, but it applies to the movies as well.) The abstract:

This framing study examines how author J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of children’s books treats the news media and how that treatment could affect children. Researchers first studied quotes from the first six books regarding the media, and based on the overall categorization of those quotes, they determined the three main frames in which media is viewed: Government Control of Journalism, Misleading Journalism, and Unethical Means of Gathering Information. Based on these frames, researchers argue the Harry Potter series does not put the media in a positive light. Because of this, children could potentially perceive the news media in general as untrustworthy and controlled by the government. Given the prevalence of tabloid journalism and “entertainment” news, children’s understanding of true journalistic integrity, journalism as a career, and even positive social behaviors could be negatively affected due to this depiction, in light of the overwhelming popularity of the series

Frankly, this sounds like one of those studies that scientifically proves that chicken soup tastes good when you’re sick: Has there ever been any doubt that Harry Potter “does not put the media in a positive light”? The real question is, of course, why anyone would think it’s a bad thing for children to “perceive the news media in general as untrustworthy and controlled by the government,” considering the current state of the media. People are worried that children don’t understand “true journalistic integrity”? Maybe the ACJ should be worried that journalists don’t understand true journalistic integrity.

Really, the ACJ study is quite adorable:

The ideal goal of journalism is to ensure an informed citizenry in an objective and truthful manner. Due to the fact that the representation of journalism in the Harry Potter series is overwhelmingly negative, children who read the series could infer that all news media are slanted and deceptive. They could also come to believe that a career as a journalist is not an honorable profession. For this reason, parents and educators should be mindful of this possibility and expose children to a wide variety of literature that demonstrates the essential role of journalism in a free society.

It’s ridiculous to blame Harry Potter if kids are getting a certain idea about journalists and the news media: we should blame journalists and the news media for that. Sure, children should understand the “essential role of journalism in a free society,” but shouldn’t that come from the good example of a news media that is actually serving that function? Isn’t it absurd to blame a work of fiction representing the real world as it really is? Should we expect literature for children to be nothing but fantastical? If Harry Potter did offer an idealized version of journalism and the news media, wouldn’t that give kids the wrong idea that the media they see in the world outside Harry Potter is meeting that ideal?

And hey! Doesn’t Harry Potter teach kids to be skeptical of the media, by showing them that what the media propagates isn’t always the truth? Isn’t that a good lesson for them to learn?

The cuteness continues:

The depiction of journalism in the Harry Potter series was found to be predominantly negative. There were very few references to credible, non-obstructive news and these references were very minor when compared to the other journalism references in the series as a whole. Journalism as portrayed in the Potter world is heavily slanted and misleading. Information is often obtained through unethical and illegal means and is intended to damage the credibility of the subjects concerned. In addition, only one journalist of any consequence is mentioned by name in the series, and she is revealed to be the epitome of the corrupt, yellow journalist stereotype.

Why, you’d almost thing the ACJ researchers were the ones living in a fantasy world, one in which journalism wasn’t “heavily slanted and misleading”! Have these people seen the state of journalism?

Am I wrong? Does Harry Potter misrepresent journalism and newspapers? Or does it give kids an accurate, if depressing, reflection of reality?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • Well, I think you’ve got the right idea there… even if Harry Potter does misrepresent the media, those books are not the only source of information children have… about anything. They don’t even have the market cornered on wizardry for crying out loud. Seems like pretty much a non-issue. Or, probably closer to the actual truth: a story designed to get attention and stir up controversy.

  • Well, you also have to take into account that JK is from the UK where these sort of things are normal for the press. I guess it’s something that American Journalists haven’t noticed…

  • Grinebiter

    “Shoot the Messenger” Syndrome.

    The UK tabloids are a direct descendant of Nero’s techniques of street lighting.

  • Accounting Ninja

    Ha! Just before I clicked your “Read more” link, I thought, so now it’s bad to suspect the KoolAid they give you? Seriously, all children should question the media. All adults should too. It’s not to say you should become a reactionary who closes her ears to everyone or a conspiracy theorist. Just ask yourself questions. Does this make sense? Who is behind this “study” and what groups is the money funding? How new (and untested) is the study? The last one is especially important for anything medical related. I could go on and on.

  • Joanne

    The journalism in Harry Potter is fairly negatively-portrayed, I’ll agree with that – but I don’t think any child capable of realising that there’s a negative view of journalism in HP would automatically assume that all real life journalism is like that. I’m a journalist, and while I’ll admit that there is plenty of bad journalism out there there is also a massive amount of really good journalism. A lot of it is in business magazines and the like – the sort of stuff the average man-on-the-street doesn’t read. It’s unfortunate that Joe Public thinks journalism = tabloids. It doesn’t, and we’re not all Rita Skeeters.

  • The ideal goal of journalism is to ensure an informed citizenry in an objective and truthful manner.

    Indeed. And the ideal goal of communism was to ensure everyone was treated equally and everyone had enough. Of course the implementation of those ideals left quite a bit lacking…in both cases.

  • I took a vocational one-year course in journalism in 1991 with severe misgivings about whether I was cut out for it. Given that journalists in fiction were always portrayed as arrogant, amoral truth-benders, the thought that I might be too nice for the profession used to prey on my mind to begin with.

    I then started work – spending the best part of a decade on local newspapers in England – and discovered that many of my colleagues were among the most conscientious, community-minded, dedicated, decent people I’d ever met.

    Later on I moved to London and copy-edited on a freelance basis. I usually worked on consumer magazines and trade magazines, which again are mostly staffed by decent hardworking people, usually underpaid and underappreciated.

    Some journalists, of course, are ruthlessly ambitious wankers, and several of those I met gravitated towards the British tabloid press where they could write bullshit to their hearts’ content. What’s galling is that these people make up a tiny minority of the profession and yet as far as the public is concerned, they are typical of journlists in general.

    I was once asked at a social event, by a woman who had just heard what I did for a living: “Are you one of those people nobody likes?” Other people, who have since become close friends, have confided in me that they held similar prejudices at first.

    I’m now in the process of changing careers, partly for personal reasons and partly because the publishing industry is dying. Meanwhile, in the 18 years that I have been connected with journalism, I have rarely seen a newsroom accurately portrayed in fiction. With the exception of Paul ‘State of Play’ Abbott, it seems that most writers are content to parade their lazy prejudices without doing even the most basic research. Which, when you think about it, is kind of ironic.

  • While this study is eye-rollingly dumb, I’m not exactly fond of Rowling’s self-serving, poor-little-me depiction of the media either. Rowling’s been the victim of the British tabloids, and she took it out on them with Rita Skeeter. It’s obnoxious, heavy-handed and solipsistic, but then, that sort of describes the Harry Potter series as a whole. (I’m not a fan.)

  • Grinebiter

    Rowling’s been the victim of the British tabloids, and she took it out on them with Rita Skeeter.

    I don’t think we can assume that Rowling would tar all journalists with the same brush. Perhaps she reads The Guardian herself. Tabloid journalists not altogether unlike Rita Skeeter surely exist — possibly worse — so I don’t see why they aren’t fair game.

    Anyway, a plot hinging on coverage of Hogwarts by Le Monde would have little entertainment value.

  • So one book-and-movie series dissolved all the good will brought on by All the President’s Men, Kolchak, Lois Lane, the various versions of The Front Page and Lou Grant?

    Granted, most children reading Harry Potter books aren’t necessarily exposed to all those things, but then again whose fault exactly is it that we’ve gone from a time when investigative reporters were seen as heroes to a time when they’re seen as vultures? J.K. Rowling’s? Seeing TV journalists spend endless hours ghoulishly dissecting the last days of the late Heath Ledger didn’t exactly make me all that proud of the journalism profession. (And I used to work on a school paper.)

    Then again, reporter Jack McGee was portrayed as a bad guy in the Incredible Hulk series just a few years after Watergate supposedly made journalists heroes for all time. The only difference back then was that few journalists bothered to kvetch about it.

    Perhaps because they recognized that there were more important things to worry about…

  • Pollas

    This sounds very familiar to the complaint that Harry Potter teaches kids to distrust and disobey adults.

  • Gia

    They seem to forget that Xenophilius Lovegood’s Quibbler newspaper is portrayed fairly positively in the Harry Potter series; granted, most of the stories in it are rather goofy and National Enquirer-esque in the beginning, but as the books progress, the Quibbler becomes a powerful tool for Harry’s supporters because it is never brought under government (and thus Death Eater) control. It’s still a free publication, and along with the pirate broadcasts in book 7, makes rather an excellent point about the power of the media when it’s used as it should be. The contrast between Lovegood and Rita Skeeter is enormous – while he’s rather daft, he still makes it a point to print Harry’s story word-for-word, whereas she’s quite clever and simply tends to make up whatever quotes suit her purposes.

    I’ve probably overthought this.

  • Gia

    Also, it must be late – I used “rather” way too much. *facedesk*

  • Will

    Seems to me though, that the study kind of proved a point about people and not the media per se. Yes, the media is screwed up in may ways in the categories that they are claiming are negative. However, if the kids are taking the point of view that Harry Potter is throwing at them then they are, in essence, doing the same exact thing that most people do with the mainstream media. And that thing is not making up their own mind. People think that the news is the end all of information when in the end it is skewered with a bias in a majority of cases. My mom, for instance, tells me opinions that she has and what she heard on the news and I ask her why she has a certain opinion and she can’t answer and in fact gets a little defensive because she can’t prove her point. So it would seem as though these kids would be doing the same thing, but at an opposing point.

  • Grinebiter

    My mom, for instance, tells me opinions that she has and what she heard on the news and I ask her why she has a certain opinion and she can’t answer and in fact gets a little defensive because she can’t prove her point.

    I grew up in Privet Drive myself; and my father used to read The Torygraph, lower it and then solemnly and pompously deliver the opinions of its leading articles as if they were all his own idea.

  • Paul

    It is a part of drama that a writer puts the screws to a character, and ruinning Potter’s reputation is a part of that. If you can’t kill the hero, you discredit him.

    Besides, did “LA Confidential” or “Batman” keep people from calling the police? Do people not call the police because of seeing police corruption in a movie? No. Maybe they don’t call the police because of something they saw in real life, but not the movies.

    If anything, the Potter series is a good argument against the centralization of news. Once major cities had three for four papers each. Now they each have one, and they often suck off the same source: AP.

    Of course, watching the press roll over for Bush during the lead up to the Iraq War was annoying, but on a day to day level, what’s making the TV press useless is commercialization. If I’m watching the news on TV, it’s five minutes of commercials, followed by five minutes of news, followed by five minutes of bickering, then five minutes of chat and what’s on the news next, and then five minutes more of commericals. That’s 25 pages of a book I could have read, unless it’s tough reading. Can you imagine how many books you could read if you stopped watching the news? How much better informed you’d be?

  • Grinebiter

    Can you imagine how many books you could read if you stopped watching the news? How much better informed you’d be?

    Funny you should say that; I heard of a study that showed that the amount of time spent watching Fox had a strong negative correlation with knowledge of current affairs. :-)

    I spend as much time on medieval world history as on current news, and people say that I seem to be all the better for it. Certainly gives a longer perspective than that of most journalists.

  • RogerBW

    Big-circulation journalism in the UK these days largely consists of selecting press releases based on the bias of the proprietor, sometimes rewriting them a bit, getting any details wrong, and putting them on the page.

    Newspaper circulation is declining catastrophically.

    Clearly this is the fault of the portrayal of the press by one author.

  • Brian

    I’m also worried about the portrayal of extremely wealthy people in Harry Potter. Children might get the impression that some of them are arrogant, entitled, bigoted, miserable, narcissistic, and cruel! Then there’s the issue of Rowling’s negative take on giant talking spiders . . .

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