Portrayal of Journalists in Harry Potter Books Doesn’t Negatively Affect Young Readers’ Perceptions

MU Researcher Finds the Opposite to be True in Recent Study

By Kevin Carlson
MU News Bureau

Columbia, Mo. (July 31, 2007) — When it comes to how journalists are portrayed in J.K. Rowling’s immensely popular Harry Potter book series, Missouri School of Journalism doctoral student Daxton R. “Chip” Stewart, MA ’04, expected perceptions to meet reality. The negative depiction of Rita Skeeter and the Daily Prophet, Stewart figured, would push readers’ attitudes toward journalists in an adverse direction.

Daxton Stewart
Daxton Stewart

A recent study of 657 students at MU, however, proved differently.

“Basically, I did a media effects study of Harry Potter reading to see if the negative image of journalists in the books carried over,” Stewart said. “I expected kids who read the books, particularly the fourth and fifth books, to have more negative thoughts about news media credibility. Instead, the study showed that Harry Potter readers had greater feelings about media credibility in spite of the negative portrayal.”

The study employed second-level agenda setting theory to provide a framework for examining any effects that could result from Rowling’s choice of attributes associated with journalists, such as untrustworthiness, immorality and lack of credibility. Second-level agenda setting maintains that news media – and in this case entertainment media – not only tells us what events and issues to think about, but also how to think about them.

The subjects of the study were non-journalism students who ranged in age from 18-22. First-year students were chosen because they were most likely to be born between 1987 and 1989, making them between the ages of 10 and 12 when the books began to peak in popularity in 1999. Participants were given either extra credit or entered into a drawing for $100 as an inducement to take part in the Internet survey, which was held over a three-week period in February 2007.

Five scales were created to measure the attributes identified in the framing analysis, i.e. journalists invade people’s privacy, and readers’ responses were compared to those of non-readers. Across the board, readers of the fourth and fifth Harry Potter books showed less salience of negative attributes, suggesting that readers had more positive views of journalists.

Stewart’s paper – “Harry Potter and the Exploitative Jackals: How do J.K. Rowling’s books about the boy wizard impact the salience of media credibility attributes in young audiences?” – has been accepted for presentation at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) and tied for second place in the student paper competition in the Mass Communication and Society Division. The conference will be held in Washington, D.C., from Aug. 9-12.

Updated: April 20, 2020

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