Characteristics and Attitudes of Australian Journalists
***** HENNINGHAM *******EJC/REC Vol. 3, No. 3 & 4, 1993 ****
CHARACTERISTICS AND ATTITUDES OF AUSTRALIAN JOURNALISTS
University of Queensland
Abstract. Australia's first comprehensive
national survey of journalists employed by
mainstream news media (including national,
metropolitan and regional daily newspapers, weekly
newspapers, and commercial and public broadcast
media) indicates a workforce which is young,
fairly well educated, politically liberal,
stressed but job-satisfied, concerned about media
policy, and with mixed professional values.
Journalism in Australia approaches the new millenium in
the context of considerable change and uncertainty. Since
the late 1980s the number of metropolitan newspaper titles
has almost halved, while ownership concentration has
increased to the tightest in the western world, with two
proprietors controlling 88 percent of the metropolitan and
Moreover, both these proprietors are foreigners: they
are citizens of North America. One is Australian-born
Rupert Murdoch, who became a United States citizen in 1985
in order to acquire US television interests, and who now
owns 58 percent of the Australian daily newspaper market
(and 66 percent of the daily capital city and national
market). The other is Canadian Conrad Black, owner of
newspapers in Canada, Britain and Israel, who in 1991
succeeded in acquiring the prestigious Fairfax Group,
publisher of Australia's two most influential city dailies,
the _Sydney Morning Herald_ and Melbourne's _Age_. A third
foreign proprietor, Irish newspaper owner Tony O'Reilly (who
is also chief executive of the US multinational food group
Heinz), controls, with his family, the largest stake in non-
metropolitan daily newspapers. (Murdoch, Black and O'Reilly
own 68 percent of circulation of the 38 regional dailies.)
Meanwhile, all three commercial television networks
have changed hands several times, with the new owners who
emerged in the big-spending Eighties all becoming insolvent
and losing their properties. This turmoil has had a major
effect on journalism, including the loss of an estimated
1000 jobs (Australian Journalists' Association, 1991).
In this context, the first comprehensive national
survey of Australian journalists was undertaken in 1992.
The study was funded by the Australian Research Council.
Designed to replicate in part the national studies of
journalists in the United States by Johnstone, Slawski and
Bowman (1976) and Weaver and Wilhoit (1986), the survey
reached more than a thousand journalists representing about
a quarter of the national population of journalists in
mainstream news media. The survey aimed to determine the
occupational characteristics of Australia's news media
workforce, as well as journalists' professional values and
opinions on current issues. This paper can summarise only
part of the results of a survey which included more than 120
variables. More detailed results are being prepared as a
In 1991 staff lists were requested from all Australian
daily newspapers (national, metropolitan and regional), all
Sunday newspapers, all television networks and stations and
from samples of radio stations and weekly paid newspapers,
as well as from the national wire service (AAP) and the two
news magazines (the _Bulletin_ and _Time Australia_).
Cooperation varied between ownership groups, but with the
additional assistance of the Australian Journalists'
Association, with media guides and with inside contacts, it
was possible to assemble comprehensive lists from which to
draw a sample. Advance letters were sent to all sample
members, while the interviews were conducted by telephone by
a commercial market research firm, Quadrant Research
Services, or, in the case of country non-daily newspapers,
by a graduate student. Participation was very high: a
total of 1068 interviews were successfully completed, with
fewer than 10 percent of potential respondents either
refusing or permanently uncontactable. The response rate
was 90.1 percent, with different media sectors well
Of the total, percentages employed in different media
sectors were: metropolitan dailies (28%), national dailies
(5%), Sundays (5%), regional dailies (18%), country non-
dailies (10%), commercial television (13%), commercial radio
(5%), public broadcasting (11%), wire service (3%), news
Numbers, Age and Mobility
With an estimated total number of journalists in
mainstream news media of only about 4200, Australia
(population 17 million) has just over half the number of
journalists per head of population (.025%) as has the United
States (.045%) (based on Wilhoit & Weaver's estimate of the
US editorial workforce in 1992). Using the US as a
yardstick, Australia clearly needs more journalists
The median age of Australian journalists is 32. This
is the same as the median for the national workforce,
although fewer journalists are in older age groups. Just
over 50 percent of journalists are aged between 25 and 40,
and only 10.5 percent are aged over 50. Journalism remains
primarily a young person's occupation, although the median
age is higher than the median of 27 found in a one-city
study by Hart (1970) 20 years previously. Hart expressed
concern at the impact on journalism of its practitioners
choosing to "drop out" at the age of 30, lured by higher
salaries and possibly more autonomy in such commercially-
oriented media work as public relations and advertising.
The evidence of the current survey suggests that a
greater proportion of journalists are prepared to make a
long-term career in the media, although they are not likely
to stay with the one news organisation. Mobility is
evident: the average journalist, with 13 years in the
industry, has changed jobs three times. There is
considerable medium-term commitment to the news media:
three-quarters of the journalists plan to be in the media in
five years' time. They are relatively well paid -- the
median salary (including income from all sources) is
$45,000, compared with a national average income of $26,530.
(One Australian dollar is currently worth US 66 cents.)
Women in Journalism
Men continue to occupy the majority of jobs in
journalism: 33 percent of Australia's journalists are
women. While this is a significant increase from the 10
percent of female journalists in the early 1970s, it is much
lower than the 42 percent of women in the workforce
(Henningham, 1988; Bamber & Davis, 1991; Castles, 1993).
The proportion of women is much higher in some media sectors
-- for example, the public broadcasting organisations, the
Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Special
Broadcasting Service, as well as Sunday newspapers and
country non-dailies. Women in journalism are significantly
younger -- a median age of 27, compared with 37 for men.
Women are far less likely than men to occupy senior
positions in newsrooms: of journalists in the positions of
editor, deputy editor, news director and executive producer,
only 12 percent are women. Within the union-based grading
structure which sets the salaries of 86 percent of the
journalists in the survey, most of those in the higher
grades are men. Thus, 88 percent of those in the top two
classifications (J8 and J9) are men, while of those in the
bottom two grades (J1 and J2), 55 percent are women. Men's
median salary is $45,000, compared with women's $35,000.
The women's to men's earnings ratio of 78 percent is almost
identical to that of professional occupations in general in
Australia (77%) (Castles, 1993).
Journalists are split along gender lines on whether it
is harder for women to get ahead in their careers -- 72
percent of women say yes, compared with 39 percent of men.
Two-thirds of women journalists say they have had personal
experience or knowledge of women being the victims of
prejudice in the newsroom.
As found in other studies, most journalists come from
middle-class rather than working-class backgrounds. The
fathers (or main bread-winning parents) of 61 percent of the
journalists had white collar occupations -- most of these in
professional or managerial jobs. By contrast, in the
national workforce as a whole, 21 percent of people are in
professional or managerial occupations. Fewer than three
out of 10 journalists are from blue collar homes, while one
in 10 had parents in primary industry. In terms of
secondary education, journalists as a group were found to
have had a more privileged schooling than the bulk of the
population. Fewer than six out of 10 journalists went to a
state school: 23 percent went to a Catholic school, and 20
percent to a non-Catholic private school. By contrast,
about 75 percent of the general population attended a state
school (Henningham, 1988).
Ethnicity and Religion
Journalists are less likely to be immigrants and more
likely to be of Anglo-Saxon background than is the general
population. A total of 80.9 percent of the journalists were
born in Australia, compared with 75.5 percent of the
national population. Of journalists born overseas, more
than two-thirds came from the British Isles or New Zealand
compared with fewer than 30 percent of overseas-born
Since World War II, immigration to Australia has
greatly increased from continental Europe and, more
recently, from Asia. This shift away from traditional
immigration from Britain and Ireland has been only slowly
reflected among the ranks of journalists, of whom 85 percent
say they have a British or Irish ethnic background, 13
percent a continental European background, and less than 1
percent an Asian background.
Most journalists (52%) believe it is more difficult for
journalists of ethnic or racial minorities to get ahead in
their careers -- although only 18 percent say they have
experienced or seen racial prejudice in the newsroom.
A total of 88 percent of journalists were brought up
with at least a nominal attachment to a mainstream religion.
Their affiliations are similar to those of the general
population (in parentheses): Catholic 32% (27%), Anglican
31% (24%), Uniting and Presbyterian 18% (13%). Most
journalists -- 74 percent -- say they do not now practise a
religion in any way.
A total of 55 percent of journalists have attended
university or college, but only 39 percent have completed a
degree or diploma. While the proportion of graduates is
many times higher than the 5 percent identified in the 1960s
(Hudson, 1963), and is much greater than that of the general
population, of whom 13 percent have a degree, Australian
journalists' level of education contrasts with the pattern
in the United States, where 82 percent of journalists have a
degree (Weaver & Wilhoit, 1992). Younger journalists,
predictably, are more likely to be graduates (e.g. 55% of
those in their late 20s). Significant inter-media
differences were found: 53 percent of ABC journalists have
degrees, for example, compared with only 22 percent of
commercial radio journalists.
Of those with university education, 33 percent had
majored in journalism, 8 percent in other communications
disciplines, 41 percent in other arts disciplines
(humanities or social sciences), 6 percent in commerce and 3
percent in science.
Having developed a court-enshrined system of on-the-job
training early this century, journalism in Australia has
lagged behind many other industrialised democracies in
having a university-educated journalistic workforce. The
concept of tertiary education in journalism continues to be
greeted with suspicion by many senior journalists.
The survey found that while a majority of journalists
(53%) considered it desirable for journalism recruits to
have a degree, only 27 percent believed journalism recruits
should have a degree in journalism. Asked to evaluate
contemporary journalism education, only 23 percent gave it a
"good" or "very good" rating, while 33 percent gave it a
"medium" rating. The only consolation for journalism
educators is that while 27 percent of journalists considered
university journalism education to be "poor" or "very poor",
a total of 41 percent held the same view of traditional in-
house training, the cadetship system. Journalists who had
had at least some university education were almost twice as
likely to support tertiary education for recruits (66% to
36%) but no more likely to support the desirability of
university journalism education. They gave slightly higher
ratings to journalism education, and lower ratings to the
Ideological leaning was tapped using Johnstone et al.'s
closed question, which allows for five possible responses.
While 41 percent of journalists describe their "general
political leaning" as middle of the road, most of the
remainder are more likely to lean to the left than to the
right. Of the total, 3.8 percent said they were "pretty far
to the left", 35 percent a "little to the left", 1.8 percent
"pretty far to the right" and 14.2 percent a "little to the
right". Journalists specialising in politics are much more
likely to lean to the left than the right: 48 percent to 11
The governing party in Australia at federal level is
the Australian Labor Party (ALP), which is ideologically
similar to the Democratic Party in the United States.
Journalists are more likely to vote for the ALP (37%) than
its conservative opponents, the Liberal Party (29%) or the
National Party (2%). (Remaining figures are: 14% minor
parties, 13% undecided, 4% refused.) Only 1 percent of
journalists are members of a political party.
Job Satisfaction, Stress and Technology
Most Australian journalists are at least fairly
satisfied with their jobs. A total of 29 percent indicate
they are very satisfied, 51 percent are fairly satisfied, 16
percent somewhat dissatisfied and 4 percent very
dissatisfied. Nevertheless, high levels of stress are
reported by 70 percent of journalists, while most (68%)
believe stress levels in newsrooms are increasing. However,
more than eight out of 10 believe new technologies
introduced into journalism in recent years save time and
have in general improved work quality. Cynics abound: 50
percent of journalists feel their level of cynicism is high,
while 40 percent consider it medium.
Most journalists (65%) consider journalism a
profession, but a significant minority continue to reject
this term in favor of such titles as craft or trade. One
means of exploring professional commitment in journalism is
through the questions devised by Johnstone et al. and Weaver
& Wilhoit to explore the relative importance of various
professional and non-professional aspects of jobs in
journalism. In their responses, Australian journalists
indicated varying levels of professional commitment (Table
1). The single most important aspect appeared to be the
non-professional aspect of job security, perhaps a reaction
to the uncertainties which have followed the turmoil in
media ownership. The second most important aspect,
editorial policies of the organisation, may reflect concerns
about the reduction in media voices as ownership has become
concentrated to an unprecedented degree. There is, indeed,
great concern at managerial interference with professional
autonomy. A total of 41 percent say they have personally
experienced improper managerial interference with a story,
while 47 percent say they have personal knowledge of
improper intervention having occurred.
Table 1. Importance of aspects of journalism
Very Fairly Not too
Important Important Important
Pay 23 56 21
Fringe benefits 7 35 55
Freedom from supervision 39 44 16
Chance to help people 44 45 11
Editorial policies of organisation 55 33 11
Job security 58 33 9
Chance to develop speciality 40 44 16
Amount of autonomy you have 51 46 3
Chance to get ahead in organisation 51 36 12
When asked the Johnstone et al./Weaver & Wilhoit set of
questions on the importance of news media tasks, Australian
journalists indicated strong support for both the
investigative and the disseminatory functions of news media
Table 2. Importance of media functions
Extremely Fairly A little Not
important imp. imp. really
Get information to the
public quickly 74 23 2 1
Provide analysis & inter-
pretation of complex problems 71 27 2 1
Provide entertainment & 28 52 13 8
Investigate claims & statements
made by the government 81 17 1 1
Stay away from stories where
factual content cannot be 45 35 9 10
Concentrate on news which is of
interest to the widest possible
public 38 44 8 9
Discuss national policy while it
is still being developed 56 35 4 4
Develop intellectual & cultural
interests of the public 37 46 10 7
Be an adversary of public
officials by being constantly
sceptical of their actions 30 39 14 17
Be an adversary of businesses by
being constantly sceptical of
their actions 27 39 15 17
The task which journalists supported most strongly was
investigating claims and statements made by the government:
four out of five journalists considered this extremely
important. The function of getting information to the
public quickly was the second-most supported task, followed
closely by the provision of analysis and interpretation of
complex problems. Also valued by a majority was the
discussion of developing national policy. On the other
hand, both of the adversarial functions as well as the
entertainment function were seen as extremely important by
only a minority of journalists.
Factor analysis yielded the same three factors found in
Weaver & Wilhoit's study, which they labelled adversarial,
interpretive and disseminator (Weaver & Wilhoit, 1991,
Comparison of Australian and American responses to the
questions on media functions (Table 3) shows a tendency for
Australian journalists to be more supportive of the
importance of all the functions. Relativities are similar,
with most Australian journalists supporting analysis and
news dissemination, but rejecting adversarial functions.
Table 3. Selected media functions:
Australian & US journalists
_Percentage saying extremely important_
Get information to the public
quickly 74 69
Provide analysis & interpretation
of complex problems 71 48
Provide entertainment & relaxation 28 14
Investigate claims & statements
made by the government 81 67
Concentrate on news which is of
interest to the widest possible
public 38 20
Be an adversary of public officials
by being constantly sceptical of
their actions 30 21
Be an adversary of businesses by
being constantly sceptical of
their actions 27 14
Source for US data: Weaver & Wilhoit (1992).
The context of the turmoil in Australian media
ownership in recent years may explain the level of support
of Australian journalists for ownership regulation. There
is strong support for statutory limits on media ownership --
82 percent think the government should prevent increased
concentration of ownership in the print media, and 53
percent feel the government should force Rupert Murdoch's
dominant News Ltd group to divest newspapers. Journalists
also favor stringent limits on foreign ownership and cross-
media ownership. Journalists employed by the Fairfax group,
recently taken over by Canadian Conrad Black, and by the
public broadcast media (Australian Broadcasting Corporation
and the Special Broadcasting Service) are more in favor of
regulation (Table 4).
Table 4. Views on government regulation of media
Government should Govt should force
prevent increased News Ltd (Murdoch)
ownership concentration to divest
in print media newpapers
Percent in agreement
Murdoch 72 40
Fairfax 92 59
Packer 71 44
(magazines & TV)
O'Reilly 88 55
Public 92 69
(radio & TV)
Other 83 53
Concern about ownership is not, however, projected to
strongly negative views about the nature of journalism in
Australia. In contrast with polls showing widespread public
dissatisfaction with media practitioners, 44 percent of
journalists believe standards of journalism in Australia
have improved in the last 20 years, compared with 32 percent
who feel standards have declined. Six out of ten are
optimistic about the future of journalism. A total of 59
percent give journalism a high rating for honesty and
ethics. Moreover, 62 percent say the news media are doing a
good job overall in informing the public, and 72 percent
feel their own organisation is doing a good job.
While just over half the journalists feel freedom of
the press in Australia is high, 44 percent believe press
freedom is decreasing and only 12 percent feel it is
Most journalists, in keeping with US colleagues,
believe they have a high level of influence on public
opinion. On a scale showing the level of media influence on
the formation of public opinion (Weaver & Wilhoit, 1991),
where 0 indicated no influence and 10 indicated very great
influence, the Australian mean response was 7.7. (US
journalists' response was 7.39.) A further question, asking
how strong the media's influence _should be_ on public
opinion, revealed a mean of 5.89. (US: 5.96.)
The upheaval in Australian media is reflected in
Australian journalists' contradictory views and values.
They are both idealists and cynics. They are highly
stressed but happy in their work. They are concerned about
the impact of concentrated and foreign ownership on the
media yet optimistic about journalism's future. They value
freedom of the press but call for greater government
intervention. They approve of the professional ideal but
are less interested in such means as education as a way of
achieving professionalism. The findings indicate confusion
and uncertainty, perhaps pointing to a struggle by
journalists to come to grips with a changing media
environment and higher community expectations.
Other findings show changes which have occurred within
a generation -- more experience of tertiary education, a
tendency to stay in the job longer and to consider it a
career, and a greater rate of participation by women,
although not at senior levels. Some aspects of Australian
journalists are changing more slowly: for example, their
ranks are dominated by Caucasians and those of British
Hence, change at varying rates is occurring in
Australian journalism, both in the structure of the
workforce and in the attitudes and values of its members.
The extent to which journalists can survive an uncertain
environment and develop an unambiguous professional
commitment will be the first story of Australian journalism
in the new millenium.
 An earlier version of this paper was presented at the
International Communication Association 43rd Annual
Conference, Washington, May 1993, in the joint session:
Political Communication/Mass Communication --
Comparative Cross-National Research on Journalists.
Funds for the research reported in this paper were
provided by the Australian Research Council.
 Australia's national and metropolitan daily newspapers,
with circulations _in thousands_ (and proprietors in
National: Australian (Murdoch), 150;
Australian Financial Review (Fairfax), 75.
Sydney: Telegraph Mirror (Murdoch), 459;
Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax), 269.
Melbourne: Herald-Sun (Murdoch), 584; Age (Fairfax),
Brisbane: Courier-Mail (Murdoch), 258.
Adelaide: Advertiser (Murdoch), 220.
Perth: West Australian (WAN), 263.
Hobart: Mercury (Murdoch), 53.
Darwin: Northern Territory News (Murdoch), 21.
Canberra (national capital): Canberra Times (Stokes),
 Earlier studies of journalists in Australia include
Hudson's (1963) research based on Australian
Journalists' Association membership data, Hart's (1970)
survey of journalists in Brisbane, Black's (1982) and
Masterton's (1983) survey of selected journalists'
views of issues including education and job
satisfaction, and Henningham's (1988) survey of
television journalists. In parallel with the present
study, Schultz (1992) was researching a sample of AJA
members' views on political and professional issues as
part of an international Media and Democracy project.
Australian Journalists' Association (1991). Submission.
Canberra: House of Representatives Print Media
Bamber, G., & Davis., E. (1991). Industrial relations. In
John Henningham (Ed.), Institutions in Australian
society. St Lucia: Department of Journalism,
University of Queensland.
Black, J. (1982, July). Professionalization of the
Australian news media: Journalists' education,
training and job satisfaction. Annual conference of
the AEJ (International Communication Division), Ohio
Castles, I. (1993). Women in Australia. Canberra:
Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Hart, B. (1970). The Brisbane journalist. Unpublished BA
(honours) thesis, University of Queensland (Department
of Anthropology & Sociology).
Henningham, J. (1988). Looking at television news.
Melbourne: Longman Cheshire.
Henningham, J. (1993, October). Journalism in the United
States and Australia: Some comparisons. Paper to the
Australian Centre for American Studies' 1993 Fulbright
Hudson, W.J. (1963). Metropolitan daily journalism in
Australia. Unpublished MA thesis, University of
Melbourne (School of Political Science).
Johnstone, J.W.C., Slawski, E.J., & Bowmman, W.W. (1976).
The news people. Urbana: University of Illinois
Masterton, M. (1983). But you'll never be bored: The five
Ws of Australia's journalists. Adelaide: South
Australian College of Advanced Education.
Media Ownership Update. (1993, February). Communications
Update, Issue 85, pp. 7-22.
Schultz, J. (1992, Sept./Oct.). Media and democracy. The
Journalist, pp. 5-8.
Weaver, D.H., & Wilhoit, G.C. (1986). The American
journalist. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Weaver, D.H., & Wilhoit, G.C. (1991). The American
journalist (2nd ed.). Bloomington: Indiana University
Weaver, D.H., & Wilhoit, G.C. (1992). The American
journalist in the 1990s: A preliminary report of key
findings from a 1992 national survey of US journalists.
Arlington: Freedom Forum.
Correspondence: John Henningham
Professor of Journalism
University of Queensland
Brisbane 4072 Queensland
tel: (07) 365-2630
fax: (07) 365-1377
Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, Inc.
This file may not be publicly distributed or reproduced
without written permission of the Communication Institute
for Online Scholarship, P.O. Box 57, Rotterdam Jct., NY
12150 USA (phone: 518-887-2443).