Long-term study on American journalists

March 23, 2007 • Ethics and Quality • by

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, March 23, 2007
Is the quality of US journalism deteriorating? Have journalists betrayed their principles? Recent data suggest that the critics, some of them famous and very outspoken, might be barking up the wrong tree.

If one is to believe the gloomy predictions made by many critics (among them Ben Bagdikian, Geneva Overholser and Bill Kovach) about the future of US journalists and their trade, things couldn’t be worse. US journalists, the critics say, are increasingly driven by commercial forces, they are losing credibility, betraying their once lofty principles and, ultimately, selling their very souls to the Devil. All the while media power lies in fewer and fewer hands, held by a small group of giant media groups.

Better trained and more motivated

However, the results of a more recent poll show quite a different picture: US journalists are better trained than ever before, they enjoy their work and they are to a surprising degree proud of the quality of their product which is quite unexpected even considering the traditional American tendency for exuberant self-presentation. Over 60% of those polled seem convinced that they are doing an ‘exceptional’ or at least a ‘very good’ job, and they all still feel bound by the ethical principles of public service providers.
Following the lead of a pioneer study conducted by John Johnstone in 1976, for the fourth time in 30 years a group of researchers, this time headed by David H. Weaver and G. Cleveland Wilhoit (both Indiana University), has produced a large-scale, representative survey of US journalism as it stands today, containing the findings mentioned above and many more. Taken together, these polls provide a long-term overview of the changes in US journalism over the last 30 years. In research terms, this is an achievement in itself and certainly worth reporting – despite the fact that the results as such do not always seem spectacular, they are based on the assessments of journalists themselves and are 5 years old already (dating from 2002).

White, male, married and 41 years old

The statistical profile of today’s US journalists is similar to the one drawn up in the past. The average journalist is still predominantly white, male and married but, with an average age of 41 years, he is 5 years older than his statistical predecessor from 10 years ago, and his annual income of 43,600 dollars – adjusted to take into consideration inflation and purchasing power – is 7,200 dollars lower than his colleague’s from 40 years ago.
Overall, this trend should cause some concern. Considering the income levels of the PR sector, it’s not at all surprising that more and more young people are heading straight for a career in public relations. And the greater the number of PR experts as opposed to journalists, the greater the risk of the media being skilfully ‘remote-controlled’ by these spin doctors. Quite fittingly, the number of full-time journalists in the USA is decreasing, reaching approximately 116,000, a drop of 5% in the last 10 years. Women have long gained a solid standing in US journalism but over the last 10 years their situation has been more or less static and journalists-cum-mothers continue to be substantially underrepresented. As are the so-called ‘ethnic minorities’ which, despite being on the verge of becoming the majority, still account for only 10% of all journalists. A situation which the numerous personnel initiatives undertaken by the media houses still haven’t been able to change.
When asked in person, David Weaver adds some qualifying remarks on his findings on work satisfaction. In today’s environment, he states, many journalists are glad to have a job at all. However, some editors-in-chief have been working on their people skills and today manage to truly motivate their staff. Also of interest, according to Weaver, is the fact that there is a ‘silent majority’ that, despite being proud of their work, is less eager to voice this pride – very much in contrast to some of today’s more outspoken critics of US journalism.

Uncooperative media bosses

When asked about journalists’ willingness to cooperate in this study, Weaver, normally a dispassionate scientist, has trouble hiding his irritation with the media bosses’ reluctance to provide him and his team with the information they needed. Even information vital for putting together the samples was often treated as ‘top secret’. In the USA too, therefore, publishing houses and TV broadcasters – which all depend on other people’s willingness to act as their sources – turn out to be overly cautious when it comes to handing out information to those interested, including researchers such as David Weaver.

Translation: Oliver Heinemann

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