By The Herald Editorial Board
Reporters, of course, are accustomed to being the ones who ask the questions, but the Pew Research Center recently turned the notebook around on nearly 12,000 U.S. journalists — the reporters and editors who gather, report and edit original news stories across a range of beats — in a survey that found responses regarding journalism and the public’s perception of the news industry that were in turns surprising and expected; encouraging and concerning.
Among the good news, in particular for the future of journalism itself, was high overall satisfaction with the news industry as a career; of the 11,889 surveyed — including some among The Daily Herald’s reporters and editors — 77 percent said they would pursue a career in journalism again, 75 percent said they were extremely or very proud of their own work, and 70 percent who said they were very or somewhat satisfied with their job.
Not that there aren’t significant concerns among most journalists; 72 percent used a negative word to describe the news industry, with words like “struggling” and “chaos” being the most common choices; 57 percent said they were extremely or very concerned about the potential for future restrictions on press freedoms, while 71 percent said made-up news and false information were a significant problem for the country.
“To me, that’s a fascinating juxtaposition,” said Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research at Pew, in an Associated Press report. “They get it. They feel the struggle. They understand the public’s feelings toward them. But they love it. They’re proud of their work.”
The surveys — mostly conducted online from mid-February to mid-March of reporters and editors in print, online, broadcast and podcast media — identified a number of concerns for journalism, including press freedoms, the prevalence of misinformation among the public, how to report on misinformation, newsroom diversity and the financial stability of news outlets.
On misinformation and how to report it: About 7 in 10 journalists (71 percent), said that made-up news and misinformation was a very big problem for the country, but 4 in 10 said that news organizations were doing a poor job of managing or correcting false information.
As well, there was disagreement about how to report on misinformation. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) said news organizations should report on falsehoods and misstatements because it was important for the public to know, while nearly a third (32 percent) said repeating the statements risked bringing unwarranted attention to falsehoods and the public figures making them.
There also was disagreement over how to report misinformation and the growing divide over the long-held ethic of “objectivity” vs. “bothsiderism,” and whether falsehoods and misstatements should receive equal attention with facts and true statements.
While a high percentage of journalists — 82 percent — continue to believe that reporters should keep their personal views out of their reporting, 55 percent said that in reporting the news every side does not necessarily deserve equal coverage; still, 44 percent said that journalists should always work to give equal coverage of all sides.
On the news diet: Journalists are more concerned than the public regarding the “political sorting” of news audiences, the tendency of some to get news and information from a narrow range of news sources. Three-quarters of journalists said it was a “major problem” that like-minded members of the public were clustering around the same news outlets; while that was considered a major problem by only 39 percent of the public in a separate survey.
On accuracy and fairness: The partisanship that seems more prevalent throughout the nation also appears to influence public perceptions about journalism. On the question of whether it was possible to report news that nearly all in the public would see as accurate, journalists were split with 32 percent believing it wasn’t possible and 47 percent believing it was. That gap was larger among the public, with 62 percent saying it wasn’t possible and only 37 percent saying it was.
Most journalists in the survey also were downcast about how they are perceived by the public. Only 14 percent believed the public had a great deal to a fair amount of trust in the news media, with nearly equal percentages believing Americans had some trust in news media (44 percent) to little or no trust (42 percent). On a more local level, however, 83 percent of journalists believed their particular audience had greater trust in their work. Perhaps surprisingly, 39 percent of U.S. adults said they had at least a fair amount of trust in news organizations’ reporting, another 27 percent said they had some trust, but 44 percent had no trust.
However, journalists gave themselves and their peers higher marks than the public did — with 20 to 35 percentage point differences — on specific journalism tasks, including covering the most important issues of the day, accuracy, serving as a watchdog over elected leaders, giving voice to the under-represented and managing or correcting misinformation.
On accuracy, 65 percent of journalists in the survey said news organizations do a very good or somewhat good job on reporting the news accurately, while only 35 percent of the public agreed, with 43 percent saying journalists do a poor job in regard to accuracy.
On newsroom diversity: While two-thirds of those polled said their newsroom was diverse in terms of gender, about 56 percent said that their news organization had not made ethnic diversity a major priority. Perception and identity is key on the issue; Black, Latino and Asian journalists were less likely than white journalists to say that their organization treated everyone fairly based on race and ethnicity.
On the industry’s stability: While journalism continues to struggle financially for some media outlets — in particular, local newspapers — especially because of the covid-19 pandemic, about 4 in 10 reported receiving a pay increase in the past year, while 50 percent said their salary had not changed; likewise 30 percent said their news organization had expanded in the past year, while 46 percent said their had been no change in newsroom staffing; 22 percent noted cuts in staffing in the past year.
As with most statistics — like most news — people will draw their own conclusions about the survey responses here, using them to defend their positions on a range of opinions regarding the work of journalists and the news industry.
But both journalists and the consumers of news can benefit from considering the perspective of the other.
Readers, listeners and viewers want reporters and editors to continue to strive for accuracy and fairness, and they’re correct to expect that.
At the same time, journalists would like their audiences to broaden their diet of news so that wider sources of information can be consulted to confirm or challenge what they are reading and hearing elsewhere.
As well, while journalists continue to consider objectivity vital to public trust in their work, the public must understand that getting information direct and “unfiltered” from some officials and other sources isn’t a guarantee of accuracy and that journalism attempts to do the leg work of checking and verifying statements, facts and accounts for readers, listeners and viewers.
Finally, most journalists will tell you — should you ask — that they are in this field not for the money, for fame beyond a byline or to push a political agenda; they want to tell an informative story accurately and well and share what was learned as they’ve filled their notebooks.