How Journalists Feel About Journalism Right Now is… Complicated
A survey reveals ambivalence, strongly felt
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
The news these days may not be quite as salient as it was in the maelstrom of 2020, but it’s still pretty compelling. So it’s an exciting time to be in the news business. At the same time—and perhaps not coincidentally-- the country’s in a very bad mood and business conditions may be deteriorating, so it’s also a hard time to be in journalism.
Both of these perspectives play out in an especially interesting recent study from the Pew Research Center on which I think it’s worth focusing this week.
The study reveals a host of fascinating dichotomies. In its own release, Pew focused on differing public and journalistic views of “bothsidesism” (see graphic below), but those were hardly the only contrasts revealed in the numbers, so please keep reading.
Here are a few other dichotomies that seem especially important to me:
· Asked to describe the state of our industry in one word, nearly half of respondents picked variants of “struggling,” “chaotic,” “difficult” and “stressful.” Fewer than one in ten chose positive words of any kind. But at the same time, 70% declared themselves satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs, and an identical 70% report they often feel excited about their work.
· Asked what journalism does best, the top answer, from 23% of respondents, is “getting the news out.” When asked what journalism does worst, the most common answer, coincidentally also from 23%, is “getting the story right.”
· The paradoxes also extend to the much-discussed subject of trust. Asked to describe the public’s view of news, nearly 60% of those working in news use words like “inaccurate,” “untrustworthy,” “biased” and “partisan.” That’s twenty times as many as use positive words. And when asked how much trust they think the public has in news, only 1% say “a great deal,” and just 13% “a fair amount.” But when asked how much their own readers/viewers/users trust the work of their own news organization the numbers skyrocket to 35% for “a great deal” and another 48% for “ a fair amount”—a combined five out of six.
My own view is that all of these numbers, even (or perhaps especially) in their ambivalence, seem about right. If they are, perhaps they should be better reflected both in our work, and in our own commentary about it.
Yes, it’s a tough time to be in a newsroom. But most people there, in my observation and experience, feel fortunate to get the chance. While continuing to press for necessary and overdue change in our workplaces, we should not be afraid to acknowledge this.
Yes, journalists make mistakes, and while we’re getting better at acknowledging that, we could do more, both on accuracy and on transparency. But it’s also true, in almost every newsroom of my experience, that people work hard to avoid errors, and take justifiable pride in doing so. Seeing this in ourselves, we can and should work harder to acknowledge similar motivations in our colleagues elsewhere.
Yes, trust in news is a big problem in our society. But the issue, to be more precise, is a lack of trust in news that challenges people’s prior assumptions and biases. The practical implications are still enormous, especially in an era when readers and viewers increasingly self-sort by ideology. For instance, convincing more than 70 million people that a candidate for whom they voted is an inveterate liar and a would-be authoritarian becomes much harder when important elements of the news media, fearful of alienating their audience, come to value short term profits and partisan leanings over journalistic obligations.
My thanks to the Pew Research Center for all the excellent work they do, and most recently for this revealing study. How we are feeling about our work as journalists in these uncertain and troubling times is worth exploring. And that exploration necessarily involves conflicting emotions. The resulting picture isn’t simple, but perhaps that’s why it’s valuable.
 Indeed, more broadly, with all of the choices of the types of work to do, surveys actually pretty consistently reveal that the large majority of Americans like the field in which they have chosen to work, and are satisfied with their jobs.)
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