March 30, 1999

National Survey of Journalists

The Committee of Concerned Journalists and the Pew Research Center For The People & The Press jointly produced a national survey of the news media, including newsroom staff, news managers, and executives, on journalistic values and principles. The survey reveals that journalists are becoming far more critical of their profession.

The results of that survey were released March 30 on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation. Below is a commentary on the results of the survey by Bill Kovach, Tom Rosenstiel, and Amy Mitchell of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. To read the survey, click here.

A First Step To Change: A Commentary on the Findings
By Bill Kovach, Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell

Something important has changed in journalism. Not only is the public increasingly disaffected from the press. Journalists now agree that something is wrong with their profession.

This is a critical signal, quantified for the first time in this survey of how news professionals at all levels and across all media view themselves. Such shifts in self awareness usually precede even larger change. For journalism, it could either alter the current direction of the industry or simply persuade more people to abandon the profession. Whether the result will be professional reform or retreat is not yet clear.

After more than a decade of refashioning the news to make it more profitable in response to broad economic, social and technological changes, journalism professionals now see two overriding trends that worry them. Both have broad social implications. They believe that the news media have blurred the lines between news and entertainment and that the culture of argument is overwhelming the culture of reporting. A broad majority feel that way, roughly 70%–including top executives. They also see problems of reporting the news fairly and factually and avoiding sensationalism. And things are getting worse. Concerns about punditry overwhelming reporting, for instance, have swelled dramatically in only four years.

In short, a large majority of news professionals sense a degradation of the culture of news–from one that was steeped in verification and a steadfast respect for the facts, toward one that favors argument, opinion-mongering, haste, and infotainment. A close look at the research suggests that journalists do not fully grasp the implications of all this. Nor, it seems, may business executives fully grasp the implications of an evident schism in their own organizations, which could make facing the growing problems of journalism more difficult.

Journalism as a Public Interest

While there remains significant confusion over cause and effect, however, there is little doubt about journalism as a profession. Journalism professionals–across generation and media–still share a deep sense of common purpose about what journalism should be. When asked what distinguishes journalism from other forms of communication, executives and reporters alike overwhelmingly cite factors that relate to the public interest mission of their work: informing the public, being a watchdog, facilitating democracy, supporting community. They also agree on the principles that fulfill that public mission: accuracy, fairness, verification, avoiding rumors, putting citizens first, keeping some independence from those you cover. Even as journalism is changing, in other words, the enduring principles, purposes and values of the profession remain.

A Conflict Over Values

There is a deep difference between business managers and newsroom personnel, however, about the trends they believe are distorting these values and practices. Journalists in the newsroom increasingly feel–indeed a majority now does–that business pressure is “seriously hurting the quality of news coverage.” That in turn is exacerbating the erosion of public trust, which is only causing a further decline in audience. In a sense, journalists see themselves caught in a self-defeating spiral, reacting to financial pressures in ways that lower quality, which leads to more business problems, which leads to more misguided changes in the news product. On some level the cycle is ironic. Why push even further in the same direction if it is not producing the results you want?

But the impact from the business side is a subtle pressure. This is not a matter of executives or advertisers pressuring journalists about what to write or broadcast. Few cite that as an issue. It involves cutbacks, buyouts, focusing journalists around the bottom line, tying journalists’ incomes to business incentives, creating a commercial rather than journalistic mindset in the newsroom. In short, journalists in the newsroom believe the business side is creating the quality problems that are alienating the audience.

Here, executives strongly disagree. A clear majority of those who run the media do not see any problem with the way the industry is responding to financial pressures.

The disagreement has deep and potentially significant implications. While at a distance journalists, top editors and business-side executives seem to agree on their larger professional values, a closer look reveals a sense of disconnection and disagreement. In local newspapers and television, less than a third of executives or even their top news people believe that “reporters in my organization share my professional values…a great deal.” At the networks and national newspapers, executives and top news managers are somewhat more likely to believe they share a great deal of the values of their news staff, but still by only the narrowest majority.

The newsroom’s view inspires even less confidence that the industry can face these challenges with a sense of common purpose. Barely a third of people at the networks or at the nation’s top newspapers or radio organizations believe they have a great deal in common with the professional values of either their owners or top editors. If you look at the networks and radio alone, the numbers are not even that high. They fall to a quarter. At the local level, the sense of common purpose is only a quarter of the newsroom across the board.

To be blunt, the numbers suggest that journalists and business executives alike have yet to think deeply about what is going on here, or the interconnections between what they see as problems. Journalists believe their management is undermining quality, and they doubt their leaders share their values. But when asked to rate the quality of leadership in their newsrooms, they continue to do so highly and still go to their bosses when they have questions about their ethics, responsibilities or values.

In short, journalists either see no problem with having different values than their bosses, or see no alternative. The difficulty is that increasingly management and ownership expect the newsroom to share a sense of common purpose. The walls between business and news are tumbling. Team management today is becoming routine. Most news managers’ compensation is tied to business performance. A schism over values is more consequential than it might have been once, both because of the enormity of the challenges facing the profession and the way the industry now operates.

Even some of the business executives in news may have a sense of foreboding on the question of values and leadership. When asked about the growing trend of corporate buyouts of news companies by larger conglomerates, a majority of executives now feel this is “having a negative effect on journalism.”

The dilemma is whether both sets of values can coexist or if one will come to overwhelm the other. The resolution of this dilemma may determine the future of journalism in the public interest. The underlying questions here are: Which set of values will regain public trust? Are those the values that will survive? These questions lurk inside the details of this research.

No Clear Sense of the Public

There are signs here that neither journalists nor executives understand their audience all that well. The survey suggests that the thinking up and down about the problems with the public are not well conceived. In what appears to be a fundamental misreading of the public, when asked specifically why their audience is shrinking, journalists and executives most often cite is that citizens are overloaded with information. But this directly contradicts what the public itself believes.

Actually, only slightly more than a quarter of Americans cite information overload as a factor in their media decisions according to past research by the Pew Center For the People & the Press. What’s more, blaming loss of audience on information overload is inconsistent with the rest of the concerns that journalists and executives make throughout this survey. It is as if they really believe the issue of their future is beyond their control. For if they believe journalism is about providing people with information they need, and truly believe that people already have too much information, there is an impasse here. What are journalists left to do?

At the very least, this response points to the same potential problem as the argument over quality and credibility that pervades so much of the survey responses. Perhaps more importantly, if journalists are right that their profession is changing in ways that alienate the audience, and if both journalists and executives so basically disagree with the public about why the audience is shrinking, it raises a crucial question about the nature and the quality of the market research guiding journalism for the past decade. Does the press really have a strong sense of where its audience is going? Why would it embark on a path that journalists–and even many news managers–believe is alienating the public but executives believe is not? Why would both sides believe information overload so great an issue when the public disagrees?

And how do you square these misunderstandings between the public and the press, and the newsrooms and their senior management, with the fact that there is so strong a consensus between newsrooms and senior management and executives about what journalism is supposed to be?

Generational Differences

As the trend of journalistic self-examination goes forward–and it is probably more sustained and focused now than ever before–there is an important new factor increasingly involved in the debate. Younger journalists, it appears, have a stronger sense of the ethical dilemmas they face than their elders. They are less sanguine about the efforts of their news organizations to address ethics, and more likely to want them to do more. This clearly puts them closer to where the public is about the ethics and fairness of the press. This is a good sign and may bode well for the future.

There are interesting implications, too, that these younger journalists are prepared to reshape the journalism of the future recorded here in the fact that Internet journalists are less committed to the idea of neutrality than others, but are no less committed to the principles of independence, accuracy, fairness, or public mission. This raises the tantalizing possibility that journalism in the future will be able to be more subjective and have more voice and personality, without any diminution in commitment to the more widely held core principles. This alone may be a first step in addressing the problems of audience and credibility. It bears watching.

Warning Signs

As if to balance the scale, however, there are clear signs of trouble. Journalists of all categories–save one–dislike the influence of prime time magazines, which have become the preeminent profit engine for network television. This suggests that as these programs become more important, they will further change the thinking and ethos inside the network news divisions–and apparently not for the better. Even network journalists dislike the influence of these programs.

The one group not troubled by the rise of the prime time magazines are those in local TV. Local television increasingly is adopting many of the story-telling devices and limited definitions of what is news that dominate these magazine programs. A study by the Project For Excellence in Journalism in 1998 found that these network magazine programs concentrated on personality, crime, health and consumer news to the exclusion of education, economics, government, foreign affairs and most of the traditional subjects of public debate. Yet given that local television is the most watched and influential source of news in America, it raises questions about the values that will guide this critical form of journalism in the future.

A Profession At a Cross Road

This study, then, paints a picture of an industry aware it is at a cross roads. Journalists have come to agree with their critics and are embarking on self examination that is a likely first step to change. That change is evident already in the various efforts at “reform” and “reflection” going on in journalism. The Committee of Concerned Journalists is only one of those efforts. There are signs that the core notions of journalism are still widely held–and shared among generations. But there are signs of confusion and conflict within news organizations about the public and what is wrong with the profession. There is reason to question the basis on which decisions are being made in news organizations today.

This survey suggests that journalists should concern themselves less with questionable market research about information overload and focus on what the majority recognize as the core problem–the credibility of their work.

It is necessary but not sufficient that news executives and newsroom personnel hold a common view of the principles of journalism. Those principles need to be evident in their work. In the new information environment, the value of journalism versus entertainment, gossip or promotion is only meaningful if those values are applied in clear, constant and recognizable manner. If they are not, it is not clear they will survive, or whether the public will think they are anything more than lip service.

Bill Kovach, a newspaperman for 30 years, is curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University and the chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists.
Tom Rosenstiel, a long time press critic, is director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and vice chair of the Committee. Amy Mitchell is associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.