By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING – These are tough times for American journalists.
Traditional newspaper, magazine and broadcast station staffs are shrinking. News outlets are cutting back on coverage, merging companies or – most drastically – folding. Nonprofit start-ups are emerging and doing high-quality journalism but often struggle financially.
At the same time and amid a proliferation of alternative sources of “news” and even “facts,” there is a disturbing growth in public distrust of journalism’s bedrock commitment to democratic values of fairness, balance, ethics and accuracy.
Thus I was heartened by a new study from the nonprofit Pew Research Center that found most journalists are satisfied with their work and hold more positive attitudes than the public about their reporting.
I began my journalism career after law school and a stint as a congressional aide. That was in 1976, and I haven’t stopped loving the work and respecting the mission in the more than four decades since then.
“Many professions are challenging and those challenges often attract people to a particular career,” the Pew report says. “Journalism requires a tough skin, a curious intellect and a passion for supporting the principles of American democracy: free speech and independent dissemination of news and information.”
The report pinpointed “several specific areas of concern for journalists, including the future of press freedom, widespread misinformation, political polarization and the impact of social media.”
The study, based on a national survey of almost 12,000 journalists, found that 77% said they would pursue a journalism career again, that 75% are extremely proud or very proud of their work and that 70% are very or somewhat satisfied with their work.
“About half of journalists say their job has a positive impact on their emotional well-being, higher than the 34% who say it is bad for their emotional well-being,” the study said.
Journalists often face traumatic situations. That’s true not only when covering wars and violent conflicts, but also when reporting on crime, natural disasters, car crashes, pandemics and other common news events.
Journalists aren’t ostriches with heads in the sand. They are open-eyed to turbulence in the news media industry. For example, 71% said fabricated news and information pose a very big problem and 57% said they are extremely or very concerned about future restraints on press freedom.
The Pew study acknowledged that journalists and the overall American public disagree on how good a job they think news outlets do. That disparity is reflected in how well, poorly or accurately they feel journalists are when covering the most important stories, serving as watchdogs over elected officials, giving voice to the underrepresented and managing or correcting misinformation.
Journalists widely support another traditional journalistic norm: separating their personal views from their reporting, the study said.
“Roughly eight-in-10 journalists surveyed say journalists should do this, although there is far less consensus over whether journalists meet this standard,” it said. “Just over half think journalists are largely able to keep their views out of their reporting, while 43% say journalists are often unable to.”
For more than 20 years, I’ve been privileged to interview, train and work with journalists, journalism educators and journalism students around the world, many in the non-democracies that emerged after the Soviet Union collapsed.
They are brave professionals and future professionals who confront daily challenges far more daunting than their American counterparts.
To illustrate, the recent illegal police raid on the offices of a small Kansas weekly newspaper drew headlines and prime time broadcast reports across the country because it was such an outrageous – and unusual – event in the United States.
In contrast, journalists and news organizations in some countries where I work are targets of frequent arrests, police interrogations, financially ruinous libel awards, censorship, tax audits, threats and harassment, assaults, kidnappings, firings and even assassinations. Salaries are so low that many hold multiple jobs to make ends meet.
Their constitutions promise press freedom– counterparts to our First Amendment – but those are merely paper promises. People in those countries are understandably and justifiably suspicious of their news media and distrustful of what they report.
Skepticism, trust and credibility are major worries for the news industry here in the U.S. as well.
The Pew study observed, “Maintaining widespread journalistic credibility in a polarized climate can seem like an impossible task – and many journalists seem to recognize that. While three-quarters of journalists say that journalists largely agree on the basic facts of the news – even if they report on them in different ways – about half of journalists surveyed say it is not possible to report news that ‘nearly everyone finds accurate.’”
The challenge, then, becomes how our industry and its professional journalists regain public confidence in our integrity, our ethics and our foundational role in protecting and advancing the fundamental rights and values of a democratic society.
There are some promising signs involving students with career aspirations, however. At MSU’s School of Journalism, 667 undergraduates are enrolled in our journalism and digital storytelling majors, the most since at least 2010.
And a new national report from the Center for Community News at the University of Vermont found that up to 1,997 students in university-managed reporting programs such as MSU’s Capital News Service produced over 7,500 news stories in 2022 in partnership with up to 977 news media outlets.
“Students are playing a growing reporting role across the country,” the center observed.
Eric Freedman is a journalism professor at Michigan State University and director of Capital News Service.