March 30, 1999

Striking the Balance, Audience Interests, Business Pressures and Journalists’ Values

Section II. Professional Values and Motivations

Nearly all journalists and media executives say they are proud of what they do for a living, and they express general satisfaction with the values, leadership and ethics programs of their own news organizations. This may reflect some of the common motivations that draw people to journalism: writing, communicating and providing information to the public.

But despite an overall sense of shared professional values, divisions within the press emerge across markets and job types. The distinctions are clear when looking at whether news media professionals say that colleagues share their values “a great deal” or “a fair amount.” Generally, those at top levels of national news express more affinity for their staff’s values than do those in local news. But national news owners and upper level managers see themselves as sharing more with their staffs than the news staff says is so.

Fully 53% of national news executives and managers say that reporters in their organizations share their professional values a great deal; 38% of national news staff reciprocate this view. Among local news executives and managers, 30% say their staffs share their professional values a great deal; only 26% of local staff members feels similarly connected.

While the national news media express greater levels of shared professionalism than do their local counterparts, a sense of shared values is particularly weak among those working in national television news. In this group, less than half of the executives say they share a great deal of the professional values of the reporters in their organizations; just 29% of staff members say the same of the owners and top editors in their news organizations. This is significantly less than the 60% of national print executives who feel this tie, and the 47% of national print staff who express a strong connection to the top bosses.

Rating Quality of Leadership

Overall, most of the news media rate the quality of leadership in their own newsrooms as good, and a substantial minority give their leaders excellent marks. Fully 44% of those working in national news say their newsroom leadership is good and another 36% say it is excellent. Similarly, among local news organizations, 51% rate the quality of leadership in their newsroom as good and an additional 24% give their leaders top marks.

Those closest to leadership positions are the most complimentary. On the national level, news media executives are twice as likely as staff to rate their organization’s leadership as excellent (52% vs. 25%, respectively). On the local level, the gap is as great: By a ratio of 42%-to-13%, executives give leaders excellent marks. There are no significant differences in the way those working in print and broadcast view their leadership.

Dealing with Ethics

Most media professionals attest to the existence of a concerted effort to address ethical issues by their news organizations, and they express general satisfaction with such programs. Fully 81% of those working in national news, 72% of those in local news outlets and 79% of those involved in online news say that such ethics programs exist.

Not surprisingly, those responsible for creating or directing such programs are the most likely to report their existence. Almost all (98%) of national media executives and nearly as many (88%) executives in local news acknowledge a concerted program to address ethics. Somewhat smaller majorities of national and local news staff are aware of such ongoing efforts in their organizations (74% and 60%, respectively).

Despite these minor differences in perception as to the actual existence of ethics programs, both news media executives and working journalists generally agree on their evaluations of the current state of such programs. A majority of almost every group says that their newsroom’s current effort toward addressing ethics is about right. Staff members working in local news are the only group in which a majority expresses support for heightened efforts: 53% want more of an organized effort, compared to about one-third of those in higher positions or national markets.

Some of the greatest differences in attitudes toward ethical issues are generational in nature. Those under age 35 are the least likely to say there is an official program and the most likely to want more of an organized effort. The opposite is true for those age 55 and older: This group overwhelmingly acknowledges an on-going program and strongly supports the current level of effort.

Finally, when it comes to discussing specific ethical concerns, journalists working in both the national and local news media express a fair amount of trust in senior management. Over half of both national and local staff say they would turn to their immediate supervisor if they had a problem or question about ethics. This inclination is somewhat greater in the national print than the national television media. Approximately 20% of the news media say they would turn to top editors or producers and an equal percentage favor turning to their colleagues.

Why Are They in the Newsroom?

More than anything else, those in the news media say that being able to write or communicate for a living was a very important reason for entering journalism. Nearly as many identify the promise of an exciting career as critical to their choice of work, although somewhat more in the national media consider this a very important reason (62%) than in the local press (53%).

More than two-thirds of the news media say that providing people with information they need is a very important reason why journalists work in news.

“You can make a worthwhile contribution to society,” says the managing editor of a local newspaper.

A slim majority think that uncovering wrongdoing is very important to their colleagues. More members of the print press than television hold this view. More in national than local news say that being a witness to history is very important (55% vs. 36%).

“It’s a ringside seat to breaking news events of our time,” says a national newspaper reporter.

Nearly one-in-five members of the local television news media believe that their colleagues are motivated by a desire to become famous or well-known, compared to only 2% in local print.

Proud of What They Do

More than nine-in-ten journalists and news media executives say they feel proud when they meet someone for the first time and tell them where they work; less than 10% say they feel somewhat apologetic in this situation.

In a recent survey of government officials, fewer members of Congress (75%) and the senior executive service (81%) say they feel proud when they tell people what they do. However, just as many presidential appointees (92%) as journalists and media executives say they are proud of their work.1

  1. "Washington Leaders Wary of Public Opinion," The Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, April 1998.