March 17, 2008

Financial Woes Now Overshadow All Other Concerns for Journalists

Section III: The State of Journalism and Views on Performance

Reporters, editors and executives at national news organizations have become considerably more pessimistic about the state of their profession since 2004. By roughly two-to-one (62%-32%), more national journalists say that journalism is going in the wrong direction rather than the right direction. In 2004, 51% said things were going in the wrong direction while 43% gave a positive assessment.

National TV and radio journalists, who expressed very negative views of the state of journalism in 2004, have become gloomier. Currently, 69% say that journalism is going in the wrong direction, up from 61% in 2004.

As a group, local news executives, editors and reporters offer a more upbeat assessment of journalism. Still, a slight plurality of local journalists (49%) says things are going in the wrong direction.

Nearly six-in-ten editors and reporters (58%) at local news organizations say journalism is going in the wrong direction, compared with just 32% of local news executives. Roughly two-thirds of national editors and reporters (68%) say things are going in the wrong direction, compared with 48% of senior editors.

Changing Perceptions of Press Problems

Reflecting the impact of the financial crisis facing the news business, the top concerns expressed by journalists have changed dramatically in recent years. More than twice as many national and local journalists now cite a financial issue as the most important problem facing journalism than cite any other concern. The problems that were mentioned frequently in 1999 and 2004 — particularly concerns over the quality of coverage and the loss of credibility with the public — are cited far less frequently today.

Currently, just 22% of national journalists and 21% of local journalists cite quality concerns as the biggest problems facing journalism, down from 41% and 33%, respectively, in 2004.

The decline in the proportions of national and local journalists citing credibility issues has been even more striking. Just 9% of national journalists mention the loss of credibility as the biggest problem confronting journalism today; more than triple that percentage cited credibility in 1999 and 2004 (30% and 28%, respectively). There has been a comparable decline in the percentage of local journalists citing credibility concerns (from 34% in 1999 to 23% in 2004, and 9% currently).

Valid Criticisms of the Press

Substantial proportions of national and local journalists across media say the criticism that news organizations have cut back too much on the scope of coverage is a valid one. More than eight-in-ten internet (85%) and national journalists (82%) say this represents a legitimate criticism of the press, as do 73% of local journalists.

Comparably large percentages say the complaint that the press pays too little attention to complex issues represents a valid criticism. In addition, 64% of national journalists, 60% of internet journalists and 54% of local journalists say that the distinction between reporting and commentary has seriously eroded.

Smaller percentages say that other criticisms made of the press — that journalists let their ideological views influence reporting or that news reports are rife with factual errors — are valid. Fewer than four-in-ten believe that journalists let ideology show in their reporting too frequently, while smaller percentages agree with the criticism concerning factual errors and sloppy reporting.

During the 1990s, the critique that the press is “too cynical” was widely regarded as valid by national and local journalists. In both 1995 and 1999, majorities in both groups agreed with this criticism. However, the proportion of journalists saying this criticism is valid declined in 2004, and has fallen again in the current survey. Currently, just 27% of national journalists and 31% of those who work at local news outlets say the criticism that that the press is too cynical is valid.

Journalism’s Strengths

Many journalists continue to mention the quality and timeliness of news coverage when asked what the press is doing especially well, while a growing proportion cites the press’s adaptation to the Web as a journalistic strength. In 2004, this was mentioned relatively infrequently as something the press did particularly well.

More than one-in-five local journalists (22%) now cite the way in which the press is adapting to the internet as something journalism does especially well, up from just 2% in 2004. The proportion of national journalists mentioning this as a journalistic strength has more than tripled since 2004, from 5% to 17%. National print journalists are more likely than their colleagues in radio and television to point to adaptation to the Web as a particularly positive development in journalism (22% vs. 11%).

Overall, about as many national and local journalists now cite the press’s adaptation to the Web as a strength as mention the quality of coverage and timeliness and speed, which were cited most frequently in 2004. In addition, 27% of internet journalists point to the adaptation to the Web as a particular strength of journalism, far more than the proportion citing any other factor.

A number of journalists also cite the press’s watchdog role as a journalistic strength. Notably, the proportion of local journalists pointing to the watchdog role as something the press is doing particularly well has more than doubled since 2004, from 7% to 16%. Most of the increase has come among local print journalists; 23% of local journalists now cite the watchdog role of the press as something journalism is doing especially well, compared with 9% in 2004. Far fewer local TV journalists cite the watchdog role as a journalistic strength (9% today, 5% in 2004).

Somewhat fewer internet journalists mention the press’s watchdog role as a strength of journalism compared with national or local journalusts. At the same time, 15% of internet journalists point to public accessibility as something journalism does particularly well; just 4% of national journalists and 3% of local journalists mention public accessibility as something journalism does especially well.

Shared Values?

Most executives and senior editors at national news organizations (55%) believe that the reporters at their outlets share “a great deal” of their professional values. By contrast, just 30% of reporters and less-senior editors say that owners and top editors at their organizations share a great deal of their professional values.

Compared with national news executives and senior editors, fewer of those in the top ranks at local and internet news organizations say that reporters in their
organizations share their professional values. In addition, just 23% of local line editors and reporters say that the owners and top editors at their news organizations share their professional values.

Striking the Balance

As in previous surveys, journalists are divided over how well the press does in striking a balance between what audiences want to know and what is important for them to know. Currently, 40% of national journalists say journalism has done a good or excellent job in striking this balance, while 60% say the profession does only a fair or poor job in this regard. In 2004, 50% of national journalists gave journalism good marks for striking the balance between what people want to know and what they need to know. The current measure is in line with opinion among national journalists in 2000 (37% excellent/good).

Half of local journalists say the profession has done well in striking the balance between what people want and need in the way of information, which is largely unchanged from past surveys. Internet journalists express about the same views as do national journalists (40% positive/59% negative).

Views of Iraq, Bush Coverage

Journalists express mixed views of press coverage of the war in Iraq. Those working at national news organizations, which are responsible for nearly all war coverage, offer the most favorable assessments. Nearly six-in-ten national journalists (58%) rate Iraq coverage as excellent or good, while 42% say it is only fair or poor.

About as many local journalists rate Iraq coverage negatively as positively (49% excellent/good vs. 51% only fair/poor). In addition, a solid majority of internet journalists (62%) give a negative assessment of coverage of the war.

Most national and internet journalists say that the press has not been critical enough in the way that it has covered the Bush administration. Majorities in both groups — 54% of national journalists and 57% of internet journalists — say the press has gone too easy on the Bush administration. By contrast, just 41% of local journalists believe the press has not been critical enough in its coverage of the administration. Opinions about the way the press has covered Bush have changed little since 2004.

Journalists’ Ideology

As was the case in 2004, majorities of the national and local journalists surveyed describe themselves as political moderates; 53% of national journalists and 58% of local journalists say they are moderates. About a third of national journalists (32%), and 23% of local journalists, describe themselves as liberals. Relatively small minorities of national and local journalists call themselves conservatives (8% national, 14% local).

Internet journalists as a group tend to be more liberal than either national or local journalists. Fewer than half (46%) call themselves moderates, while 39% are self-described liberals and just 9% are conservatives.

Among the population as a whole, 36% call themselves conservatives — more than triple the percentage of national and internet journalists, and more than double the percentage of local journalists. About four-in-ten (39%) characterize their political views as moderate, while 19% are self-described liberals, based on surveys conducted in 2007 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.