Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Americans’ esteem for journalism, professions falls

This column appeared in some west-central Illinois newspapers early this week.

By Bill Knight
People don’t become journalists to become rich or popular. It’s mostly a calling to let others know what’s going on – whether grade-school science fairs, local tax proposals, area sports or world-wide conservation.

Still, some college students are stunned when they see Gallup’s annual poll gauging people’s opinion of various professions’ ethics and honesty. The most recent one again shows journalists in the middle of a list of dozens of professions – from the appreciation of nurses (83% say they’re “high” or “very high” in honesty and ethical standards) to the disdain for lobbyists (just 5%). But the numbers can be shocking to a 21-year-old undergrad dreaming of covering crime, business or rock ‘n’ roll for print, broadcast, the web or some other future medium.

It explains the comment by a friend who used to work at the Boston Globe, when he heard that my college-age son might major in journalism: “God, no – couldn’t he just run a meth lab or something?”

Less genuine shame than a sort of newsroom gallows humor, such remarks can hide four key points concerning public opinion about journalists – and other professions.

First, most folks’ opinions about journalists – or “the media,” which could describe anyone from Ann Coulter and Michael Moore to area radio sportscasters and your hometown newspaper editor – are based on impressions they get from (you guessed it) the media. In novels and plays, movies and TV shows, even comic books and, yes, poetry, journalists are usually stereotyped to be virtuous, villainous or callous to serve the plot. (In decades of working as a journalist, for instance, I’ve never seen the cinematic device of a horde of unfeeling hacks shouting “How do you feel?” to some shocked witness, widow or other troubled innocent.)

Still, many people regard reporters as panderers of lies for profit, invaders of privacy, or water carriers for Authority – unless they happen to know a journalist. Then, their overall opinions may not change, but journalists people know from the neighborhood or church or bowling are treated like Congressional incumbents. Voters don’t much like Congress – except their own representative, which accounts for most politicians’ re-elections. People might even concede that the journalist they know practices the profession’s ethical code, which generally holds that journalists seek the truth and report it fully, act independently, be accountable and minimize harm. Still, that’s explained as the exception proving their opinion.

The second point is that most people associate journalists with disturbing content. A variation of the “blame the messenger” impulse, criticizing journalists for reporting on a lousy war, a slipping economy, a hometown loss or a pal’s DUI is like hating car salespeople because your vehicle needed a valve job after 150,000 miles. Bad news, sure, but some salesperson’s fault?

The other two points are a bit worrisome for the press but deeply troubling for society. Besides the tepid enthusiasm for journalists (23% “high” or “very high” esteem -- 12th out of 22 professions), there’s an eagerness to dislike journalists (26% say “low” or “very low” – the 9th worst). People seem more eager to dislike others.

Lastly, people’s opinions are uniformly trending negative, comparing the new poll to earlier ones. Every single profession previously measured, from the upper ranks (pharmacists: 71% “high” or “very high”) to the lower levels (advertising practitioners: 5%) has dropped. Clergy, physicians and Congressional representatives all fell 5% in a year.

People’s lost respect for the professions seems unhealthy – even if they’ve transferred that admiration to occupations such as the building trades, software engineers or other jobs.

As for aspiring journalists: You want to be popular? Consider nursing. You want to be rich? Think about being a lobbyist.

But neither one will let you tell your community stories about local heroes, shenanigans in Springfield, corporate corruption or the high school play.

For Gallup’s poll, go to

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"Shield law" on back burner in Senate

The Free Flow of Information Act (national shield law legislation) passed in the Senate Judiciary Committee in October 2007, and the National Association of Broadcasters is now urging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to bring the bill to a vote in the full Senate.

In a January 28 letter to Reid, Rehr says of the bill, which would set standards for when federal courts can and cannot force journalists to reveal their sources, "This legislation will help ensure the flow of important information to all Americans by allowing journalists to protect the identity of their confidential sources."

Rehr continues, "Broadcast journalists take seriously their responsibility of serving every local community with timely news and information. This bipartisan legislation strikes a careful balance between ensuring citizens stay informed and honoring the public interest in having reporters testify about their sources in certain carefully defined situations."

Those situations would include disclosures that could prevent imminent terrorist action or significant harm to national security. Rehr notes that 33 states and the District of Columbia have shield laws in place already, and 16 other states have recognized reporters' privilege in court cases. "However," he says, "there is no uniform set of standards in federal courts to govern when testimony about sources may be sought from reporters."

The House approved a companion bill in October, and Rehr is requesting Reid's support in bringing the bill, with its current language in place, to a vote in the Senate.
-- from Radio Ink magazine.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Ordinary people doing extraordinary journalism -- from Iraq

While too many mainstream news organizations are cutting back on foreign correspondents and war reporters in Iraq understandably are limited in their access, a “citizen news” operation continues to cover Iraq on the ground and win a few journalism awards as it does: Alive in Baghdad.

Here’s a good, short segment on how hard it is for regular Iraqis to get gasoline in a country with substantial oil -

This week, they had a decent feature on goldsmiths still operating. For it and its video archive, click here --

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Newsroom values eroding: survey

A survey being compiled by the University of Maryland for The Newspaper Guild labor union shows dramatic drops in key press values, according to journalists surveyed for a "Future of News Jobs" survey planned for publication in the next issue of the American Journalism Review.

The top three values when respondents started their newsroom jobs were accuracy, credibility and timeliness, the survey finds. Now, however, "making a profit" is the overwhelming value, at 96.3%, followed by a distant second, "attracting an audience," at 73.2%.

The Guild Reporter's short news story can be viewed here --