As is the essence of our profession, journalists’ careers often center largely around gauging public opinion and giving the “everyman” a voice on any number of issues, from something as macro as the war in Iraq, to something as tragically close to home as the deadly Jan. 10 La Conchita mudslide.
But when it comes to public opinion about journalism and the respectability of those who practice the craft, journalists are often viewed in lower esteem than are the practitioners of just about any other field.
A Feb. 13 Los Angeles Times “Media Matters” column reported the results of a Gallup poll that asked U.S. citizens what they thought about the levels of honesty and ethics adhered to in a variety of professions. Dishearteningly, journalists ranked behind nurses, teachers, clergy, judges, state and local office holders, and even auto mechanics. Furthermore, only 20 percent of respondents said they considered journalists to possess high ethical standards.
The article also reported, however, that in a written test conducted by Lee Wilkins of the University of Missouri and Renita Coleman of Louisiana State University, 259 journalists nationwide scored higher on a written, scenario-based ethics test than did nurses, business professionals, orthopedic surgeons, Naval servicemembers, college students, and the overall adult population.
Though the results of these tests are by no means all-encompassing or universally definitive, this blatant disconnect between public perception and reality is frustrating, although not entirely surprising, since those who hold these critical views are likely ignorant as to what real “journalism” entails, at least by the standards myself and other journalists have been taught.
In the 1970s, journalists were held in a notably higher esteem due to the uncovering of the Watergate scandal, as well as the disclosure of the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the administration had mislead the public about the government’s objectives in Vietnam.
But following this period rose a more destructive trend of self-centeredness and superficiality in which ruthless paparazzi and smutty entertainment reports, television “news” shows like “Today,” so-called “journalists” like Katie Couric, and the currently despicable “blog” fad inaccurately came to be considered as examples of journalism.
With norms like these, it is no wonder citizens think so little of journalism and are quick to mislabel us, critical of a practice they cannot accurately define.
And while recent events like the Jayson Blair plagiarism stink bomb and Dan Rather’s departing scandal at CBS are certainly examples of journalistic ethics gone awry, they are but isolated examples that do not accurately reflect the ethics the majority of everyday journalists adhere to.
But perhaps the reason citizens are so quick to pounce on these examples is because they simply want to believe these types of incidents reflect our ethics as a group, thus giving them an excuse to discredit reporting that uncovers genuine wrongdoing, especially at the governmental level.
I find it astounding that in my classes and throughout society in general, I am surrounded by those who are not informed about current events, and cannot for the life of them identify key public officials and figures that decide governmental policy. Yet they are the most vocal in criticizing the “media,” and in telling me I should simply “believe what our president says.”
As a journalist, the farthest desire from my mind is simply to play “gotcha” with public entities or be critical simply for the sake of being critical. However, because I am informed about the issues, I will not shy away from asking questions or pointing out wrongdoing when and if it is necessary.
Just as a doctor is more qualified to question or identify uncertainties involving a medical procedure than is the average lay citizen, journalists may appear more questioning and thus seem “critical” of the administration simply because it is our job and in our nature.
But even so, when government wrongdoing is reported, it seems it is not the government that is slammed but the journalists for daring to report it, as occurred when the press reported the administration’s false declaration of WMDs in Iraq.
An additional recent survey by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation that was published in Time magazine frighteningly reported that 36 percent of U.S. high school students believe journalists should have to receive government approval before publishing a story. Despite the First Amendment implications of such beliefs, it is frightening to consider that even high school students have already been so infiltrated with misconceptions about journalists.
Had journalists been required to seek government approval regarding these stories and countless others, including Watergate, the wrongdoing and manipulation of our public officials and industries would never have been uncovered.
During a classroom lecture, my photojournalism instructor recently referred to journalism as a “humanistic endeavor,” as he stressed the vitality of remaining humble.
One of my instructors recently referred to journalism as a “humanistic endeavor,” and to me, this is what it means to practice journalism. It is not about an anchor in spiffy clothes or an angry citizen on a blog rant.
It is about telling a story, and making people think and become aware about issues, from the lighthearted to the life-altering.
It is about telling the truth and being informed to the best of one’s ability. It is about wanting to know and about being a cynic and an idealist all at once.
Quite simply, there are still those of us who practice journalism because we believe in it, regardless of whether the majority of Americans believe in us.