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Manufacturing Consent, VII: The Media As Seen By Journalists

Home_____While their worries are changing, the problems that journalists see with their profession in many ways seem more intractable than they did a few years ago.

News people feel better about some elements of their work. But they fear more than ever that the economic behavior of their companies is eroding the quality of journalism.

In particular, they think business pressures are making the news they produce thinner and shallower. And they report more cases of advertisers and owners breaching the independence of the newsroom.

These worries, in turn, seem to have widened the divide between the people who cover the news and the business executives they work for.

The changes in attitude have come after a period in which news companies, faced with declining audiences and pressure on revenues, have in many cases made further cuts in newsgathering resources.

There are also alarming signs that the news industry is continuing the short-term mentality that some critics contend has undermined journalism in the past. Online news is one of the few areas seeing general audience growth today, yet online journalists more often than any others report their newsrooms have suffered staff cuts.

Only five years earlier, news people were much more likely to see failures of their own making as more of an issue. Since then, they have come to feel more in touch with audiences, less cynical and more embracing of new technology. In other words, journalists feel they have made progress on the areas that they can control in the newsroom.

While feeling closer to audiences, however, news people also have less confidence in the American public to make wise electoral decisions, a finding that raises questions about the kind of journalism they may produce in the future.

There are also signs that the people who staff newsrooms, at least at the national level, tend to describe themselves as more liberal than in the past. . . .

What Journalists Are Worried About

Sizable majorities of journalists (66% nationally and 57% locally) think "increased bottom line pressure is seriously hurting the quality of news coverage." That is a dramatic increase from five years ago, when fewer than half in the news business felt this way.

And their concerns may be justified. The State of the News Media 2004 report produced by the Project for Excellence in Journalism in March found that most sectors of the news media have seen clear cutbacks in newsgathering resources. The number of newspaper newsroom staffers shrunk by 2,000 between 2000 and 2004, a drop of 4% overall. Some major online news sites saw much deeper cuts, such as MSNBC, which cut around a quarter of its staff between 2001 and 2003. Radio newsroom staffing declined by 57% from 1994 to 2001. After an uptick in 1999, network staffing began to drop again in 2000. Since 1985 the number of network news correspondents has declined by 35 percent while the number of stories per reporter increased by 30 percent. . . .

There are also signs that the economic influences on the news business have become more pernicious. Five years ago we found that financial pressure in the newsroom was "not a matter of executives or advertisers pressuring journalists about what to write or broadcast." It was more subtle than that.

Unfortunately, that is less true today. Now a third of local journalists say they have felt such pressure, most notably from either advertisers or from corporate owners. In other words, one of the most dearly held principles of journalism--the independence of the newsroom about editorial decision-making--increasingly is being breached. Nationally, journalists are more than twice as likely as executives to say bottom line pressure is eroding journalistic quality. The divide exists at the local level as well but not as drastically.

Whatever the reasons for this, unless staffers and bosses can agree on first describing what is going on in the company and then agree on its impact, it seems doubtful they could agree on how to deal with it.

Specific Areas of Concern

Beyond cutbacks and pressure to help advertisers or corporate siblings, journalists have other worries as well. Five years ago, people in the news business shared two overriding concerns. As we said back then, "They believe that the news media have blurred the lines between news and entertainment and that the culture of argument is overwhelming the culture of reportingConcerns about punditry overwhelming reporting, for instance, have swelled dramatically in only four years."

Today, the concerns are more varied and less easy to categorize. The worries about punditry are still there but they have diminished both nationally and especially locally.

A bigger issue now is a sense of shallowness. Roughly eight-in-ten in the news business feel the news media pay "too little attention to complex issues," up from five years ago to levels seen in the mid-1990s, at the peak of the fascination with tabloid crime stories like O.J. and JonBenet Ramsey. . . .

On the issue of accuracy, journalists seem divided. Nationally, the number of journalists who feel that news reports are increasingly sloppy and inaccurate is rising. Locally, it is dropping. . . .

Confidence in the Public

. . . It is also possible that journalists are leaping to another conclusion: They see the content of the news becoming shallower and conclude that this must be what the public wants or why else would their organizations be providing it? More (From The Pew Research Center For The People And The Press, Survey Report titled "Commentary: A Crisis of Confidence," no date, by Bill Kovach, Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell.)

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