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