Public esteem for journalists sinking. Why?

Public esteem for journalists sinking. Why? July 11, 2013

I’m not ashamed to say that I love journalism. I’m elated that I get to work in this field and I love the work I get to do. I have high regard for the good that journalists’ accomplish, this week providing just one example. You can’t be a media critic without being aware of the downsides. Heck, it’s my job to look at problems with media coverage. And yet still, I am so very thankful for newspapers and media outlets that tell us about the world around us. When I read a story about an event or an interview, I try to remember what a blessing it is that someone was there and took the time to tell me about it.

But the fact is that public esteem for journalists is sinking. The Pew Research Center asks Americans about the contributions to society of various groups:

While there have been modest declines in public appreciation for several occupations, the order of the ratings is roughly the same as it was in 2009. Among the 10 occupations the survey asked respondents to rate, lawyers are at the bottom of the list. About one-in-five Americans (18%) say lawyers contribute a lot to society, while 43% say they make some contribution; fully a third (34%) say lawyers contribute not very much or nothing at all.

Compared with the ratings four years ago, journalists have dropped the most in public esteem. The share of the public saying that journalists contribute a lot to society is down 10 percentage points, from 38% in 2009 to 28% in 2013. The drop is particularly pronounced among women (down 17 points). About as many U.S. adults now say journalists contribute “not very much” or “nothing at all” to society (27%) as say they contribute a lot (28%).

The change in public perception of journalists is particularly noticeable and Pew looks into it:

The decline in public views about journalists’ contribution to society since 2009 is more pronounced among women than men. Roughly three-in-ten women (29%) say journalists contribute a lot to society’s well-being, down 17 percentage points from 46% in 2009. Men’s views on this are about the same today as they were in 2009.

The decline in the perceived contribution of journalists cuts across partisan leanings, age and education level. Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents as well as Republicans and Republican-leaning independents all are less likely to say journalists contribute a lot to society’s well-being today (down 8 points among Republicans/leaning Republicans and 10 points among Democrats/leaning Democrats).

Unfortunately, we don’t know why the public holds journalists in such low esteem. I have my own theories, but I wonder what you think? And what are your own views on journalists’ contributions to society? What are some highs and lows you’ve witnessed?

GetReligion readers will likely also be interested in another part of the survey:

Middling Assessments of Clergy’s Contribution

The perceived contribution of the clergy varies widely across religious groups. White evangelical Protestants are especially positive in their assessments; roughly half (52%) say clergy contribute a lot to society. Hispanic Catholics are less glowing; about three-in-ten (28%) say that clergy contribute a lot to society.

As expected, U.S. adults who have no religious affiliation are less likely to see the clergy as contributing to society. A fifth of the unaffiliated say clergy contribute a lot, while 39% say clergy make some contribution and 31% of the unaffiliated say clergy contribute not very much or nothing at all to society.

Those who attend worship services more frequently are more positive about the clergy. Among adults who attend services at least weekly, about half (52%) say the clergy contribute a lot to the well-being of society. This compares with about three-in-ten (29%) among those who attend services less often.

This pattern holds among most religious groups that are sufficiently large to be analyzed separately. White evangelical Protestants, white mainline Protestants, white (non-Hispanic) Catholics and black Protestants who attend services weekly express more positive views of the clergy than do members of each religious group who attend services less often. The exception is Hispanic Catholics; there is little difference between the views of Hispanic Catholics who attend church weekly and those who attend less often. In addition, Hispanic Catholics are less likely than other major U.S. religious groups to express an opinion about the contribution of clergy to society.


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  • Matthew Jamison

    I see a lot of very popular websites that tend to use snark, slang and profanity in order to advance an agenda without making cogent arguments or delivering any new information. Then I see mainstream journalists imitating them, especially on social media. In my opinion, bad writing is a symptom of bad thinking. Journalists should know and do better.

  • Chas S. Clifton

    I encountered journalistic group-think when I was a young reporter in the early 1980s. But back then you had to be an insider to see how insidious and pervasive it was.

    Now the Internet makes it obvious. For example, *one* Russian legislator tweets that Edward Snowden is going to Venezuela and *instantly* that news is trumpeted by all kinds of news services (such as Reuters), news sites and so on.

    Shortly afterwards, the tweet is deleted. Was it really true? Have we really learned anything? What we learned is that reporters think that Twitter is a valid news source that saves them having to develop their own sources. And that reporters run in packs, if only virtually.

  • Ben

    Thanks for the link to that Tamba Bay Times article, Mollie.

  • FW Ken

    Well, what about respect for survey takers? Who simplify to the point of worthlessness?

    How about: good clergy vs. bad clergy? good lawyers vs. bad lawyers? good journalists vs. bad journalists? Yes, I know those are qualitative issues, but finding out what people like or dislike in various professions might actually yield usable data.

    The shameless partisan campaigning of the media in 2012 disgusts me. The shameless by-passing of the various scandals since 9/11/12 disgusts me. The shameless shilling that is functionally pro-abortion (not “pro-abortion rights”) and pro-same-sex marriage disgusts me. But that the media business, not “journalism”.

  • Three points here: 1) Found myself wondering why “politician” wasn’t among the professions surveyed; I think we all know where that would have wound up, 2) I found the tepid numbers for clergy more notable than for journalists; much to ponder and be concerned about there, methinks, and 3) These surveys always have a kind of built-in “abstraction bias,” where respondents reflect an antipathy to a class in general—”Politicians are fools, lawyers are knaves, ministers are hypocrites (except for MY politician and MY lawyer and MY minister).” So, while instructive, such surveys require a grain of salt as well as we reflect on their results.

  • Kristen inDallas

    Speaking to the 17% drop among women, if enough journalists think it’s okay to make the sweeping generalization that most women are pro-choice liberals (or else brainwashed by their husbands)… then it doesn’t really surprise me that a large chunk of women are going to start thinking it’s okay to make the sweeping generalization that most reporters are idiots.

  • Thinkling

    OK OK, I know this has nothing to do with this study, or even religion. But the San Francisco FOX affiliate just laid the mother of all journalistic eggs in a story about the plane crash there last week.

    Words fail me.