Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Journalists Out of Touch?

Are journalists out of touch with today's readers? It's a question I sometimes secretly asked myself when I was on staff at Auburn University's award-winning newspaper, The Auburn Plainsman. Not that I thought the Plainsman, which is run by completely amazing AU students, always had that problem (although at times...) but it exposed me to the larger world of professional journalists and the omnipresent problem of the sinking number of Americans who regularly read newspapers. That problem is usually blamed on the rise of the Internet, 24/7 news and our give-it-to-me-now culture.

This morning, as I was reading the paper and drinking my coffee, I came across a column on the Op-Ed page by Cal Thomas. He addressed this question by examining the findings of "The State of the News Media 2006," a report by the nonpartisan research group Project for Excellence in Journalism. Thomas made several good points, but what most struck me was that the report found a marked disparity between journalists' values and the general public's. To list a few:
--6% of journalists believe faith in God is necessary to be moral, compared with 58% of the general public
--34% of journalists describe themselves as "liberal", compared with 20% of the public
--only 7% of journalists say they are "conservative," (big surprise there) but 33% of the public describe themselves as "conservative."

As a moderate conservative, I always felt in the minority at the newspaper, even though Auburn University (in southern Alabama, right smack in the Bible belt) has a remarkably conservative campus, as universities go. Funnily enough, the Plainsman is viewed, I think, by its collegiate counterparts as relatively conservative. In Thomas's column, he says the problem with journalism isn't soley based on the popularity of the Internet; many consumers see journalists--and consequently the publications they represent--as being out of touch with their views.

Finally, some validation! I have a deep love of newspapers and the journalistic profession and journalists themselves (even though according to polls they rank somewhere just above used-car salesmen and politicians--yet another sad fact about the profession) but the feeling among journalists today seems to be that to be a good, hard-hitting journalist you have to be liberal. And that's not only unfair, but it's just plain wrong. The right-leaning Fox News is seen by most other journalists as "biased" but these same journalists find it hard pressed to label any other media outlet as "biased" toward the liberal side. That's another point the report made: "Most liberals don't see a liberal point of view."

Thomas noted: "It's revealing how out of touch journalists are with the people they are supposed to be serving when less than a quarter of the liberal journalists could name a news organization that is 'especially' liberal, but 79 percent could name a conservative outlet. The 7 percent of conservative journalists had an easier time naming conservative and liberal outlets (68 percent for both)."

If that isn't telling, I don't know what is. "Journalist" and "conservative" are not mutually exclusive. For newspapers to revive their dwindling numbers, part of their solution must be to get back in touch with their readers. I don't mean we need to tell readers only what they want to hear, but papers will have to begin maintaining an ideological balance in the newsroom.

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