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Media & Society
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Journalists Think Everyone Supports The Values That Drive Our Work. It Turns Out, Not So Much.

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Amber Brockman
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We journalists tend to believe we’re the good guys. We’re the only profession with specific protections written right into the very first amendment of the Constitution.

We comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We stand for Truth, Justice and the American Way (Is it a coincidence that Superman’s alter-ego Clark Kent was a mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper?).

Sure, we know that in surveys about admired and trusted lines of work, journalists customarily rate near the bottom of the list, somewhere between used car salesmen and members of Congress. And we all know of egregious abuses of the power of the press that we like to blame for those low approval ratings.

But in general, we tend to see journalism as a higher civic calling, speaking truth to power, shining a light where it’s most needed. The motto on the masthead of the Washington Post says it all: “Democracy Dies In Darkness.” And we like to think our fellow citizens support the values that guide our work.

What are those values? Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan recently characterized them this way:

Oversight. We’re the watchdogs keeping an eye on government officials and other powerful people and institutions.

Transparency. We believe it’s best to put information out in the open, not keep it hidden.

Factuality. It’s crucial to provide as much accurate information as possible to get to the truth.

Spotlighting wrongdoing. We think society’s problems are best solved by exposing them to public criticism.

Giving a voice to the voiceless. It’s our job to advocate for those lacking power or social standing.

I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a reputable journalist who didn’t see this as, at the least, an aspirational expression of our touchstones as a professional culture. The official Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists leans heavily on exactly these values.

But according to research recently released by the Media Insight Project, it seems most Americans don’t believe those values to be all that valuable.

As the researchers put it, “When journalists say they are just doing their jobs … the problem is many people harbor doubts about what the job should be.”

Some major findings of the report:

  • Only one of the five core journalism values tested has support of a majority of Americans: the idea that more facts get us closer to the truth (67% of adults support this).
  • There is least support for the idea that a good way to make society better is to spotlight its problems. Only 29% agree.
  • Only 11% of Americans fully support all five of the journalism values tested.
  • But support for these journalism values does not break cleanly around party or ideology. Instead, there is a link to differences in moral instincts, which cut across demographics and ideology.
  • People who most value loyalty and authority are much less likely than others to endorse the idea that there should be a watchdog over those in power.
  • Americans who most value care and fairness, meanwhile, are more likely to think society should amplify the voices of the less powerful.

Like Margaret Sullivan, my initial inclination was to push away these findings. I feel deeply that these guiding journalistic values have proven their worth over many decades. I can point to many cases—from the iconic Watergate investigation all the way down to an exposé I did years ago of a shady developer on a small island in Washington State -- where adherence to these principals has led to positive changes, in law, in policy and in social attitudes.

But the inescapable fact is that public trust in the mainstream media is low, and falling. A Gallup poll from last September found: Four in 10 U.S. adults say they have “a great deal” (9%) or “a fair amount” (31%) of trust and confidence in the media to report the news “fully, accurately, and fairly,” while six in 10 have “not very much” trust (27%) or “none at all” (33%).

And while the news media have never been terribly popular (the human tendency to shoot the messenger who brings bad tidings goes way back), the total percentage of people in the “trust a great deal/a fair amount” categories has dropped pretty steadily from a high of 55% in 1999 to 40% now.

The key finding that most surprised me was that political ideology turns out not to be the major alienating factor we’ve thought it was. It seems that certain types of people hold certain types of values, and that those moral instincts, more than partisan considerations, were the dividing line in their support—or lack of it—for the way journalists define our jobs.

So, who are these people and how do their moral instincts influence how they view what journalism should be?

I’ll pick up that thread in my column in the next issue of the Jefferson Journal, when I look at what the Media Insight Project says journalists can do to bridge this values gap.