First of all, I am not a journalist. I say that because of the respect I have for those who earnestly and diligently practice the discipline of journalism. I am a data visualization enthusiast and practitioner.
Over the past four years I have had the honor of meeting and working with hundreds of talented journalists from dozens of countries all over the world. As the product director of a technology platform called Tableau Public that has been used for award-winning data journalism, I have presented at their conferences, visited their newsrooms, taught in their college classes, and helped them create interactive data graphics for their articles.
Over and over again, in my interactions with these journalists I have been blown away by their passion and tenacity to tell the stories of our time.
An Honorable Practice Under Fire
Why am I writing this? Because both they and their practice are under attack, both in the country of my residence – the United States – and around the world. The sad truth is that from a global perspective, this is nothing new. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that since 1992, a confirmed 1,228 journalists have been killed as a result of their efforts to bring us the news, including 800 that have been murdered. The most common beats covered by victims? Politics, war, human rights and corruption. These victims shined the spotlight on the most egregious abuses in our world, and they paid the ultimate price for doing so:
These are the journalists who have paid the ultimate price, but others still living have also suffered. Scores have gone missing, others have been exiled from their homeland, and others have been thrown in jail. Last year alone, 259 journalists were imprisoned, including 81 in Turkey and 38 in China.
And when they put in long hours to publish a hard-hitting story, how do the people they are trying to inform thank them? By lambasting them and showering them with racist, sexist and abusive comments, particularly for women and minority writers according to a sobering analysis by the Guardian of their own comment threads.
This is a perilous, harrowing and sometimes thankless trade. The United States is not immune. Seven American journalists have been killed since 1992 with a confirmed motive, and two more were killed but the motive was not confirmed. The current attitudes towards journalists makes me feel like the situation is trending in the wrong direction.
Economic Pressures of Journalism
And to make it worse, they don’t exactly enjoy high levels of compensation in exchange for taking these inherent risks on our behalf. Payscale, a local online salary, benefits and compensation firm, reports that “pay for Journalists in the United States is very modest at just $39K per year…One-fourth of professionals in this line of work do not receive benefits; however, a fair number report medical coverage and over one-half claim dental coverage as well.”
The industry has been upside-down ever since their primary revenue stream – newspaper sales and classified ad proceeds, have greatly diminished in the internet era. There’s just not a lot of money to go around in the newsroom right now. And in case you’re wondering whether digital ad sales are making up for the shortfall in print ad revenue, they’re not, according to a Pew Research report on the State of the News Media in 2015:
It doesn’t stop there. Online job listings company CareerCast produces a “Jobs Rated Report” every year where it ranks 200 different professions in terms of work environment, stress, and hiring outlook. Do you know what has come in 200th out of 200 for three straight years? Newspaper Reporter. And in 2016, Broadcaster wasn’t far behind. It ranked 198th.
The Impact on Journalists
What is the impact of these troubling trends on journalists? I can tell you it’s not fun for them. Even the most talented are struggling. I have personally met Pulitzer Prize winning journalists who told me they haven’t gotten a raise in the eight straight years after winning the industry’s most prestigious award. So what are many journalists doing about it? More journalists than ever are switching to PR, often seeking “better job security and pay“. Do you know what the ratio of PR professionals to journalists in the US is? 4.6 to 1. There are now almost five times as many people in public relations as in journalism, so that says a great deal about the relative career prospects in these two subsections of communications.
I am not trying to say, however, that public relations is inherently bad. PR professionals work to help corporations grow, just like almost every other employee in the private sector, including me. It’s just that good journalists are serving the public good, and there’s something particularly noble about that endeavor. It’s a telling fact that our society doesn’t value that particular service nearly as much as it values other products and services.
But in spite of all of this negativity surrounding their profession, I’ve met many, many journalists over the past few years who aren’t going anywhere. What’s more, Payscale also reports that “most Journalists report high levels of job satisfaction.” Why? Because they believe in what they are doing, and that what they are doing is serving a critical role in the best interests of the public good.
On Accusations of “Fake News”
It’s precisely because of their tenacity in the face of such extreme pressures that I am highly disturbed by the way in which honest and hard-working journalists are coming under fire right now. Lately, the term “Fake News” has been used to refer to sound journalism a lot, including and perhaps most notably by President Elect Donald Trump. These are tweets from Trump from the last week alone:
.@CNN is in a total meltdown with their FAKE NEWS because their ratings are tanking since election and their credibility will soon be gone!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2017
We had a great News Conference at Trump Tower today. A couple of FAKE NEWS organizations were there but the people truly get what's going on
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2017
Dishonest media says Mexico won't be paying for the wall if they pay a little later so the wall can be built more quickly. Media is fake!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 9, 2017
I would venture to say that people on both sides of the political spectrum are using the term “fake news” to refer to any news article that presents their side unfavorably. Unfortunately, this is taking the focus off of actual fake news (oh, the irony of the “real fake”) being generated by people profiteering off of the human tendency to seek out and share information that confirms pre-held biases. More on REAL fake news can be found here, here, here and here. I also recently wrote about a personal encounter with fake news here.
Fake News, Systemic Bias, or Just a Single Story You Don’t Want to Hear?
So there are two separate issues at hand: there is the issue of “fake news” and there is the issue of bias in news. Let’s not conflate the two. And actual academic research has been done into political bias in news. In one recent example, Ceren Budak, Sharad Goel and Justin M. Rao published “Fair and Balanced? Quantifying Media Bias Through Crowdsourced Content Analysis” in the Public Opinion Quarterly in a 2016 special issue. So did the study find that mainstream news outlets are incredibly biased, or not? The researchers’ overall finding was that “US news outlets are substantially more similar — and less partisan — than generally believed”. The following chart shows the left- and right-leaning tendencies of select news organizations:
Notice that the study found that NBC News and CNN news, with “slant” scores very, very close to the centerline, are far less biased that organizations like Breitbart and Fox News (heavy conservative slant) and Daily Kos (heavy liberal slant). There are politically slanted organizations on both sides of the spectrum, but the vast majority of news organizations publish balanced coverage of the good and the bad on both sides.
The Journalist’s Creed
In April of last year I visited the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism to present at the annual Walter B. Potter Sr. Conference for community newspapers. Mizzou is one of the top 10 journalism schools in the United States, and I was very impressed with their faculty, their students and their facilities. As I walked from my hotel to the campus in Columbia, Missouri, I passed this plaque near the corner of Elm & 8th:
On it is etched the Journalist’s Creed, penned by Walter Williams. It gives you an idea about what these professionals are trying to accomplish, and why they go home feeling satisfied with their efforts. I’m not going to quote it here. You have to read the whole thing as I did standing on the sidewalk that day. But please do so before you take potshots at a journalist who reports something negative about your favorite politician.
And please also appreciate that in order to serve our best interests, sometimes journalists need to tell you and I things we simply wish weren’t true. Thankfully many journalists around the world are still brave enough to do just that. Now will we be brave enough to listen, or will we just close our ears to anything we don’t like and label it “Fake News”?
Thanks for reading,