In each of the past five decades, university scholars have studied people working in the nation’s newsrooms. For the past four decades, the studies have been centered at Indiana University in Bloomington.
The two main architects of these studies, David Weaver and Cleve Wilhoit, have identified significant shifts in the profession of journalism over the past nearly half century. Their latest book, released in November 2017 and based on their most recent national survey, signals major industry transformation in its title: “The American Journalist in the Digital Age.”
Weaver, IU distinguished professor and Roy W. Howard research professor emeritus of journalism, and Wilhoit, professor emeritus of journalism, talked last week to members of the Bloomington Press Club about their decades of work. Their points included plenty about the gathering storm clouds affecting the nation’s journalists. Changes in technology, disconnects between journalists and the public, economic challenges that have shrunken newsrooms and attacks from the political class have created a landscape that’s sometimes difficult to navigate.
But their main conclusions were far from pessimistic. Weaver and Wilhoit, along with the third author, Lars Willnat, a professor at Syracuse who earned his doctorate at IU, suggested journalists will be up to the challenges they face. Why they feel that way will be coming up.
First, it’s important to know how these studies began.
In 1971, John W. Johnstone, Edward J. Slawski and William W. Bowman of the University of Illinois did the first study of the nation’s journalists. In 1982, Weaver and Wilhoit built on that work with their first study and analysis, called The American Journalist. The study was repeated in 1992, 2002 and 2013 to offer a longitudinal look at the industry.
While the data in the new book was gathered in 1,080 interviews more than four years ago, the authors say the collection came at a pivotal time in the profession and conclusions represent trends over the 42 years surveys were completed. Conclusions are also backed by follow-up interviews and anecdotal findings, evaluation of more recent studies and readings from other researchers and journalism observers.
Some of the key findings from the data:
• The number of full-time journalists decreased from 116,000 in 2002 to about 83,000 in 2013.
• Journalists in 2013 mostly considered themselves to be “middle of the road” but were more liberal politically than the U.S. public as a whole.
• In 2013, 92 percent of journalists had earned at least a four-year college degree, up from 58 percent in 1971. The authors note that the increased level of education has led some to consider journalists “as elitists who are removed from the concerns of ordinary working class people.” However, compared to other professions, journalists are not disproportionately highly educated and average salaries are far from levels that could be considered the stuff of “elites.”
• Journalists feel less autonomy in their work than they did in 2002, possibly because more demands are being placed on them. Still, journalists are satisfied overall with their work.
• One of the top two factors driving journalists remains “altruism,” or the mission of helping people.
• “The best and brightest” are sticking with the profession, Weaver and Wilhoit said, and have played a crucial role in maintaining high journalistic standards during the digital revolution. The research shows journalists are less inclined than during previous study years to use reporting tactics some might consider overly aggressive or controversial, such as going undercover.
Finally, here are two concluding points from the book that all journalists as well as consumers of journalism should consider good news.
First: “Even with a workforce that is diminished considerably, never in the half century covered here has journalistic talent in mainstream journalism been more educated, seasoned and experienced.”
Second: “The commitment to serve as a check on official power has never been stronger, and the sense of altruism that has been a hallmark of that commitment also remains high.” Wilhoit said last week: “The enthusiasm for being a watchdog, a check on government is at a high water mark” — the highest point since 1971, right after release of the Pentagon Papers.
The book leads to the conclusion that strong journalism maintains a crucial role in democracy, especially in this age of information overload and public officials who don’t respect the truth.
In Wilhoit’s view, “Journalists are still important, maybe more important, than at any time since the ’70s.”
He concluded his remarks in Bloomington last week, as did the authors in the last chapter of the book: “The profession will be equal to its time.”