There’s nothing like telling people you’re a journalism student to get a candid glimpse into the public’s varied and disjointed perspective of the field.
Some people respond with a neutral “That’s cool,” or a positive “Oh! That’s so cool!” However, many have stronger reactions that reveal a generally confused and often antagonistic attitude toward the media, news and people involved in the industry.
Data from the Pew Research Center sheds some light onto why this might be. According to a survey conducted in 2011, 66 percent of respondents said that news stories were often inaccurate versus 34 percent in 1985, 77 percent considered most news organizations to be biased versus 53 percent in 1985 and 80 percent thought news organizations were typically influenced by powerful people and organizations compared with 53 percent in 1985.
These are all valid concerns for the public to have. Bias and big business have the potential to destroy the purpose of news and mold the industry into a circus of advertisement and politics.
It’s no surprise that attitudes would change over the course of 26 years, but those numbers are pretty dismal, and the shift in attitude is dramatic. It could explain why the overwhelming response to journalism students who confess their field of choice is a suspicious “why?”
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the projected outlook for future journalists is grim. Employment in the field is projected to decrease by 13 percent between 2012 and 2022. Median annual wages for reporters and correspondents were reported at $35,870, which is a far cry from the high-paying STEM fields that many students are gravitating towards. In 2013, enrollment in journalism programs at the undergraduate level was down for the third year in a row, after growing steadily throughout the previous two decades according to the University of Georgia’s Annual Surveys of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Idealism in journalism students is something that’s frowned upon, and often dismantled, during college. Yet idealists who want to change the world continue to be drawn to journalism like moths to a flame. Many who fly into it eagerly will get burned, but others learn how to linger near the flame without allowing it to consume them. As with any challenging career, cynicism abounds, but idealism isn’t always completely squashed.
Traditional journalistic practices emphasize the need for objectivity above all else, which is unarguably important when reporting facts. Our purpose is to inform the public first and foremost, and people want to form their own opinions rather than have someone else’s rammed down their throats. But given the obvious issues in news media that have become widespread in recent years, it’s important to have idealists in the field as it evolves and confronts the challenges set before it.
While Pew Research Center statistics paint a bleak picture of the public’s perception of news media, one glimmer of hope remains for idealistic journalists: Public trust in local and national news organizations is still ranked higher than trust in government or corporations at every level. Sixty-nine percent of respondents in the survey said they trust the information they get from local news organizations versus 50 percent who said they trust information from the Obama Administration and 41 percent who said they trust information from business corporations.
That is the answer to the inevitable “why” asked of journalism majors. Journalism is rooted in the fact that large, powerful entities often can’t be trusted, and journalists are tasked with shedding light on practices and incidents that the public wouldn’t otherwise be aware of. Despite the public’s well-founded distrust in news media, good journalism is more necessary than ever, and a certain amount of idealism is required for students to persevere in light of challenges to the field.