Fall 2009 | Online Exclusives

The Public and Journalists: They Disagree on Core Values

By Esther Thorson and Michael R. Fancher

In considering the modern relevance of Walter Williams’s “Journalist’s Creed,” it was well documented that people who aren’t journalists held increasingly negative attitudes toward news organizations. For example, The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reported in 2004 that from 1996 to that year there was a sharp fall in the percentage of those who reported that they believed most of the news reporting in newspapers and on television. What follows are some specific findings:

  • “Your daily paper” fell in the percentage of those saying they believed what was published from 25 percent to 19 percent.

  • With USA Today, the number dropped from 24 percent to 19 percent.

  • “Your local TV news” experienced a fall from 34 percent to 25 percent.

  • With network news, the decrease was 31 percent to 24 percent.

Pew reported this year that only 43 percent of people surveyed thought civic life in their community would be hurt “a lot” by the closing of their local newspaper.

Given these findings, it seemed likely that American citizens and journalists might have a very different sense of what the values of journalism are and should be. To test this idea, however, required identifying two values dimensions that would capture the essence of modern journalism’s code of ethics. At one end, the anchoring idea was “doing no harm”; at the other end was “valuing accuracy regardless of other considerations.” The other dimension was anchored by the values of “complete independence of the journalist from all influences” and the “journalist being socially responsible.”

Journalists routinely weigh these variables in deciding whether and how to report stories. We tested the application of these values dimensions in three hypothetical situations:

  1. A journalist is worried that reporting crime stories involving young male African Americans might lead citizens to falsely stereotype all young African Americans as criminals.

  2. Right before an election, a source reveals that a candidate has an illegitimate child.

  3. A journalist worries that reporting on CIA illegal activities might tip off others about how that agency is operating to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks in the United States.

We asked college students and a national sample of adults to indicate where they thought an ideal journalist would be in dealing with these possible RELATED ARTICLE
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stories based on the two values dimensions. We then asked them where they thought real journalists would be given the same set of circumstances. We also posed the same questions to a large national sample of editors and reporters, asking them to show us where they would put themselves on the dimensions for each scenario.

Here is some of what we found:

  • Independence: As a journalistic value, independence was more significant to reporters than to students, adults or editors, who lined up closely with each other.

  • Minimizing harm: This value basically didn’t register with any of the groups. Journalists use situational ethics in relation to minimizing harm; it’s much stronger for them in political stories. Students are situational as well, but show the opposite pattern than journalists. Adults consistently favor accuracy over minimizing harm.

  • Gaps between ideal and real: In the responses of adults and college students, significant gaps emerged between their ideal and what they thought journalists would really do. Social responsibility is a higher value for adults than for journalists or students.

  • Journalists agreed: Editors and reporters tended to make the same basic decisions in how they would cover each story.

Here is where these findings took our thinking:

  • Independence: Journalists need to better articulate the meaning and importance of independence as a value, while also better understanding and respecting why the public puts less emphasis on it.

  • Minimizing harm: These results support other recent research asserting that the admonition to “minimize harm” requires clarification.

  • Misperceptions: Students and adults have very inaccurate perceptions of the values of journalists. Their ideal journalists match real journalists better than their predictions of what journalists actually value.

  • Journalists’ values and the public: While agreement among editors and reporters can be regarded as shared professional values honed over time, it can also be interpreted as an inclination to make judgments through a common, narrow filter. This becomes significant when journalists’ choices are compared to the judgments preferred by the public.

It was clear that adults and college students feel that the values journalists use in making their decisions don’t match their own. This gap won’t be closed merely by journalists explaining their values, though this is an important step for them to take; they must also understand and respect the values of the public they hope to serve, just as the public can learn why journalists hold to the values they do.

These findings contributed to the conclusion—described in greater detail in the accompanying article—that journalism must also develop a new ethic of public trust through public engagement.

Esther Thorson is dean of graduate studies and research at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

5 Comments on The Public and Journalists: They Disagree on Core Values
bob says:
November 23, 2009 at 12:07pm
Is there a research paper available on the work you overview here: e.g. "We asked college students and a national sample of adults to indicate where they thought an ideal journalist would be in dealing with these possible stories based on the two values dimensions"? I checked the University of Missouri website starting with Prof. Thorson's official page and can't seem to find it. Thanks.
David Hawkins says:
October 2, 2009 at 1:32pm
Thank you for the response to my question. This is a very interesting study.
Mike Fancher says:
September 22, 2009 at 1:33pm
The journalists who were surveyed were a large national sample of newspaper editors and reporters provided by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
We didn't attempt to define "journalist' for the adult citizens or students who were surveyed, or ask them for their definition. The context in which we asked them about journalists was hypothetical situations in which journalists or newspapers were making judgments about which facts to report in coverage of particular stories.
The survey intent was to learn something about what values the public associates with a "journalist," and how the public's assessments compare with responses from actual editors and reporters.
ken says:
September 20, 2009 at 7:06pm
the t.v. stations and newspapers we have trusted all are lives no longer exist,they have been stolen by the political party's.they no longer give the news they give the state sponsered pablum,even the pulitzer prize is no longer given for truth in media,instead its awarded to who ever can give the most slanted news and still look like they care about the truth,the net is the only thing that has a chance of reporting the ''news'' everything else has kept no faith with americans.
David Hawkins says:
September 17, 2009 at 12:52pm
How was the term "journalist" defined in this most recent study?
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