An old schoolfriend recently moved to New York City to pursue her career in journalism. Unfortunately for her, I have lots of naive questions about her profession. Fortunately for me, she’s my friend and has to answer them without getting too irritated. Here are two examples.
1. Popularity-based quality metrics
How are journalists assessed by their editors, and how do business pressures shape the subject, content and presentation of what is published? More specifically, since the establishment of on-line newspapers and other news outlets, it’s possible to collect detailed information about which headlines attract readers and how long they spend reading the article. It’s easy to imagine that this would have consequences for quality metrics within the industry. But first let me establish the basic framework.
Here are two uncontroversial comments: 1. journalists want their work to be read; and 2. a major, and sometimes unique, source of revenue for news agencies is advertising (which is completely reliant on circulation). Now that there is abundant data on exactly how to maximise an article’s appeal to a particular audience, the cynics inside will cry that the public is essentially being fed its own excrement for the sake of journalists’ egos and/or news outlets’ bank accounts. Our generous side will, conversely, claim that journalists are not so immoral: that they are dedicated to a trade that they believe in and whose integrity they want to protect (it’s not as if they’re there for the lavish salaries).
Both these points of view are plausible to some extent (and relevant to more professions than just journalism). I expect most of you will be naturally attracted to the first one, especially since, even if the writers themselves are all noble, their bosses who have their eyes on the coffers might not be. And the second point of view is certainly Panglossian: exactly the same could be claimed of scientists, but from my vantage point within physics it’s clear that the principles of scientific methodology and objectivity are frequently (and in small doses, routinely) twisted as researchers vie for tenure-track positions or scarce grant money or more publications or an article in a prestigious journal. Regardless of a discipline’s august philosophical underpinnings, in the end it’s humans doing the work and they are frail and easily tricked by their own bullshit… Anyway, back to the story.
I’m not claiming to be the first to raise the possibility of bias in the press; though more popular / strident criticisms typically concern government or corporate interests actively corrupting the public’s principal information source (and there are many, many demonstrable instances of that happening). My angle isn’t new, but it is slightly less sinister – that internal pressures might lead to / sustain a narrowing of focus and diversity in the issues and conversations endorsed by the press.
Underlying all this is my expectation that, though a news outlet is a business, it simultaneously has a duty to inform the public about a breadth of issues and not just the tiny Venn intersection of the most popular ones. And I’m sure the overwhelming majority in the industry would agree without reservation. So my question is really this. How are the “public service” principles underlying journalism safeguarded against business pressures in practice? Are there mechanisms in place to forestall conflicts of interest like the ones I’ve been contemplating? To balance the integrity of a news organisation’s mission statement with the need to stay afloat in a competitive environment?
For example, it doesn’t seem such a far-fetched scenario that an editor tells their writers that they are allowed to write an article on some interesting but empirically unpopular topic only if they have garnered so many hits on a more popular article that month. Or perhaps salary raises are contingent upon the number of article views (and the attendant advertising revenues).
When I asked my journalist friend about this, she responded with a number of things (including a fierce exasperation at the incessant negativity about her profession). For one, the popularity-based evaluation systems I just envisaged are unthinkable and unthought in the world of respectable journalism (i.e. not click-bait sites). In her experience, journalists and editors do not equate popularity with quality, and are fully aware that a preoccupation with the former would be a disaster for the standing of their platform. Of course editors must try to increase readership, but the pressures that I was envisaging are as a rule not as corrupting as I feared.
I can see her point. There are many branches of journalism that are difficult and expensive to do, and are either not particularly popular or have a relatively low success rate of producing results: investigative journalism for instance. The model that I envisioned, if brought to its logical conclusion, would certainly have done away with these excesses. From her response I gather that the answer to my question (whether there are explicit institutional balances to protect journalists from having to prioritise page hits over breadth or quality) is no; but the culture of the profession and the prudence of editors prevents such distortions in reporting from becoming severe.
2. Wealth and class bias in all professions including journalism
Here is my premise. There are many professions for which the barriers to entry are high: perhaps there are many people vying for few jobs so the market is risky; perhaps they require a large investment of time or money; or perhaps it’s assumed that applicants for positions must first learn the ropes through months (or years!) of unpaid internships. All these forces will tend to exclude people from poorer backgrounds. It is so much easier to pursue jobs which offer risk, delayed returns or low initial pay if you have a financial safety net from family or partners or personal savings.
It would be interesting to see data on the variation of economic background by profession; and such studies certainly exist. Without reading them, though, I’d predict that law and medicine are dominated more than any other sector by the upper-middle class. (In the USA, entry to those fields requires additional, famously expensive degrees. In the UK the situation isn’t so extreme, but the time-lag between starting professional training and getting paid for working is still substantially larger than in other professions.)
But regardless of the numbers, there are a few areas where I’d expect the societal effects of bias to have the most important ramifications: personal lawyers, public legislators, and journalists. All of these are tasked to some extent with protecting and educating the public despite the prevailing power structures which frequently marginalise minorities and the poor. It is especially important to have experienced advocates for the unenfrachised in the areas where they stand to lose the most.
Turning now to journalism specifically, these days job applications are often considered only after a good deal of unpaid labour, so from the foregoing reasoning we might expect journalists to be predominantly middle-class. Of course this doesn’t mean that they only serve the middle class – there is a huge variety both in what is written and the in the audiences it is written for. I’m merely suggesting that non-representative perspectives may become standard, entailing certain expectations about and attitudes toward society, and tacit embedded assumptions about how the world works.
To rephrase this a little more explicitly, whatever the objectives and culture of the publication in question, if mid-to-upper-middle-class writers and editors dominate the landscape, this will affect what gets written. Contrast this with a scenario where there are working-class journalists writing for middle-class readers, and also working-class journalists writing for working-class readers – I imagine the tone and approach and even content of those articles would be different on the whole. If everything is written from a position of privilege, the corpus is consequently written from a position of ignorance.
An analogy. Imagine that, by chance, journalists were exclusively male. Of course they would still publish material for women to read; and much of it would be very good by all standards. I can’t help feeling, however, that something would be lost.
But so far, that’s all this is: feeling and speculation. I e-mailed my journalist friend about it and she came back with some interesting comments (edited and shuffled slightly for clarity).
What you’ve been talking about has definitely become an issue in the UK – it’s become far more “private school” this generation. People are angry about all the unpaid internships and nepotism because previously it wasn’t like that at all and was very diverse. Indeed, many of the very best journalists had no university education and a working class background (e.g. Harold Evans, Rebekah Brooks).
In the US it’s worse on the whole; for example most journalists have been to university. But within my publication there’s a major focus on diversity, so it’s hard for me to judge.
Of course the demographics of writers affects what’s written and is an issue. But I think this pales in comparison to how the demographics of readers affects what’s written.
Conclusion: yes, there is a bias of backgrounds within the profession, but in her estimation there isn’t much evidence that it distorts the news. I’m making a storm in a teacup.
I find her answer comforting: she’s a smart and self-aware lass and more clued-in than I am when it comes to workplace sociology (indeed, when it comes to most things). However, the broader issues of diversity and access to different professions, with their commensurate social justice ramifications, are still at large. I only have to look around my physics department to see that we have a problem with gender balance.