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Is print media dead? Is all media biased? Are journalists rolling in dough??

Today on Misconceptions, we're covering the wide world of journalism. The world of media has changed so much in just a few decades, so it makes sense that we're all a little unclear on the current state of it all. Join host Justin Dodd (@juddtoday) as we debunk some common misconceptions about journalism.

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There’s only one kind of job protected by the United States Constitution. It’s right there in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” The Founders saw the free press as essential to democracy; it was the thing that held those in power accountable to the people. But is any role in a functioning free society more misunderstood these days?

Journalism as an industry has been beaten down by financial losses, journalists have been threatened—or worse—just for doing their jobs, and elected officials regularly accuse the news media of fakery and fabrication. No wonder there are so many misconceptions about it.

Hi, I’m Justin Dodd. Today we’ll investigate some enduring myths about journalism, from its alleged bias to premature reports of its death. Let’s get started.

1. Print is dead.

Ok, let’s be honest here: It’s no secret that today’s media industry is in flux, with fewer newspapers and magazines than just a few years ago, but, paradoxically, more sources of information and ways to obtain it than ever. Much of the instability stems from momentous changes over the past three decades in the ways people read news.

The main one is probably the seismic shift from “old media,” like printed newspapers and magazines, to “new media,” like websites, apps, video, and social media. For this reason, one of the biggest misconceptions about the news business is that print journalism has gone the way of the dodo. Let’s look at newspaper circulation, which is the number of copies distributed on a given day.

Weekday and Sunday circulations of all U.S. newspapers totaled a little over 62 million copies each in 1990. Today the number for those editions is more like 21 or 22 million—and that includes print and digital copies. According to a 2021 report by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communication, more than 200 U.S counties lack a local newspaper, and predicts that we’ll lose one-third of all the newspapers that existed in 2005 by the end of next year.

Also since 1990, digital media has transformed the news. People back then were using the early, text-based internet: in 1995, 7 million Americans were “regular online news readers.” By 2000, 67 percent of Americans subscribed to cable TV, 54 percent went online on the World Wide Web, and 53 percent owned a cell phone. Today, 85 percent of Americans get their news “sometimes” or “often” on their digital devices.

All this seems to suggest that print is dead. Not exactly so. According to Washington Post reporter Michael Rosenwald, who examined the allegations of print’s demise in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2016, “No app, no streamlined website, no ‘vertical integration,’ no social network, no algorithm, no Apple…has come close to matching the success of print in revenue or readership.” Readers still tend to consider print news more credible and trustworthy and of a higher quality than digital content.

Reading a print newspaper or magazine is easier on the eyes, and it results in better reading comprehension compared to digital. And, printed materials are likely to be more accessible to folks without the internet. A study in the journal Journalism Practice backs this up. University of Texas media researchers examined the online and print readerships of 51 U.S. newspapers during the period from 2007 to 2015. They found that, contrary to widespread assumptions, “the (supposedly dying) print product still reaches far more readers than the (supposedly promising) digital product in these newspapers’ home markets, and this holds true across all age groups.” And while the numbers have changed even more in the 9 years since that study, we think the data still seems promising for our print news.

2. Journalism is always biased.

A major complaint about the news today is that it’s biased. Commenters may feel the reporting is slanted toward one political viewpoint or another, or that publishers direct coverage of some topics but not others. Some readers might perceive only positive coverage of certain subjects and only negative coverage of others. A September 2023 Gallup poll found a mere 7 percent of Americans were very confident in the media’s ability to report news fairly, while 39 percent had zero confidence in its fairness. Yikes.

Yet the core tenet of journalism is reporting stories fully, accurately, and yes, fairly. The Associated Press asserts that its values include "accurate, fact-based, nonpartisan reporting." For a reporter working on a story, avoiding bias means speaking to several sources with a variety of viewpoints, quoting them accurately, and verifying their statements with additional sources. If a news story portrays someone negatively, the reporter makes an effort to contact that person for their response. Completed news stories often go through several editors to make sure that the information is fairly presented.

Do reporters’ unconscious biases sometimes creep in? Yes. Reporters are humans. But ethical journalists will strive to keep any hint of bias out of their stories.) So why might readers be sensing pervasive bias in the news? An experiment by Gallup and the Knight Foundation aimed to find out. They built a website populated with news articles from diverse outlets and a group of nearly 3,500 readers rated the trustworthiness of the stories.

Half of the group could see the sources that published the stories; the other half could only see the content. The ratings, published in 2018, showed that readers who didn’t know the news source had more trust in the information; for example, left-leaning readers had more trust in right-leaning content when they did not know the source that published it. Readers who did know where the content came from had less trust in content from sources that they perceived as being at odds with their political feelings. In other words, it’s not necessarily that the news is shot through with bias. It’s that readers’ own biases are likely coloring their perception of the news.

You may be thinking, what about Fox News, MSNBC, or other outlets that are widely perceived as having a conservative or liberal bias? Many major news organizations, including these two networks and most newspapers, feature news reporting as well as opinionated commentary. And it’s often difficult for the audience, especially casual viewers, to tell the difference. The cable news channels usually carry news reporting during the day, on hour-long shows featuring one or two anchors and a number of journalists calling in with stories. The commentary runs in prime time—think Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity—and features guests offering their takes on the issues. But because the news shows and the pundits often discuss the same topics from the same angles, the line between fact and opinion gets blurred in a hurry.

The difference is a little clearer in newspapers, which traditionally have op-ed sections separate from the rest of the paper. However, millions of people get their news digitally or from social media without that built-in dividing line. According to the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, this confusion between news and opinion leads to distrust of journalism as a whole. Both journalists and the public want clearer definitions of news and opinion in the media, a study by the Media Insight Project found. That could mean labeling op-eds and columns clearly as opinion pieces, and designing online news pages in ways that visually differentiate them. The thinking is, if the media demystifies its practices, it will start to regain the public’s trust.

3. Journalists are rich.

No, but really [wheezing]—this is a major misconception that needs debunking right now. While there are some star journalists at major news outlets making six or even seven figures, the vast majority of ink-stained wretches are just trying to get by in a contracting
industry that is still based in the most expensive American cities.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2022 the median pay for all “news analysts, reporters, and journalists” in the U.S. was $55,960 per year and $26.90 per hour. But there was quite a bit of variation among the segments of the industry.

Those who worked in “media streaming distribution services, social networks,” and other digital entities made the highest median salary at $79,000. On the other end of the spectrum, newspaper publishers and radio broadcasters could look forward to a median salary of less than $41,000.

Geography plays a big part in journalists’ income too. Those working in the Washington, D.C. metro area, the country’s top-paying market, can expect an average salary of a little over $160,000 a year. That average drops to $72,440 in Florida, $64,110 in Washington State, $51,490 in Ohio, and $46,680 in Illinois.

Bottom line, if you’re a young journalist looking to get rich, you might want to consider switching to a different role. Say, as an oral surgeon, or an airline pilot. That’s where the real money is.

4. Journalists only want to cover bad news.

Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst is supposed to have coined the phrase If it bleeds, it leads in the 1890s. Even if that attribution is apocryphal, Hearst and his arch-rival Joseph Pulitzer practically invented the practice of putting wildly sensational stories on the front page and portraying them as objective fact, even if only a fraction of the information was true.

Eye-grabbing ledes were more important than accuracy and fairness, Hearst believed, because they would stoke outrage and sell papers. And he was right. That legacy, known as “yellow journalism,” is still with us: in the breathless lead-ins on the nightly news, in the seas of clickbait littering the internet, in the tabloids, and in the false accusations of being “fake news.” This leads to people perceiving all news as just varying shades of yellow—and, if it is accurate and fair, that all of the news is bad.

But there’s a hidden factor at play here. Negativity bias is the unconscious tendency to “learn from and use negative information far more than positive information,” according to a 2008 paper in Psychological Bulletin. An examination in Vox reports that negativity bias was hypothesized in the 1960s and has been replicated in countless studies since then, showing that bad news consistently provoked stronger physiological and psychological reactions in viewers than good news, even when viewers stated that they preferred reading good news.

Negativity bias may explain readers’ attraction to bad news and, thus, their perceptions that news is more negative than it really is. But journalists are also subject to negativity bias and may be drawn to covering negative stories more than positive ones. And the news outlets they work for may see that readers consume more negative stories, and aim to give readers what they appear to want, creating a cycle of negativity. Journalists cover plenty of good and positive news, but it’s a constant fight against humanity’s seemingly inherent need for sensationalism. To combat it, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker suggests a focus on “factfulness” (which is also the title of a bestselling book that argues that data shows the world is in better shape than we think). “Hard news divisions could look to their colleagues in sports, business, and weather, and present regular statistics on the state of the nation and world,” Pinker writes in Politico, while “editors could expand fact-checking to include citation of long-term data, so that gory episodes are not mistaken for ongoing trends.”

Another tactic is practicing “solutions journalism,” a mode of reporting that investigates specific solutions to problems as well as what can be learned when solutions don’t work. It’s different from an op-ed or advocacy journalism because it doesn’t argue for a particular solution or approach. This technique has been described as an antidote to so-called “think tank journalism,” which examines problems but lays out only hypothetical or nonexistent fixes, often leading to headlines and content that readers perceive negatively.

Maybe journalism needs its own Smokey Bear—”only you can prevent doomscrolling.”

Thanks for watching Misconceptions. The world of journalism and newspapers and media will always be an important part of democracy. And to all of the commenters who have ever accused us of being biased?…you’re right. I will always be pro-Keanu Reeves.

I’ll see you next time.