The American Journalist

This was my 3rd essay for Cultureweek (September 2004), but the paper came out two months late due to growing pains (sic). This is an edited version.

It is election campaign frenzy in the United States. On television the networks and cable news channels cover the campaigns of the Democrats and Republicans extensively. The presidential election is also at the top of the news agenda in print and online news outlets. This extensive coverage gives us a lot of information about who’s who in American politics. But it also shows us the faces, names and opinions of the people responsible for covering these events: the journalists. Among journalists, those who report on politics, policy and politicians are seen as the cream of the crop. They are the public's eyes and ears on the campaign trail, the pack journalists or so-called 'Boys on the Bus', referring to the mostly male reporters who travel with the candidates. What do we know about these people beyond their faces on television and their bylines in print?

American journalists are, much like their colleagues in Western Europe or Australia, college educated men in their early forties. This demographic is especially dominant among political correspondents. Journalists earn a decent living, but most them working in a corporate climate without a whole lot of job security.

One of the less fortunate side-effects of the growing concentration of media ownership in the United States is the corporate policy of job rotation. Journalists regularly switch between news beats and they are now also regularly moved around within a corporation but across the country. This means that an increasing number of reporters do not have roots in the communities they report on. One could argue this is rather unfortunate, as journalism that is supposed to be relevant to the everyday lives of people requires a level of embeddedness in their community. On the other hand, this detachment does fit comfortably with the occupational ideology of journalism that preaches professional distance and a commitment to objectivity and telling 'the truth'.

Journalists have embraced objectivity and detachment quite differently in the past. Back in the mid-20th century this for example meant that reporters and editors felt their most important role in society was to deliver 'hard' news as quickly and as neutral as possible. Journalism needed to become more 'objective' because of a simple commercial reason: being value-neutral means more people are likely to subscribe, watch or listen (and less likely to sue...). Other functions of journalism such as interpretation criticism, and entertainment were traditionally not considered to be as central to news work. Today, journalists want to do it all. Surveys of journalists show that they increasingly believe that they have to interpret the news in order for the average consumer to understand what is going on in the world. At the same time journalists are still held to deadlines. In the age of 24/7 news channels on radio, television and the World Wide Web (all channels that need to be filled with content - as cheap as possible) this leads to an almost inevitable result: fast news, fast interpretation, fast work.

The shift from delivering to interpreting the news is clearly visible in the content of today's journalism.

Studies show that over the last few decades the role of journalists in the news has steadily increased. On television journalists get more screentime than their sources. Newspapers are growing thicker because more space is devoted to the opinions of columnists and op-ed writers, and more pages are alotted to features and special segments.

In short: journalists are becoming the news, they are not just reporting it.

The backdrop to all of this is an American society in which citizens spend less and less of their time consuming the products of journalism.

Perhaps there is a relationship between the two trends: while journalism becomes more detached from its audience and more involved with itself, (especially younger) audiences disconnect and spend their time watching John Stewart's The Daily Show or surfing The Onion.com website while chatting, blogging and messaging non-stop (if they are not on their cellphone, that is).

Back to the mainstream news coverage of the elections in the US. In covering speeches, debates and other real-time campaign events with candidates Kerry and Bush, news media offer one of the few opportunities where once can listen more or less unfiltered to the people who will govern this important country. This is one of the few times that journalists on television keep their mouths shut (although not for long) and allow sources to speak without constant interruption. Regardless of the political propaganda, it is a rare chance for American voters (and on-lookers from around the world) to get an idea of who the political representatives are. It is sad but true that few people watch, or listen to this kind of news coverage. As a foreigner living and working in the US (since the Summer of 2004) I feel energized by this election campaign. I guess I am not used to passionate, inspired or convincing political rhetoric. In my country, The Netherlands, politics has gone to sleep. Here, in the United States, politics matter.

If you want to know more about who American journalists are, check out a report written by four Indiana University Journalism professors (David Weaver, Randal Beam, Bonnie Brownlee, and G. Cleveland Wilhoit): "The American Journalist in the 21st Century: Key Findings". It is published by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami, Florida, April 2003. For additional information: see a summary at the Poynter Institute website.

Other sources for the trends sketched here: authors such as Thomas Patterson, Todd Gitlin, Dan Hallin and Michael Schudson. Check them out.