The answer, unfortunately, might be yes.
At one point, only a couple of decades ago, newsrooms were filled with reporters culled from the ranks of blue-collar and working class families. When I started in journalism, newsroom were gritty places. Profanity was not only common, but as permanent as the water stains on the ceiling tiles. Editors’ desks often had dictionaries and AP Style Guides propped up by whiskey bottles or draped with racing forms.
There was an inherent sense that journalism was a voice for the common people – because that’s where the journalists came from. That was when the old journalism chestnut to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” was an unofficial motto of the industry.
Journalists told stories about real people – in the voice of real people.
I remember prowling the streets of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, an old mill town in Central Massachusetts, with a grizzled old veteran. It sounds cliché, but he knew everyone. He stopped to talk with the janitor in City Hall before seeing the mayor. He shook hands with the meter maid on Main Street. He spent every part of his day making his “rounds,” which basically meant visiting diners, police and fire stations, City Hall and even the homeless shelter to talk with people.
That’s where he found his stories.
But that type of journalists is gone. I was there for his demise. Suddenly, finding stories was less important than writing articles to fill the paper. Newspapers began to judge reporters – not on the quality of their prose – but on their quantity. It was not uncommon to have story quotas – article minimums every day or week.
But worse, the ranks of journalism began to fill up with a new breed of journalist: one culled from the ranks of the privileged. There was once a joke that Harvard University didn’t teach journalism because Harvard didn’t teach “trades.” But now try to find a journalist without a college education – or in fact, without a degree from an elite college or university.
I went to the website of the New York Times last week and randomly picked three reporters and read their bios (I had to read five because two did not include there education in their bios because their awards and book publication lists were too long). Here are the educational backgrounds of the three I did find:
- She earned a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University and an M.B.A. and a B.A. in American Studies at Yale University
- He is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and City College
- He studied philosophy at Cornell University and earned a master’s of philosophy degree from Oxford, where he was a Marshall Scholar
All three had at least two degrees from elite colleges – one even had three degrees. Do you think a journalist with an associates degree from a community college or even from a four-year state university has a shot at working for the New York Times?
Yeah, me either.
Is it any wonder that the public continues to distrust journalists? A new study out of Britain shows that only 1 in 5 Brits trust reporters. The numbers aren’t better in the United States with 75 percent telling Pew researchers in 2011 that journalists can’t be trusted to get the facts right. That same Pew study reported that 80 percent of Americans thought the media were influenced by powerful organizations and people.
Maybe because journalists are now culled from the elite. They don’t talk the same language or have the same shared experiences as the people reading them.
The journalist has become the establishment – aligned more with the political and business classes than with the working classes.
That’s a problem.
What do you think?
How Much Do You Trust Journalists via the International Herald Tribune