Consider these conditions: Journalists jailed — or worse — overseas, including the dozen killed so far in Ukraine. Journalists harassed in America by anonymous online trolls or prominent people, including former President Donald Trump, who labeled them as "fake news" or even an "enemy of the American people."
Journalists working through a pandemic and endemic — political polarization. Journalists working in an industry devoted to facts but battling increasing, unceasing disinformation. Journalists working in a profession with a storied past but stormy future from an ever-evolving business model to profound problems such as the threat to press freedom.
And yet, consider this response: According to a new Pew Research Center poll of nearly 12,000 U.S.-based journalists, the vast majority are "very or somewhat satisfied with their job" (70%), are "extremely or very proud of their work" (75%), and in the ultimate endorsement, "would pursue a career in journalism again" (77%).
This isn't a case of "bothsideism" — the journalistic practice of giving equal coverage that's increasingly a contentious journalistic debate. Instead, it's a duality of a profession (even a calling, for some) that has motivated many to seek and report the truth despite, or perhaps because of, the political, social and economic headwinds.
Regarding "bothsideism," 55% of journalists surveyed said that "every side does not always deserve equal coverage." In comparison, 44% said that "journalists should always strive to give every side equal coverage." The issue of climate change encapsulates the debate. While there are deniers and skeptics, most climate scientists believe that the phenomenon is real. Giving equal coverage to both sides does not reflect the overwhelming scientific consensus on the issue.
How to handle public figures' false statements is another intensifying debate — partly because so many falsehoods are foisted upon the public.
While most journalists report they can detect disinformation or misinformation, 26% said they have "unknowingly reported on a story that was later found to contain false information." And yet, by a two-to-one margin (64% to 32%) U.S. journalists said that "if a public figure makes a statement that is false or made-up, news organizations should report on the statement."
The made-up or false statements reflect (and advance) the polarization pushing people to like-minded media outlets, a threat seen keenly by journalists but less so by the general public. According to Pew, 75% of U.S. journalists consider it a "major problem" when "people with the same political viewpoints get their news from the same news organizations," compared with 39% of U.S. adults.
However, most issues defy the consensus around climate change, and almost all (82%) of journalists realize it's essential to keep their views out of their reporting. But even journalists recognize that the news media falls short of this ideal. Only 55% think journalists do so, while 43% believe journalists are often unable to.
This split between the ideal and the real is just one possible factor behind this stark statistic: Only 14% of journalists say they think the U.S. public has "a great deal or fair amount of trust in the information it gets from news outlets," compared with the 44% who "believe Americans as a whole have some trust" or the 42% who said "little to no trust."
In this case, the journalists may have been uncharacteristically optimistic: 27% of the U.S. public said they have "some trust," and 44% said "little to none." Similar splits exist between journalists and the general public on core functions of journalism, including "covering the most important stories of the day" (67% of U.S. journalists say "very/somewhat good" compared with 41% of U.S. adults); "reporting the news accurately (65%/35%); "serving as a watchdog over elected leaders" (46%/24%) and "managing or correcting information" (43%/25%).
One of the factors driving this dynamic, many journalists believe, is social media. While 87% believe it has a "very/somewhat positive impact on promoting stories," a much-lower 41% believe it positively impacts "building trust in their news."
Had social media been around about 50 years ago, it may have promoted stories and trust. Consider Watergate, which developed from a "third-rate burglary" to the first resignation of a U.S. president. Journalism surged in the public's esteem, and a generation of journalism students was inspired by the courageous reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
Had the term "fake news" been around in 1972, "[then-President Richard] Nixon's folks would have gratefully used it," former Washington Post Publisher Donald Graham wrote in a commentary this week. (Graham's mother, Katherine, was Post publisher during the Watergate investigation.)
"But the stories — day after day, week after week — hit hard for a simple reason," Donald Graham wrote. "They were true. They weren't fake. They were news."
And "if most of their stories had been untrue or exaggerated, Watergate would be the story of an embarrassment of a newspaper, not a president. But Bob and Carl, carefully edited by Ben Bradlee and many others, told as much of the truth as they could learn daily. They got it right."
Half a century hence, journalists are trying to do the same with the Jan. 6 scandal. Much of the reporting on the insurrection has indeed been derided as fake news by Trump's followers. But for those Americans paying attention to the U.S. House hearings, the reporting has been spot-on. The facts revealed in the hearings paint an even grimmer picture of what happened leading up to and on that fateful day, just as the Watergate hearings built upon reporting from the Post and other news media organizations.
That's why Pew's finding that 57% of U.S. journalists "are extremely of very concerned about future restrictions on press freedoms" is so troubling. That percentage jumps to 68% among journalists older than 65 who came of age during Watergate, when the press was celebrated for holding power accountable and who now are often criticized for doing the same.
Many candidates run against "the media" as much as their opponents, a tactic that while not new is intensifying. (And instead of closing ranks, rank partisanship from some conservative media organizations has piled on.) State legislatures in Iowa, Kansas and Utah have limited access to reporters this year, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which also gathers information on attacks on journalists, arrests, equipment damage, search or seizure, prior restraint, subpoenas and legal orders, "chilling statements" and other actions meant to impede reporters.
Journalists always have fought for their First Amendment rights, however. For themselves and their careers, but also for their fellow citizens and the country. And by the looks of the Pew poll, in assessing their careers most would choose to do it again.
"The toughest job you'll ever love" was long the slogan for the Peace Corps. It seems to be the ethos of the nation's press corps, too.