Weaver, Wilhoit survey offers optimism about journalism

Ellen Glover • March 12, 2018
Distinguished Professor emeritus David H. Weaver (Nicholas Demille | The Media School)

The number of American journalists may have declined significantly in the past couple of decades, but journalists’ sense of purpose has not.

That finding is one of the key messages derived from the latest in a series of surveys of US journalists conducted by emeritus professors David Weaver and Cleve Wilhoit, along with Lars Willnat, an alumnus and former IU journalism professor now on the faculty at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. Weaver and Wilhoit shared their work at the school’s research colloquium March 2.

The results of the surveys, which originated at the University of Illinois in 1971 and continued with Weaver and Wilhoit’s work from 1982 to the present, have been published in a series of books titled The American Journalist. The latest book, The American Journalist in the Digital Age: A Half Century Perspective, was published in November and was based on the results of a survey conducted in 2013.

Emeritus professor Cleve Wilhoit (Ann Schertz | The Media School)

Despite shifting views within the industry, Weaver and Wilhoit found there was a persistent feeling of altruism among all of the generations of journalists surveyed. There seems to be a kind of public service mentality among reporters that has not died through the years.

“Journalists, in spite of this digital metabolism that they have been made to acquire now, in spite of the fact that the audience is becoming more and more the driver of the media, they still have a sense of public service mentality,” said Wilhoit. “If, our data are right, I think that’s really a significant finding.” 

The survey generated responses from almost 1,100 U.S. journalists working for both daily and weekly radio, newspaper, TV and magazine organizations. Weaver and Wilhoit used the history from their previous research as a touchstone to better understand the context of their findings.

As Wilhoit put it, you have to put on your historian’s hat when interpreting this data.

“Unless you think about what is going on in 1971 and why is that relevant to the very latest data, I think you miss something,” Wilhoit said.

Wilhoit went on to explain that, with the advent of better technology, particularly in social media, we’ve changed our way of thinking about history. Centuries ago, people thought of history as a long, long time ago. More recently, the past was something that was maybe a generation ago. Now, yesterday can be considered history.

“You might be thinking, with the data set from 2013, what am I doing here? 2013 is ancient history,” said Wilhoit. “But, if you think back to 2013, it was the year that the digital metabolism was really blooming. There were a lot of markers that still hold.”

Weaver and Wilhoit found several positive changes in the industry over time. For one, this generation of journalists is perhaps the best educated in history, earning college degrees at a much higher rate than the general population.

However, they also found that fewer journalists are satisfied in their work. In 1971, about half of the respondents reported being gratified at work. In 2013, that number dipped to less than a quarter. This finding correlates with the amount of autonomy journalists feel at work, Weaver said. In 1971, 60 percent of reporters said they felt free to cover the stories they wanted. In 2013, that number was at its lowest point, 33 percent.

“This, I think, is related to the cutbacks in the journalistic work force,” said Weaver. “If you have fewer people in a news organization, you can’t afford the luxury of giving people a lot of autonomy to choose their stories. I think it also has something to do with audience metrics, if you pay attention to which stories are trending and most popular, that limits journalists’ freedom to cover what they think is important.”

These audience metrics are being collected increasingly via social media. Maintaining a dialogue with readers and viewers was one of the top uses of social media reported by journalists. They also reported using social media to find breaking news stories and monitor other news organizations.

There also is a clear generational gap when it comes to journalists’ use and perception of social media. While younger reporters said it had a positive influence on their profession, their older colleagues disagreed.

Weaver and Wilhoit also looked at how reporting methods have changed over the decades. For instance, in 1971, more than two thirds of journalists said that investigating the government was important. That number was even higher in 2013. However, in between those dates, the importance of investigating the government waned among journalists.

“What is interesting is that it goes down as the profession begins to enlarge,” Wilhoit said. “It was massively increasing in size during those years and it’s kind of a puzzling trend as to why the investigative mentality would have slid because a lot of these kids who were going into journalism were supposedly inspired by Woodward and Bernstein of Watergate fame. But what is important is, at the end of the line, that old idea, that touchstone, is back.”

Moreover, some questionable journalistic practices seem to have decreased in popularity as the investigative mentality has reemerged. For instance, in 1992, almost half of the journalists surveyed said they could justify using personal documents in a story without consent. In 2013, fewer than a quarter agreed.

“Journalists have never been particularly predisposed to want to use personal documents. But it’s the lowest it’s ever been, and we’re living in a Facebook world where it seems like everybody is disclosing everything,” said Wilhoit. “So it’s fascinating that we can tell that journalists are beginning to worry about the Facebook phenomenon even in 2013.”