Has Journalism Become Elitist?


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?


Other Reasons Why Newspapers Aren’t Read

How Much Do You Trust Journalists via the International Herald Tribune

Pew study on trust in journalism

13 Responses to “Has Journalism Become Elitist?”

  1. Journalists gain trust when they develop unbiased, objective articles. I believe distrust is a result of not following these basic guidelines; of reporting the sensationalist; of letting their own biases impact the tone and information provided in the article. It doesn’t matter of where and how they were educated.

  2. TheImaginator March 7, 2013 at 9:02 am

    Maybe it’s not all down to the journalists, they have editors after all, who in turn are under pressure from others. The market will balance itself out when the generations currently buying newspapers and watching news on TV die off, and leave behind younger generations who read blogs and streams instead…

  3. Considering that msn, fox news, yahoo, and several other internet news networks picked up and ran the made up story of the dentist pulling teeth from her ex – yeah, they aren’t doing basic fact checking anymore. It’s sad. And the print papers aren’t that much better. They make a mistake on the front page and print the retraction way down on the bottom of the last page so no one sees it. Where is the integrity these days? Then again, if they had it, would people bother to read it? Everyone is getting news through whatever someone posts on facebook or other social networks. Sigh.

  4. Big media, such as The New York Times, is elitist. Whenever there’s that much money and power in an organization, there’s bias and a disconnect from us regular folks. Small-town journalists, though, are not elitist – especially considering they don’t make any money. Small newspapers are hurting because they need to make money. You’re right about reporters being pushed for quantity of stories over quality. In-depth investigative pieces are rare, and publishers find biased ways to make money despite what the newsroom wants. One example is bargaining with businesses for advertising by promising a positive news story about them. The quality of news is suffering because the industry relies on money – and nobody’s spending money on newspapers anymore. The whole system needs to change. One way might be to go nonprofit, as Dan Kennedy suggests in The Wired City.

  5. Great comments.

    Beth, I completely disagree that it doesn’t matter where you come from. Minority journalists provide a different insight into news than their white counterparts because they have had a different life experience. The same holds true for social class. Being raised in the working class comes with a completely different vantage point than growing up in a wealthy suburb.

  6. Until now I had been thinking that this the problem of the developing countries but now through your article I came to know this is the problem everywhere. In INDIA news is highly influenced by politicians and paid news became a major concern. The problem here is majority people trust the reporters here.

  7. Hi Lohith:
    Interesting perspective – I think journalists in the U.S. would kill to have people trusting them.

  8. David Jacobson March 8, 2013 at 11:04 am

    George: Good post and better comments. One thing that has not been touched here are newspaper economics. As dailies geared toward the working class closed, and the price of papers went up, and paywalls began rising, the type of person reading the news was increasingly the one who could afford to do so. It would not surprise me if papers decided to focus more on their dwindling audience, which was increasingly wealthy and elite. Perhaps the rise in similarly “elite” journalists are a response to this, or perhaps because they are the best qualified to write to this audience?

    The ads in these papers are a dead giveaway. I chuckle whenever I read a story in the NY Times or Boston Globe about how a federal or state government action will devastate the poor when it’s right next to an ad from Tiffany’s or Prada.

    Another example is the focus on college tuitions hitting $50-60K a year. That’s certainly true for elite private schools, where journalists go and where many people reading these papers want to send their kids. But the average college tuition in this country is far below that. There are many fine public colleges in this country charging less, and the vast majority of American students attend a regional or community college where tuition certainly isn’t cheap but it’s nowhere near $50K. But that fact may not be applicable for the average journalist or newspaper reader anymore.

  9. I think the problem is that many so-called journalists today have abdicated their traditional role, and most important purpose, in American society. There was a time when you could count of the media at large to keep the ruling political party honest. Sometime in the last 20 year that changed. Today, the media acts as cheerleaders for the left mainly (CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC, NYT, HuffPost, and the rest of the mainstream media), but also for the right (Fox, Breitbart, Blaze). What is needed is more honest objectivity. It’s not a rich/poor thing. It’s an honest/dishonest thing.

  10. I think you’re reading it wrong, Chris. I don’t see it as a left/right thing. The media certainly didn’t question the Iraq Invasion and, in fact, supported it. And that came from the right.

    When the journalists all come from the same schools, communities and social circles as the ruling elite – they don’t question it as hard. The relationship is too chummy and journalists start to side with and reflect the POV of that elite class rather than blue-collar and working class. That’s the real problem.

  11. Could it be a reflection of the shift in journalism that’s putting an emphasis on educated/over-educated writers? What I mean is, it seems that media outlets are focusing on investigative reporting and opinion/editorial work over “news” reporting (that can be picked up by wire services). Obviously, op/ed writers are valued for their education or for their experiences which may not have been achievable without having an education.

  12. Where are you seeing that Alison? I see a shift away from investigative journalism – because of its expense. Lots of newspapers have slashed the longer lead content in favor of the short, easy to execute stories – breaking news, crime, celebrity gossip… Although I do agree that opinion pieces are getting more traction than every, especially in entertainment and sports coverage.

  13. Yes, you’re right. I was thinking of the long form, essay type journalism, e.g. The New Yorker, but shouldn’t call it investigative journalism. That, too, may be shrinking but I think there’s a contingent that realizes it’s worth paying for.

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