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May 24, 2004

EDITOR AND PUBLISHER:

Those convinced that liberals make up a disproportionate share of newsroom workers have long relied on Pew Research Center surveys to confirm this view, and they will not be disappointed by the results of Pew's latest study released today. . . .

At national organizations (which includes print, TV and radio), the numbers break down like this: 34% liberal, 7% conservative. At local outlets: 23% liberal, 12% conservative. At Web sites: 27% call themselves liberals, 13% conservatives.

This contrasts with the self-assessment of the general public: 20% liberal, 33% conservative. . . .

While it's important to remember that most journalists in this survey continue to call themselves moderate, the ranks of self-described liberals have grown in recent years, according to Pew. For example, since 1995, Pew found at national outlets that the liberal segment has climbed from 22% to 34% while conservatives have only inched up from 5% to 7%.

The survey also notes a dramatic "values gap" on issues like gay marriage and belief in God. But don't worry: "Of course, no one would ever expect this to impact the way news is covered."

Though, the war and the Second Amendment aside, my views are probably closer to those of the press than the general public, I have to agree with those who find this troubling. If despite aspirations toward objectivity, reporters' gender and ethnicity is as influential on the news as newsroom diversity advocates tell us, then surely reporters' views are even more significant. So where's the move toward greater diversity there?

UPDATE: Reader Mike Gordon emails:

One point that can't be overstressed is that the Pew findings are based on self-assessment. I worked in the newsroom at three large newspapers for 22 years, and many of the journalists who rate themselves as politically moderate are well to the left of center, especially on social issues. They are moderate by newsroom standards, not by the general public's standards.

Perhaps the most pervasive way in which journalists are different from normal people is that journalists live in a world dominated by government, and they reflexively see government action as the default way to approach any problem. Journalists' world is dominated by government because it's so easy to cover: Public agencies' meetings take place on a regular schedule and, with rare exceptions, have to admit journalists. As a result, participants in the meetings play to the press, inside and outside the meeting room, and the result is the elaborate dance of symbolic actions - gaffes, denials, sham indignation, press conferences, inquests and endless process - that dominates our news pages and means next to nothing in the long run.

Journalists tend to give private enterprise short shrift because it's harder to cover: The meetings are private, aren't announced in advance, and reporters aren't invited. Unlike politicians, most businesspeople aren't required to interact with the press, and many avoid doing so when possible - the downside is usually greater than the upside. As a result, journalists are generally reduced to covering what businesspeople do more than what they say. This is more work, so less of it gets done.

It's no accident that for the most part, the news is dominated by people whose value is largely driven by how much publicity they receive: politicians, athletes and entertainers. The people who actually make the world work - people in private industry, rank-and-file government employees and conscientious parents - are largely invisible in the news, except when they're unlucky enough to make one of the rare mistakes that reporters manage to find out about.

Interesting.

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