July 11, 2022

As a fact-checking reporter, I’m no stranger to hot takes about my job.

My colleagues and I face daily rhetoric about what we do. Claims that we’re a part of the “liberal mainstream media” have become commonplace — and unfortunately, we’ve had to come to grips with other verbal attacks that are more direct, and spiteful.

But a month or two ago, there was one particular claim about journalists that, quite frankly, shocked me to hear — that we’re all rich.

On a May 19 episode of his Fox News show, “Jesse Watters Primetime,” Watters hosted Batya Ungar-Sargon, deputy opinion editor at Newsweek.

Watters had just finished delivering a monologue blaming the Biden administration for high inflation, baby formula shortages, the fallout from the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and more. He predicted a summer of rage in 2022, but, he said, the media wouldn’t cover the chaos accurately, and would make the president look good instead.

Then he asked Ungar-Sargon for her thoughts on the media and the nation’s problems.

“They don’t care about these issues,” Ungar-Sargon said. “And the reason they don’t care about these issues is because they are not struggling with these issues. American journalists are part of the elites. They are rich. They are not out there, struggling to pay for gas. They are not living in crime-ridden cities. Those are their neighbors who they don’t care about, who they abandoned when they stopped being working class and became part of the elites.”

To say that all journalists in America belong to the same class is wrong. True, there are some, especially those on television, who have gained wealth and notoriety. But journalists in this country fall along a wide range of salaries, from $20,000 to $100,000 or above.

The second part of Ungar-Sargon’s claim struck me as even more wrong — because journalists absolutely do care about the communities around us.

Local and national journalists have been at the forefront of covering multiple tragic mass shootings, baby formula shortages, the continued effects of COVID-19 in our country and the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Fact-checking claims about my own profession could open me up to charges of bias. But in this case, I think the facts are on my side. What do you think?

The salary of a journalist

To find out how much journalists make, I turned to Zip Recruiter and found the average journalist salary ranges from $46,528 in Washington state to $30,674 in Louisiana. As far as the national median salary, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in May 2021 that it was $48,370.

A spokesperson from the Pew Research Center pointed me to its 2020 reports of median salaries in each facet of the news industry. Here’s what the center found:

  • In the radio broadcasting industry, reporters’ median wage was around $49,000, and editors made around $79,000.
  • Newspaper reporters’ median wage was $36,000, while editors made $50,000.
  • The median wage for local TV news reporters stood at $56,000, and editors stood at $60,000. Video editors and camera operators were at $55,000, and photographers’ median wage was at $50,000.
  • Cable news network editors had a median salary of $66,000 per year. Camera operators and editors stood at about $63,000, and photographers made a median of $48,000. Reporters’ salaries were not available, Pew said.

Some journalists who responded to Ungar-Sargon’s claim on Twitter said that their first job paid them $26,000. Others said their jobs paid them even less.

In 2019, Sarah Kobos, former senior photo editor at Wirecutter, a product review website from The New York Times, created a public spreadsheet with her coworkers that newsroom workers could use anonymously to share their salary information, gender and ethnicity. That spreadsheet showed a range of figures from a diverse group of people.

For example, reporters from newsrooms across the country listed salaries ranging from $28,000 to $100,000 or even more. (Those top-tier, high-end salaries were few in number compared with the others that were reported.)

“I created this spreadsheet after discussing pay with colleagues when we grew frustrated at the often touted ‘industry standard,’ because there’s no such thing,” Kobos said. “It’s just another fallacy used to convince people that they won’t get better (pay), or shouldn’t expect to get better. I wanted to create a point of reference for people to see what their peers are making, and what they should strive for or what they can strive for, and how they should push further.”

The claims that Ungar-Sargon shared couldn’t be further from the truth, Kobos said.

“It’s hard to miss journalists around the media industry organizing unions at record pace, and that’s because the pay is just asinine,” Kobos said. “People have to work multiple jobs. Most national media is based in expensive cities that the salaries make life hard to afford.”

Covering a hurting community

Another thing struck me about the claim: its timing. When Ungar-Sargon claimed that journalists don’t care about neighbors whom we “abandoned,” it had been just five days since the mass shooting in Buffalo, New York.

The day that interview aired, reporters from the local paper The Buffalo News were working to cover the aftermath of the tragedy that took the lives of 10 people.

I know someone else who has reported on a community that she cares about. My colleague Luz Moreno-Lozano, reporter for the Austin-American Statesman, worked tirelessly to cover the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that took the lives of 19 children and two teachers.

Moreno-Lozano has longtime ties to Uvalde — as a native of nearby San Antonio, she remembers the summers as a kid when she and her family would drive the hour and a half on U.S. Highway 90 to visit the river in Uvalde, or spend time in Garner State Park in the county. Other times, her family traveled just outside of Uvalde to a family event, or to escape the summer heat and go tubing. Several of her friends are Uvalde natives, she said.

The day that the shooting happened, she had been on an assignment for the Statesman with a photographer, in a city roughly three hours away, when her editors notified them of the crisis and dispatched them to Uvalde.

“We literally left with the clothes on our backs in our cars and went straight there,” she said. “And so I was there that first night.”

Moreno-Lozano and other reporters spent time with families in a reunification center who were waiting to hear about their children. The community came together quickly, she said, with some forming prayer circles, and others bringing boxes of pizza to the families.

Within a few hours, many families had been reunited for their children. But the people who were left were waiting to hear if their children had been taken to the hospital, or if they had been killed. The reporters were ushered outside of the center to wait. Families gave blood samples to help identify the children. Soon, Moreno-Lozano said she could hear families’ guttural reactions as the confirmations came.

“You could hear them agonizingly screaming after they had gotten the news. And so that was really hard, because it was just one after another,” Moreno-Lozano remembered. It lasted for hours, she said.

Moreno-Lozano said she invested her “entire soul” into the community of Uvalde while she covered it. Plus, she has two additional freelance jobs in order to make ends meet, she said.

“I don’t do this job because I’m considered the elite, or because I’m looking for something that would make me more money. I do this job because I love it, and because I love the people that I get to talk to,” Moreno-Lozano said. “And for me, the amount of money doesn’t matter.”

At PolitiFact, my colleagues and I work with similar passion. Fact-checking is not a gimmick. If we didn’t care about our country, we would just let misinformation and confusion run rampant. It’s hard work. I’ve been called racist and sexist slurs, received vitriolic notes, and harassed with cruel messages on social media. But I get joy from speaking to people from different walks of life — educators, doctors who’ve been on the front lines combatting COVID-19, and even people who have been directly affected by harmful misinformation who want to share their stories. If I did not care about what we do, I would not keep doing my job.

So, no — contrary to Ungar-Sargon’s claim, most of us would never consider ourselves as being rich. We’re just as appalled at the price of gas as everyone else. There are journalists who are entrenched in covering the cities that combat crime. And we most certainly do care about our neighbors, who we did not abandon.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Gabrielle Settles is a reporter covering misinformation for PolitiFact. Previously, she was a staff writer for The Weekly Challenger and staff member and reporter for…
Gabrielle Settles

More News

Back to News