December 17, 2013

Gallup released a poll on “U.S. Views on Honesty and Ethical Standards in Professions” Monday, and journalists rank pretty low.

The poll, conducted Dec. 5 through 8, used telephone interviews with a random sample of more than 1,000 adults in the country.

Their findings: just 21 percent of the people surveyed ranked newspaper reporters with high or very high honesty and ethical standards. Next came lawyers, tying with 21 percent, followed by TV reporters at 20 percent, then advertisers at a miserable 14 percent.

Seems grim for journalists, but look now at those numbers going back to 1976, when Gallup began conducting the poll. In 1976, 33 percent of those asked gave journalists (TV and print, we’ll assume; Gallup hasn’t returned calls or emails yet) a high or very high ranking. That number dips to 23 percent in 1988, then back up to 30 percent in 1990, back to 20 percent in 1994, and it stayed in the low 20s until 2001. The poll, that year, was taken in November, and 29 percent of people ranked journalists as high or very high for honesty and ethical standards. The numbers since have gone up and down in the 20s. In 2012, it was at 24 percent.

So, for nearly 40 years, roughly less than a third of the public surveyed has thought highly of journalists’ honesty and ethics.

Kelly McBride, Poynter senior faculty, offers a few reasons why this is. The poll began in the late 70s, she said, during a post-modern era, out of Vietnam, when the general public began losing trust in institutions.

“And journalists are part of institutions,” she said.

Another reason, at least anecdotally, McBride said, is journalists are often portrayed as smarmy and unethical in entertainment, “and entertainment has a lot to do with public opinion.”

She experiences it herself when she gets on a plane and her row neighbor asks what she does. I’m a journalism ethicist, she answers.

“Isn’t that an oxymoron?” McBride says she hears that about once each trip.

Good work by journalists is quickly recognized by journalists, McBride said, but rarely outside the profession. There, the focus is on the screw ups. At industry events, McBride often hears people say we need to tell our story better. But, she said, there’s not much journalists can do about this perception.

“As we become more diffused, we’re more likely to be defined by our transgressions than our successes,” she said. And that’s probably only going to increase, “because there’s just so many people doing something that looks like journalism.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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