A minor industry has sprouted in recent times around the “crisis” in journalism. New technologies, changing audience habits and shifts in where revenues are earned have placed huge pressures on news organisations.
At its best, journalism plays a pivotal role in democratic discourse, the provision of accurate information to the public and holding those in positions of authority to account. When journalism fails, democracy suffers.
For every reader who doesn’t pay for content, there is an opinion about how news outlets should earn revenue so as to keep serious journalism alive.
But easy solutions are not readily available. In an attempt to better understand the changes in the professional orientations of journalists as well as the conditions under which they operate, academics in 70 countries are participating in an international research project. The first results from the Irish component of this project are published today.
We find two fundamental changes in the age profile of Irish journalists based on a detailed survey questionnaire. First, journalists are relatively young. The overwhelming majority (68 per cent) are in the 25-44 age category. The comparable figure in 1997 was 55 per cent.
Second, we find a ‘”hollowing out” of mid-career journalists – the percentage aged between 45 and 54 is 20 per cent today (33 per cent in 1997). These results are confirmed by numerous examples of experienced reporters who have left journalism for careers elsewhere.
These exits are undoubtedly influenced by various personal and professional issues but they also highlight the apparent absence of an attractive career path taking journalists through their working lives. Issues such as salary and work pressures – highlighted in our study – are undoubtedly contributing to this “experience drain”.
A young staff can be a positive with energy brought to story generation and an ability to relate news to contemporary life. But there are also negatives. Given the pivotal role played by the media in “educating and informing” the public about societal issues, there must be concern about the ability of younger journalists to offer serious editorial context when reporting and contextualising major news stories.
Our survey indicates that 62 per cent of Irish journalists are men while 38 per cent are women. This male domination is further emphasised when we examine the seniority of positions held. A near consistent two-to-one male/female ratio is reported at every level of responsibility.
Nor is Irish journalism immune to gender salary disparities. Our findings show that the average post-tax monthly salary for a female journalist is between €2,001 and €2,500.
Their male counterparts report on average post-tax monthly salary levels of between €2,500 and €3,000. It would seem that the principle of “equal pay for equal work” is not evident in Irish journalism. Increased work pressure is a reality. Lengthy working days, demands for more output across multiple platforms and, all the time, reducing resources to do the job are some of the contributory factors reported in many studies that reference work pressures among journalists.
The impact of these changes is even more evident in replies from journalists with five years or more experience. Of these journalists: 86 per cent say their working hours have increased a lot or somewhat; 65 per cent say profit-making pressures have increased a lot or somewhat; 58 per cent say advertising considerations have increased a lot or somewhat; and 53 per cent say pressure to sensationalise news has increased a lot or somewhat.
There are also positives in the journalism workplace. Irish journalists report a very strong commitment to codes of professional ethics.
Their educational attainment level is also hugely impressive. The overwhelming majority (80 per cent) have a third-level qualification. But their area of study is narrow. Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) studied courses in journalism and/or communications.
Trust levels are highly variable. Trust is highest for the judiciary and the courts (80 per cent report its level as being “some or a great deal”).
In terms of politicians, 52 per cent indicate some trust but 40 per cent say they have little or no trust. Religious leaders have the largest negative trust indicator (56 per cent little or no trust). Interestingly, some 69 per cent also say religion is not influential, or has little influence, on their work. An additional 19 per cent say religion is not relevant to their work.
Impact on reporting
Our survey findings should be a “wake-up call” for those directly involved in journalism and for wider Irish society. The young age profile matched with decreasing career opportunities cannot but have an impact on how journalists report the news.
Likewise, the role of women needs attention. High educational levels, while commendable, come with some warnings especially related to homogeneity in outlook. The impact of increased work demands and less time for research is clearly signalled – credibility is lost; sensationalism increases. Those in leadership roles need to act to avert a real crisis in journalism.
Kevin Rafter is professor of political communication at Dublin City University. The Irish Journalist Today by Kevin Rafter and Stephen Dunne is part of the Worlds of Journalism project