Newsroom Conservatives Are a Rare Breed ; in National News Outlets, Only 7 Percent of Journalists Call Themselves Conservative. Does That Deepen a Trust Gap?
Randy Dotinga Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
If you'd like to check out an endangered species, don't bother with a trip to the zoo. Just drop by the newsroom of your favorite newspaper or TV station and ask to see the conservatives.
According to a new survey, only 12 percent of local reporters, editors, and media executives are self-described conservatives, while twice as many call themselves liberal. At national news organizations, the gap is even wider - 7 percent conservative vs. 34 percent liberal.
That gap, which has grown wider in the past decade, does not necessarily prove that America's mainstream journalism is biased, as conservatives have long complained. But the survey does confirm that US newsrooms do not mirror the political leanings of the nation at large.
But in an election year, and an era of growing partisanship on the airwaves, the question of alleged media bias has currency. Some editors contend that at the very least, media outlets should acknowledge that ideologically unbalanced newsrooms are bad for journalism and, in a time of declining circulation and viewership, bad for business, too.
"We should acknowledge that maybe the biggest problem is that most of us think too much alike and come from the same backgrounds," says David Yarnold, editor of the opinion pages at The (San Jose) Mercury News. "Find the pro-lifers in a newsroom. That's harder than finding Waldo."
Many editors and news executives argue that the goal of balanced reporting can be reached, and generally is, through professional ethics. Even those who are alarmed by the survey don't necessarily advocate a political litmus test in hiring.
Still, the survey shows a sharp disconnect in viewpoint between the press and the public. The nonpartisan Pew Research Center found the gap between journalists and other Americans particularly wide on social issues. The sample of 547 journalists and executives in a wide range of print and broadcast organizations, found that 88 percent of those surveyed at national media outlets think society should accept homosexuality; about half the general public agrees. And while about 60 percent of Americans say morality and a belief in God are inexorably linked, only 6 percent of national journalists and executives surveyed believe that.
But if editors and recruiters are thinking more about ideological balance, newsrooms remain distracted by budget cutbacks and continued embarrassment over the another gap: a severe shortage of minorities relative to the general population. To make things more complicated, no one wants to put a "Bush or Kerry?" question on an application form, and some journalists assume conservatives simply aren't interested in joining their ranks.
Then there's the matter of changing attitudes in a profession that prides itself on the ability of reporters to set their personal views aside."Most journalists try to do a fair job and are quite careful to make sure that their personal point of view doesn't overwhelm the story," says Jeffrey Dvorkin, ombudsman at National Public Radio. "In talk radio and cable television, the goal is to be opinionated. But the majority of journalists feel opinion gets in the way of doing good journalism. …