The state of journalism in democracy

The following is a summary of a research project by the Philosophy of Journalism graduate class at the Missouri School of Journalism led by associate professor Ryan Thomas. The students’ semester-long task was to research the state of journalism in relation to its role in democracy.


Researchers disseminated the survey, approved by the institutional review board (IRB) at the University of Missouri via email. Researchers generated an email list using the Leadership Media database, narrowing it to those who fit the criteria “journalist and news media professional.” The search generated a total of 3,983 leads who were emailed the survey link. Participants could take part in the survey voluntarily by clicking the survey link. When directed to the survey, respondents reviewed a consent form and instructions. After participants consented, they answered questions regarding their demographics and journalistic working experience, and then answered questions about their impressions regarding how the current U.S. journalistic environment enhances or limits journalism’s ability to fulfill its functions in a democracy. The questionnaire included both close-ended and open-ended questions. Data collection started on December 4, 2018 and ended at 4 p.m. on December 13, 2018. A total of 177 professionals completed the survey. The response rate (4.44%), though low, is not extremely low for an online survey without incentives (Wimmer & Dominick, 2014; Tourangeau, Conrad, & Couper, 2013). To ensure the quality of the data, researchers deleted those respondents whose response was inconsistent or suspicious (e.g., all “1”s). After data cleaning, researchers kept 170 responses for further data analysis.

Wimmer, R. D., & Dominick, J. R. (2013). Mass media research: An introduction (10th ed., pp. 191-223). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Tourangeau, R., Conrad, F. G., & Couper, M. P. (2013). The science of web surveys. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Seemingly, insurmountable economic, technological, political, and social problems confront journalists, yet they steadfastly defend their vital role in democracy. They do not back down from the fight presented to them when confronted by a president who refers to them as the “enemy of the people.” Instead, they view this challenging time as an opportunity to remind everyone what journalism is meant to do.

A review of recent research combined with the data extrapolated from a survey of 170 journalists shows they have a clear understanding of the difficult state of journalism today and its relationship with democracy. However, journalists also express hope for the future. They are confident in the work that they do for the organizations they work for individually, but see larger systemic problems affecting their ability to work in support of democracy. They are especially concerned about national media’s ability to perform the watchdog or monitorial function with decreasing economic resources. Decreasing reporting staffs create a multiplying effect on reporters’ job duties — all have to do more work with fewer resources. Journalists feel this constraint across the board, and they expressed frustration over a lack of resources to alleviate these restrictions.

Advancements in technology represent a double-edged sword. They connect journalists and audiences to data, sources, and content, but they also create distance. One respondent called it a “cacophony” of information available online that is frequently incorrect or misleading, and audiences do not have the media literacy (or, as some journalists suspected, the will) to investigate sources of information.

Technology simultaneously connects and divides. It allows journalists who adapt  quickly to expand their repertoire for finding sources and data, but requires that ability to adapt and adopt new technology as soon as it is available. There is a lack of training or advice for those who do not have the technological experience. As such, technology offers potential solutions but creates just as many problems as it could potentially solve because it remains just out of reach for many journalists. The increasing use of technology such as social media for the dissemination and consumption of news presented political and social implications as well.

Journalists reported that the increasing divisiveness and polarization of society led them to feel as though certain populations were hopelessly out of reach for them. Many reported difficulties with attempts to please an unpleasable audience, indicating, “no matter what we do, people on both sides of the political spectrum will complain that we’d slanted the coverage in the other direction.” The primary way they saw their way out of this quandary was to reassert journalistic normative values and functions. Journalists most strongly responded against suggestions that they could become too fearful of audience disapproval or government interference to stop pursuing this function. Journalists vehemently defended the importance of their work.

They did note a difference, however, between the organizations they work for and what they perceive other journalists to be experiencing. This was particularly interesting considering that the sample respondents were predominantly from local or regional publications rather than national. They compared themselves to national publications, but indicated that their organizations had a different status from the national norm.

The differences between local/regional publications and their perceptions of national publications is of note. For example, they perceived that they had not lost control of the flow of information between the public and political officials on their local/regional level, but did perceive a loss of gatekeepers on the national stage. This was particularly in response to the activities of the Trump administration.

Likewise, when stating that they feared physical violence, it was directly in response to the hate mongering rhetoric of President Trump. The differences between the needs of local/regional journalists to facilitate their functions in democracy appear to be slightly different from those at the national level.


Survey respondents were predominantly male with over 20 years of experience in the field. While researchers anticipated that journalists would point to cultural and political impacts at large having a negative impact on journalism, many of the survey respondents leveled a critical eye at their own work, and the work of the industry as not living up to their standards. These criticisms focused on what respondents noted was journalism’s slow or faulty response to external forces impacting journalism

The current social environment in the U.S. has resulted in an uptick in sales, allowing some news outlets to expand coverage, but journalists do not hope for this economic windfall to sustain itself. Many cited that organizations and owners either focused too much on short-term gains or just a general ineptitude in journalism at-large to capitalize on digital media in an effort to spur surplus profits. Surplus profits, they noted, could support unpopular but important news coverage of topics audiences do not readily ask for, but are vital to the watchdog role.

Respondents welcomed the “Trump bump” but worried that once it fades, the economic state of journalism would suffer. “Those who detest Trump are supporting newspapers, but once he’s out of office, I don’t know how long that support will last,” one respondent noted. There was a general worry that journalism at-large was not doing enough to maintain the interest of readers after the newsworthiness of the Trump administration fades.

The pressure of competition with free information sources online is causing journalists to double down on journalistic norms in light of political and social disruption. Respondents felt their audience and immediate community distrusted the media as an authority, but they held out hope that good journalism could break through those skeptical barriers. “I want to believe people want high quality journalism, but I do think people prefer their point of view over strong journalism that may make them question their beliefs,” one respondent said.

News organizations should harness the increased interest in news to remind audiences why journalism is important and sustain their interest in news even during potentially quieter social and political times moving forward.

Some recommendations

The recommendations follow the lead suggested by Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer last year when they suggested that journalism needs to employ deeper reporting and move slower, giving journalists the time to really find out what’s going on.

Economic: There was a strong feeling that if publications charged consumers directly for content, those consumers would and could easily find other free options for news.

Collaboration: Collaboration should be encouraged to tackle large, complicated projects. This leads to more unity among journalists, making the profession less libertarian in nature, as well as increasing efficiency on different projects. If a beat reporter gets on a good story, assign other reporters to help. For instance, a GA or breaking news reporter could use her shift to assist the beat reporter with making phone calls, getting documents, or covering a meeting. Collaboration should not just be among journalists within the same newsroom, but rather among news organizations.

Technology: In an online environment where it is difficult for journalists to know what data is available from various government organizations and non-profit watchdog groups, universities can survey peers in other departments to provide journalists with trustworthy data sources online on various subjects. A consortium of universities could easily keep this resource up-to-date online with an annual or semi-annual survey and review and could serve as a single starting point for reporters searching for trustworthy data. This could be an expansion of and in addition to existing sources like the Journalist’s Toolbox by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Additionally, universities have access to undergraduates who tend to be the most fickle about new technology and therefore the quickest adaptors. Programs such as the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Potter Ambassadors Program, which embeds undergraduates in local news organizations for a week to establish and guide their social media presence, should be duplicated and implemented. These programs should specifically target small organizations on the local and regional level who do not have large staffs to devote to such practices.

One small way each news organization could facilitate democracy is by agreeing to universal guidelines for commenting sections, which would best facilitate civil discourse. Initiatives such as the Coral Project keep track of the most current research on comment sections and can provide tools to facilitate civil discourse. Professional organizations and universities should step in to debate and implement a best practice similar to the SPJ code of ethics.

Community outreach: Community outreach project examples include having a citizens’ reader board that meets regularly with editors or organizing a local awards banquet for community members. Each of these outreach activities could have sponsorships and possibly charge small admission fees to events such as the awards banquet. It is important that these events be featured and promoted on social media but be face-to-face audience/community engagement and provide something of value to the community.

Another form of direct communication between citizens and journalists is the idea of in-person office hours for journalists held in various places around the community. The public can meet with reporters or editors to ask them questions, which is also a good opportunity for journalists to build community sources.

Journalistic routines: A few journalistic routines must change, and none requires major new investments or technological skill.

Instead of seeking “comment” from politicians, force them to provide possible solutions to a problem. Say when they do not respond: “The senator did not return multiple requests asking for what she thought a possible solution to the problem was.” In addition, stories on divisive issues must be grounded in personal experiences. This means allowing reporters more time to conduct longer interviews so they can better understand the situation and the people they’re covering (if need be, have the reporter make up for that time by making them produce more, shorter posts later). In the wake of investigations or watchdog journalism, publicize what happened after, including any changes, large or small. Citizens should know what their press is doing for them.

During election season, news organizations should focus on voters, not politicians. They should advocate for high voting turnout and not recommend specific candidates. As an election draws near, news organizations should remind people almost constantly that voting day is close, how they can register and where their polling place is.

Doctoral student Elizabeth Bent and master’s student Max Mitchem were project coordinators. Doctoral students Sisi Hu and James Ndone and master’s students Jared Andrews, Sky Chadde, Devan Collins, John Heniff, Taylor Hensel, Lauren Kight, Lauren Knudson and Samuel Manas were project members.


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