Journalism’s Elitism Problem

Journalism is a really fun job. Everyday, I get to research topics that interest me, call smart people and ask them to tell me about their ideas and beliefs, and then write-up what I learn. Sure, it's stressful: there's constant deadline pressure, sort of like being a student during finals week…forever. And if you can't write cleanly and quickly, forget it. But this job is so awesome that sometimes, I'm pretty astounded that I get paid for it at all.

So it's not hugely shocking that journalism has evolved into a career with significant entry barriers, one of which is the unpaid internship. This makes the profession whiter, wealthier (in terms of family wealth; salaries remain modest), and less concerned with public policy issues that affect the poor and even the middle class. While journalism was once a career that didn't require a college degree, today it is highly elitist and dominated by graduates of selective colleges. In some fields, like political "think" journalism, the Ivy League schools are grossly overrepresented. (Yep, that includes me. I went to Brown.)

A report by the British Cabinet Office, "Unleashing Aspirations," now documents the trend. In the U.K., 98 percent of journalists are college graduates, and under 10 percent come from working class families. In fact, journalism has become the third most socially exclusive profession in Great Britain, just behind medicine and law. Another fascinating tidbit:

Between the 1958 and the 1970 birth cohorts, the biggest decline in social mobility occurred in the professions of journalism and accountancy. For example, journalists and broadcasters born in 1958 typically grew up in families with an income of around 5.5% above that of the average family; but this rose to 42.4% for the generation of journalists and broadcasters born in 1970.

At the blog Working-Class Studies, Alyssa Lenhoff and Tim Francisco focus on the problem of unpaid (and barely-paid) internships. These are, indeed, a culprit, but the issue is far more complicated. The average student debt burden in the United States is $23,186. Believe it or not, that's also a typical entry-level salary at a "thought-leader" magazine. It is economically irrational for a highly-educated person with that level of debt to choose journalism over law, consulting, advertising, or public relations. That's not to say journalists don't have student debt — many do. But it's a difficult, sometimes discouraging slog, and you have to truly love this work.

What's the solution? Federal student loan reform, currently in front of Congress, would help. So would an agenda of actually pressuring colleges to decrease their tuition, which Michael Dannenberg outlined in our pages last month.

At Slate, Jack Shafer is critical of non-profit journalism, because donations from foundations often come with "strings." This is a fair critique, though the influence of social justice-oriented donors is hardly more nefarious than that of corporate advertisers or local elites, the kind of people who have been influencing the news for centuries. But one thing media-interested philanthropists can definitely add to the profession is funding for paid internships, and recruiting efforts that target low-income people of color. It should be a major priority.

cross-posted at TAPPED

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