Journalists face plight of prestige

By Bill Miston

An annual Harris poll was recently released that asked Americans to rate 23 different careers in terms of prestige. In the end, only 13 percent of Americans consider journalism a prestigious career – topping the list were firefighters at 61 percent and at the bottom were real estate agents at 5 percent. In fact, my prestige-deficient career is tied with union leaders! Please take a moment and form your own opinion regarding the prestige of union leaders (some say exploiters of non-union and unemployed workers) and then compare to your opinion of the prestige of journalists. I’m not saying, but I’m just saying.

When I first heard of this ranking and began to read the corresponding articles discussing what these rankings meant and how or why certain professions were ranked higher than my own, I was upset, confused, even angered. How is my profession – or current course of study/future profession for the sticklers – one that Americans think is one of the least prestigious? How could the public feel that one of the most important professions in the U.S (note a biased opinion inserted here) – one that began the American Revolution, that criticizes government, that exposes corruption – be one of the least prestigious?

What does prestigious even mean?

By definition, prestige means the “standing or estimation in the eyes of people … commanding position in people’s minds.” Who doesn’t want that, especially when it comes to how your career looks in the eyes of others? With one look at the list, it’s clear that those in the top five – firefighters, scientists, teachers, doctors and military officers – deserve their rankings. But, in the pursuit of properly balanced reporting – as a journalist should actively pursue – I decided to conduct my own poll … of roommates and friends.

You know, it’s funny. It turns out my un-scientific poll didn’t deviate much from the Harris poll: journalists weren’t thought that highly of in the prestige category. In fact, when I asked a friend why she thought journalists were not thought of being that prestigious, she said, “most people think journalists lie and twist the truth.”

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    She and I are no longer friends.

    But I got to thinking about what my former-friend said. When the public thinks of journalists, they see individuals who sometimes exploit people – all for the sake of a story – for the byline, the picture, the video. Those perceptions are dangerous and can harm the basic roots of journalism and its integral part of our society. But where has this level of distrust spurred from? I, according to a code that I abide by as a journalist, believe that public enlightenment (journalism) is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. I strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty because professional integrity is the cornerstone of my credibility.

    Wasn’t journalism the fourth checking power of the government, the protector of the people? From Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” to the exposing of the Watergate scandal – journalists have been behind issues from health and food reform to the eventual resignation of a president.

    Unfortunately, it seems that journalism has become or is perceived by the public as elitist; disconnecting or alienating some of the people it’s supposed to protect. Journalism has been blurred by the perception that journalism is the combination of true reporting and opinion/commentary. While the vast majority of journalists practice ethical journalism, it seems the majority of the public sees only those they think are journalists or look-like journalists/commentators as the true majority. Think of some of the shows on FOX News Channel, CNN’s Nancy Grace and Glenn Beck, or pundit Ann Coulter.

    But is journalism really a prestigious career, in comparison to firefighters, doctors or teachers in that poll? I don’t think it is. In fact, I don’t think it should have even been included in the poll. While the ultimate goal of the profession may be honorable and its purpose is to serve the public, the job certainly lacks prestige, and I should be grateful of the little prestige it was given.

    Journalism is public service – as well as a business – but only when business motives overtake journalism’s public service will it lose any prestige it has left.