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Taking the temperature of UK journalism

Neil Thurman

is professor of communication, LMU, University of Munich

Neil Thurman is the lead author of a new report about journalism from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. Here he summarises some of the main findings, which give an insight into the realities of working as a journalist in the UK. 

Ex-News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks faces journalists after being cleared of charges in the phone-hacking trial, 2014.

Journalists work under increasing pressure from social, economic, and technological changes. However, a survey of a representative sample of 700 journalists suggests that despite the pressures and the fall-out from the Leveson Report, British journalists are still more aggressive than their US counterparts.

There are around 64,000 professional journalists working in the UK. Their attitudes are captured in a report launched today by the Reuters Institute, examining their views on the ethics and practices of their profession.

Top ten findings:

1.    UK journalists are more likely to push boundaries to get a story.

53% of British journalists believe it’s right to pay for confidential information in the public interest compared with just 5% of American journalists. Furthermore, 81% think it is acceptable, if stories are in the public interest, to use confidential business or government documents without permission (compared to 58% of US journalists).

2.    More than half the journalists surveyed work online.

Since 2012, the proportion of journalists in the UK working in print versions of newspapers has fallen from 56% to 44%, while the proportion working online has risen from 26% to 52%. However, the median pay of those working exclusively online is lower than that of journalists who continue to do all their work for printed newspapers.

3.    For 86% of journalists, the time available to research stories has decreased.

Journalists who work online produce 71% more stories than other journalists. Those who only work online produce 186% more stories than those who did not.

4.    More journalists believe their editorial freedom has decreased than think it has increased.

The report argues this could be because of the increasing influence of audiences and public relations communications. 41% of journalists surveyed said data and research on what audiences like to read is now ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ influential. 61% thought the influence of public relations had increased over the last five years. 

The Queen finds out about being a journalist in the BBC newsroom, 2013

5.     77% of journalists say that being a detached observer is ‘very important’ or ‘extremely important’.

Journalists see themselves as providers of accurate information, analysis and entertainment and scrutinisers of those in power. A minority of those surveyed said that setting the political agenda, being an adversary of government, or supporting national development were important roles for a journalist.

6.    Half the journalists surveyed describe their political stance as ‘left-wing’.

About half of journalists said they were left of centre; the other half were split between the centre and the right-wing. Right-of-centre political beliefs increase with seniority.

7.    45% of UK journalists see it as ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ important to provide news that attracts the largest audience.

This is a higher proportion than found in a survey of US journalists six years ago, and may be the result of increased financial pressures on journalism. 77% of journalists said they felt their job was more influenced by profit-making pressures than it had been five years ago.

8.    Journalists have little trust in religious leaders and trade unions.

76% of journalists think religion has little or no influence on their work. 61% are not members of a formal faith, a lower percentage than in the general population. They trust religious leaders and trade unions less than Parliament, the police, and the military, although politicians and political parties are at the bottom of the list.

9.    A growing proportion of journalists have studied journalism at university.

64% of those who entered the profession in the last five years had a degree in journalism or a related field, compared with 51% in the previous five-year period. Only 41% of all working journalists have degrees related to journalism.

10. 83% of journalists in their mid- to late-20s earn less than £29,000.

Young journalists, despite having higher formal qualifications, are relatively poorly paid. About 20% of journalists have gross yearly earnings of less than £19,200, so are on incomes that are either close to or under the ‘living wage’.

The report can be downloaded in full from the Reuters Institute website.