Copyright © 2000 News World
Published in Washingtion, D.C. ~ March 29, 2000
by Julia Duin
The nation's media are out of touch with the average American because they live in expensive neighborhoods or have atypical lifestyles, says a newspaper writer who has assembled a unique survey from the home addresses of 3,400 journalists.
"It's a very clear picture of people who live lives differently than their customers," says Peter Brown, editor of the Sunday Insight section for the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel. "It doesn't make a difference if the guy who repairs your air conditioner lives the life you do. But journalists' view of the world determines not just how they cover a story, but what stories they cover."
He first became aware of the disconnect between journalists and the subjects of their stories a decade ago when he was interviewing disenchanted suburbanites in the Detroit area. Not only did the mass media not understand those people, the antipathy was mutual, he said.
"What struck me was how much people disliked the news media and felt it condescended to their views and lifestyles," he says.
For instance, when the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News brought in a consultant to rebuild its circulation, she realized that in Dayton, many blue-collar workers carried lunch buckets and ate Hamburger Helper. But the paper's food editor insisted on articles on salmon, artichokes and asparagus.
"There is a gap," the consultant later said, "between what one could refer to as normal people and journalists."
In preparation for a still-unpublished book on the topic, Mr. Brown thought up two surveys. One was a questionnaire he developed with the help of Bethesda pollster Bill Hamilton of 500 residents and 478 journalists in five American cities: Dayton, Ohio; Tulsa, Okla.; Syracuse, N.Y.; Roanoke; and Chico/Redding, Calif.
The results revealed details about the nature of the people who gather and interpret the news for the country's 1,489 daily newspapers and thus exert considerable influence on American perceptions of reality.
In terms of salaries, whereas only 18 percent of the public earned $50,000 or more, 42 percent of the journalists in these medium-sized cities did. Thirty percent of the journalists said they had to make $40,000 just to make ends meet, compared to 12 percent of the public who said so.
"Journalists are now paid well enough in most markets that their peers are no longer cops or teachers," says Mr. Brown, "but lawyers and politicians. They shake few calloused hands in their off hours, and they don't have enough contact with their audience when they are working. All that gives them a poor feel for the mass of Americans."
Journalists, he found, are less likely to form families, have children, go to church, do volunteer community service, own homes, put down roots or be the same age as others who live in the communities where they work.
"How many members of the Los Angeles Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch belong to the American Legion or the Kiwanis or go to prayer breakfasts?" he asks.
The same disconnect goes for views on abortion (49 percent of the general public back it compared to 82 percent of the journalists, according to a Los Angeles Times survey), prayer in schools, belief in God, and the comparative youth of journalists compared to other occupations. Whereas lawyers average 40 years of age and college professors 46, journalists were concentrated between 25 and 44 years of age, he wrote.
A former Nieman Fellow and former chief political writer for Scripps Howard News Service, Mr. Brown also discovered that journalists are overrepresented in elite neighborhoods that house 26 percent of the nation's population, but are underrepresented in more middle-class neighborhoods that are home to 48 percent of Americans.
Granted, he says, journalists live disproportionately in yuppified urban areas or very close-in suburbs due to irregular hours and job demands necessitating proximity to the office. What bothered him was what he perceived as disdainful media attitudes toward suburbia and rural areas.
He came by this information with the help of Claritas Inc., an Alexandria, Va.-based precision marketer, which he supplied with a database of 3,400 home addresses of journalists in 13 news organizations: the Washington bureau of CNN, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Washington Post, USA Today and its parent organization, Gannett News Service, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Denver Rocky Mountain News, the Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette of Little Rock, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, and the Southwest Times Record of Fort Smith, Ark.
Together, they mapped out a profile of the residential patterns of American journalists. With the help of a "cluster" name supplied by Claritas, Mr. Brown placed most media employees into categories that suggested how they would see the world.
Journalists' ZIP codes revealed they mostly populated neighborhoods with cluster names such as "money and brains" (two-earner couples, expensive condos or town homes, few children, their own hot tub and a yen for jazz and sailing), but avoided rural areas tagged "shotguns and pickups" (low real estate prices, families who eat Wheaties, drink whiskey and go to auto races or bowling).
Unlike huge numbers of middle Americans, journalists rarely frequent yard sales, do home remodeling, use coupons when they shop, or own Chevrolets. But they are more apt to belong to country clubs, have maids, own Mercedes, play racquetball and trade stocks, often because they have few or no children. Mr. Brown finds the latter to be a major shortcoming.
"I was a single journalist" until he married in 1989, "and now I have kids," he says. "It changes the way you view the world."
Journalists are "off the charts," he found, in neighborhoods such as "urban gold coast" (college grads in high-rise apartments or condos who travel first class on airplanes, attend live theater and watch ABC's "Nightline.") They are 9 and 1/2 times more likely to live there than the average resident of the metropolitan area they cover.
They are five times more likely to live in what he calls "Bohemian mix" - singles-dominated upscale neighborhoods, whose residents roll their own marijuana joints, play softball, spend at least $100 for a pair of jeans and subscribe to Rolling Stone magazine.
For instance, 29 percent of the staff of The Washington Post lives in four upscale suburban clusters, whereas 20 percent of The Post's market does. In four upscale urban clusters, fully 45 percent of the paper's staff live in those neighborhoods - such as Dupont Circle -compared to just 12 percent of the District's residents.
Mr. Brown did not survey the staff of The Washington Times.
This trend has alarmed observers such as Bill Kovach, curator for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism.
"More and more, journalists are part of the elite, socially and economically, of the country," he told Editor & Publisher magazine last month. "That gap between them and the mass of citizens who rely on them and depend on them makes you nervous."
Copyright © 2000 News World Communications, Inc.
TO 4th ESTATE
30 mar 2000