Amy S. Mitchell

on Thursday, 03 May 2012. Posted in Leadership Interviews, Issues Motivated Leadership

Amy S. Mitchell
Deputy Director, PEW, Project for Excellence in Journalism
Amy Mitchell

Amy S. Mitchell has been with the Project since its inception in 1997. Her primary focus is creating and managing the Project’s research, including the Annual Report on the State of the News Media as well as other more specific studies of the news media. She also works on the Project’s teaching instruments including editing a case study curriculum for journalism teaching, titled Case Studies in Journalistic Decision Making. Prior to this occupation, Ms. Mitchell was a congressional research associate at the American Enterprise Institute where she researched public policy and its relationship with the press, the public and government. While at AEI, she co-authored several articles and contributed to books including Debt & Taxes and Vital Statistics on Congress. Ms. Mitchell also spent two years working in the publishing industry and is a graduate of GeorgetownUniversity. Originally from the mid-West, she now lives in Silver Spring, MD with her husband and three children.

Interview with Amy Mitchell

Can you explain what the Project for Excellence in Journalism is about and the reasons for its conception?

The Project for Excellence in Journalism is a research organization that specializes in using empirical methods to evaluate and study the performance of the press. We examine the coverage as well as other trends such as audience, economics, ownership and public opinion. PEJ is non partisan, non ideological and non political.

Our goal is to help both the journalists who produce the news and the citizens who consume it develop a better understanding of what the press is delivering. The Project has put special emphasis on content analysis in the belief that quantifying what is occurring in the press, rather than merely offering criticism and analysis, is a better approach to understanding.

How is Excellence defined in relation to this Project?

The term Excellence really had to do with the one aspect of our mission the first nine years or our existence. During that time, the Project was was affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and had a twin mission of evaluating the press and helping journalists clarify their professional principles. The first task, press evaluation, was carried out through PEJ's empirical research. The second task, clarifying principles, fell to a group the Project ran, the Committee of Concerned Journalists (CCJ). It was the clarifying of principles that spoke to the "Excellence" of journalism. In that regard, we developed (through a series of public forums across the country) a list of ten core principles of journalism. They became the basis for a book we published, The Elements of Journalism (available on our website).

On July 1, 2006, the Project began a major new phase in its history. It formally separated from CCJ and Columbia University in order to focus on and expand its research activities. It joined the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C, which administers six other research projects funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The Project also doubled its staff and set out to significantly expand its research activities. CCJ still conducts trainings inside newsrooms to instill those principles.

What have been some of the key findings of the Project thus far?

The findings have grown each year as technology continues to advance, information outlets expand and audiences splinter among them. In the 2007 edition of our Annual Report on the State of the News Media (www.stateofthenewsmedia.org), we identified seven main trends occurring across all media sectors:

News organizations need to do more to think through the implications of this new era of shrinking ambitions. The move toward building audience around "franchise" areas of coverage or other traits is a logical response to fragmentation and can, managed creatively, have journalistic value. To a degree, journalism's problems are oversupply, too many news organizations doing the same thing. But something gained means something lost, especially as newsrooms get smaller. There is already evidence that basic monitoring of local government has suffered. Regional concerns, as opposed to local, are likely to get less coverage. Matters with widespread impact but little audience appeal, always a challenge, seem more at risk of being unmonitored. What do concepts like localism and branding really mean? Should only national newspapers maintain foreign bureaus? Does localism mean provincialism? Should news organizations, so as not to abandon more high-level coverage, enlist citizen sentinels to monitor community news? To what extent do journalists still have a role in creating a broad agenda of common knowledge? Those issues, debated in theory before, are becoming real. And the wrong answers could hasten, not stave off, the decline of news organizations.

The evidence is mounting that the news industry must become more aggressive about developing a new economic model. The signs are clearer that advertising works differently online than in older media. Finding out about goods and services on the Web is an activity unto itself, like using the yellow pages, and less a byproduct of getting news, such as seeing a car ad during a newscast. The consequence is that advertisers may not need journalism as they once did, particularly online. Already the predictions of advertising growth on the Web are being scaled back. That has major implications, (which some initiatives such as "Newspaper Next" are beginning to grapple with). Among them, news organizations can broaden what they consider journalistic function to include activities such as online search and citizen media, and perhaps even liken their journalism to anchor stores at a mall, a major reason for coming but not the only one. Perhaps most important, the math suggests they almost certainly must find a way to get consumers to pay for digital content. The increasingly logical scenario is not to charge the consumer directly. Instead, news providers would charge Internet providers and aggregators licensing fees for content. News organizations may have to create consortiums to make this happen. And those fees would likely add to the bills consumers pay for Internet access. But the notion that the Internet is free is already false. Those who report the news just aren't sharing in the fees.

The key question is whether the investment community sees the news business as a declining industry or an emerging one in transition. If one believes that news will continue to be the primary public square where people gather — with the central newsrooms in a community delivering that audience across different platforms — then it seems reasonable that the economics in time will sort themselves out. In that scenario, people with things to sell still need to reach consumers, and the news will be a primary means of finding them. If one believes, however, that the economics of news are now broken, with further declines ahead, then it seems inevitable that the investment in newsrooms will continue to shrink and the quality of journalism in America will decline. One thing seems clear, however: If news companies do not assert their own vision here, including making a case and taking risks, their future will be defined by those less invested in and passionate about news.

There are growing questions about whether the dominant ownership model of the last generation, the public corporation, is suited to the transition newsrooms must now make. Private markets now appear to value media properties more highly than Wall Street does. More executives are openly expressing doubt, too, whether public ownership's required focus on stock price and quarterly returns will allow media companies the time and freedom and risk taking they feel they need to make the transition to the new age. The radio giant Clear Channel made that point when it went private. So have a host of private suitors emerging in the newspaper field. What is unknown is whether these potential new private owners are motivated by public interest, a vision of growth online, having a high-profile hobby (like a sports team), or as an investment to be flipped for profit after aggressive cost-cutting. Public ownership tends to make companies play by the same rules. Private ownership has few leveling influences. And the new crop of potential private owners is unlike the press barons of the past, people trying to create their legacy in news. Most of them are people who made their fortunes in other enterprises.

The Argument Culture is giving way to something new, the Answer Culture. Critics used to bemoan what author Michael Crichton once called the "Crossfire Syndrome," the tendency of journalists to stage mock debates about issues on TV and in print. Such debates, critics lamented, tended to polarize, oversimplify and flatten issues to the point that Americans in the middle of the spectrum felt left out. That era of argument —R.W. Apple Jr. the gifted New York Times Reporter who died in 2006, called it "pie throwing" — appears to be evolving. The program "Crossfire" has been canceled. A growing pattern has news outlets, programs and journalists offering up solutions, crusades, certainty and the impression of putting all the blur of information in clear order for people. The tone may be just as extreme as before, but now the other side is not given equal play. In a sense, the debate in many venues is settled — at least for the host. This is something that was once more confined to talk radio, but it is spreading as it draws an audience elsewhere and in more nuanced ways. The most popular show in cable has shifted from the questions of Larry King to the answers of Bill O'Reilly. On CNN his rival Anderson Cooper becomes personally involved in stories. Lou Dobbs, also on CNN, rails against job exportation. Dateline goes after child predators. Even less controversial figures have causes: ABC weatherman Sam Campion champions green consumerism. The Answer Culture in journalism, which is part of the new branding, represents an appeal more idiosyncratic and less ideological than pure partisan journalism.

Blogging is on the brink of a new phase that will probably include scandal, profitability for some, and a splintering into elites and non-elites over standards and ethics. The use of blogs by political campaigns in the mid-term elections of 2006 is already intensifying in the approach to the presidential election of 2008. Corporate public-relations efforts are beginning to use blogs as well, often covertly. What gives blogging its authenticity and momentum — its open access — also makes it vulnerable to being used and manipulated. At the same time, some of the most popular bloggers are already becoming businesses or being assimilated by establishment media. All this is likely to cause blogging to lose some of its patina as citizen media. To protect themselves, some of the best-known bloggers are already forming associations, with ethics codes, standards of conduct and more. The paradox of professionalizing the medium to preserve its integrity as an independent citizen platform is the start of a complicated new era in the evolution of the blogosphere.

While journalists are becoming more serious about the Web, no clear models of how to do journalism online really exist yet, and some qualities are still only marginally explored. Our content study this year was a close examination of some three dozen Web sites from a range of media. Our goal was to assess the state of journalism online at the beginning of 2007. What we found was that the root media no longer strictly define a site's character. The Web sites of the Washington Post and the New York Times, for instance, are more dissimilar than the papers are in print. The Post, by our count, was beginning to have more in common with some sites from other media. The field is still highly experimental, with an array of options, but it can be hard to discern what one site offers, in contrast to another. And some of the Web's potential abilities seem less developed than others. Sites have done more, for instance, to exploit immediacy, but they have done less to exploit the potential for depth.

What observations do you make about the relationship of government on the press? Do you believe that the American Press has complete freedom to say what they want to?

The relationship between government and the press often changes a bit with each new administration. Now, though we are seeing some a change stemming more from technology then from individual relationships. In general, those who would manipulate the press—elected officials and other news makers—appear to be gaining leverage over the journalists who cover them. Several factors point in this direction. One is simple supply and demand. As more outlets compete for their information, it becomes a seller's market for information. Another is workload. The content analysis of the 24-hour-news outlets suggests that their stories contain fewer sources. The increased leverage enjoyed by news sources has already encouraged a new kind of checkbook journalism, as seen in the television networks efforts to try to get interviews with Michael Jackson and Jessica Lynch, the soldier whose treatment while in captivity in Iraq was exaggerated in many accounts.

More recently, we now see many government entities with their own websites that in a way seek to bypass the media. They put out their own press release, their own blogs and even their own "news" reports.

As the same time, the American press still has great freedom in what its reporting. While there are more eyes watching the press (bloggers and other non-traditional media as much as government) the legal freedoms are as strong as ever. What's more, the public supports such freedoms. If given a choice, for instance, a growing percentage of Americans would pick press freedom over government censorship. After September 11, a majority leaned the other way (53% to 39%). That number has been reversing to the point that by February 2006 a majority now favored press freedom (56% to 34%).

Do you believe that journalists can rise above the pressures that stem from popularism, corporate boundaries and competition to do good journalism that is about objectivity and responsibility? Please elaborate if good journalism means something different to you.

Journalists can and do rise above these pressures on a daily basis. It does, though, continue to get harder as newsroom resources diminish. Journalists find themselves trying to produce more news reports in a faster time frame but with fewer resources and less support from senior executives.

How would you describe the level of trust and respect American citizens have in the Press and what factors have contributed to the way it is?

Americans continue to appreciate the role they expect the press to play, and by some measure that appreciation is even growing.

But when it comes to how the press is fulfilling those responsibilities, the public's confidence in 2006 according to some indices continued to slip. Perceptions of bias, and the partisan divide of media, appear to be on the rise.

The number of Americans with a favorable view of the press, for instance, dropped markedly in 2006, from 59% in February, to 48% in July. The metric can be volatile, but that was still one of the lower marks over the course of a decade.

And in one of the most basic yardsticks of public attitudes, the number of Americans who believe most or all of what news organizations tell them, there were continued declines. Virtually every news outlet saw its number fall in 2006. In a battery that included more than 20 outlets, the only ones that did not decline were Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, people's local paper, the NewsHour on PBS, People magazine and the National Enquirer.

In contrast with a decade ago, there are no significant distinctions anymore in the basic believability of major national news organizations. About a quarter of Americans believe most television outlets. Less than one in five believe what they read in print. CNN is not really more trusted than Fox, or ABC than NBC. The local paper is not viewed much differently than the New York Times.

And there are signs, despite the appreciation for an independent press, that the perception of bias, even agenda-setting, is a growing part of the concern.

Among those who feel that their daily newspaper has become worse, for instance, the number who blame bias, and particularly liberal bias, has grown from 19% in 1996 to 28% in 2006.

Has the Project for Excellence in Journalism investigated how the media reports on the Iraq War and the public expectations and assessment of the press coverage of the War?

We plan to conduct an in-depth study of the 2007 content in the months ahead. But, one thing we did find in the coverage from January through March of 2007 was a strong tendency to cover the U.S. aspect of the war. First to cover the policy debate here in the U.S. and then even in covering the ground war, to cover it in terms of impact on U.S. troops rather than activity or impact involving Iraqis or other non-U.S. individuals.

Is there a best case example of journalism that you can nominate and describe what impresses you most about the case?

I'll hold off on this as our aim is more research now.

What general comments can you make about the opportunities and barriers that female journalists experience in the industry in America and the strategies that are promoting women's leadership in the industry?

Women's roles in the press as well as in other industries continue to grow here in the U.S. As, we wrote in this year's State of the News Media Report: One area we're there has been solid growth is in broadcasting:

Katie Couric became the first solo female broadcast anchor in September 2006, for CBS (see Network TV Audience).

In local TV news, women have for long been the face of the newsroom. According to the RTNDA, women accounted for more than half of all anchor positions in 2005 — 57%. Even a decade ago, in 1996, 54% of anchors were women.9 Indeed, the most recent survey of news directors in July 2006, commissioned for the RTNDA, does show that virtually all newsrooms now employ women (97%) and that they made up 40% of the TV news workforce as of 2005.10

Women are also increasing their ranks behind the scenes. There are now more women executive producers, reporters, news producers and writers. Indeed, in 2005, the number of women TV news directors heading their own newsrooms rose by 25%, reversing a two-year drop. And, according to Bob Papper, their salaries are at par with their male (news director) colleagues.

Such women, though, are generally found in smaller newsrooms (with staffs of up to 10 people). The biggest newsrooms have the lowest incidence of women news directors.

Further, the percentage of women in the total television workforce over time has remained essentially stagnant. According to RTNDA data, the share of women in the TV newsroom has fluctuated by less than two percentage points between 1999 and 2005. They make up less than half — 40% — of the newsroom staff.

Women in the Newsroom
1999-2005, As a Percentage of Total Workforce in All Television News

Year  Percent of Women
1999  40%
2000  39.7
2001  38.6
2002  39.3
2003  39.1
2004  39.3
2005  40

Source: RTNDA/Ball State University Annual Surveys on Women and Minorites

Nonetheless, women journalists are increasing their ranks. According to surveys conducted by Profs. David Weaver and G. Cleveland Wihoit for their book "The American Journalist in the 21st Century," which were conducted over three decades, women made up 33% of all journalists in 2002, up from 20% in 1971, the year of their first survey.

The journalistic trend reflects the broader trend of an increasing number of women in the general labor force. In 2006, approximately 60% of women were in the labor force, a significant increase over the 41% of 1970.