What Do Journalists Do?

The latest edition of Jacobin came with a wonderful piece from Jennifer Pan about the public relations industry, journalism’s treatment of it, gendered labor, emotional labor, and so on. You should read the piece. It’s very good.

At one point, Pan discusses the reaction journalists had to an article titled “11 Things the Media Does That Piss Off PR,” which was written in response to a slew of articles making fun of PR workers. She writes:

Matt Pearce, a reporter for the LA Times, smirked on Twitter, “I am not sorry about most of these things.” David Herndon, a video coordinator for Downriver, Michigan’s The News-Herald, further huffed, “I’m serving the public, not the PR lacky’s best interest.”

I remember when this all happened a few months ago. I also remember finding myself amused by how noble journalists seemed to think their job is, a sentiment that is well-summarized by the notion that journalists are “serving the public.”

The extent to which a given journalist can be said to serve the public varies, I guess. Maybe some journalists can be seriously described that way. Overall though, it seems like the primary job of journalists is to provide entertainment to the kind of people advertisers also want to reach.

For instance, consider Vox, which the New York Times wrote this about a while ago:

Others are catching up, but the rich graphic interface and facile reader interaction have helped Vox earn a reputation for quality and attract a highly desirable audience: its largest demographic is educated households headed by individuals under 35 years old with incomes over $100,000.

I mention Vox here only because I remember this story. I assume that all the other similar media outlets — FiveThirtyEight, Upshot, Wonkblog, Atlantic Business, and so on — are courting the same demographic.

These are exceptionally affluent households, even among the college-educated. The median below-40, non-college-educated household has an income of $32,000. The median below-40, college-educated household has an income of $58,000.

If young, college-educated households with a great deal of money are “highly desirable,” then that suggests that those with less money and less education are undesirables. And that’s correct, at least from the perspective of the advertisers to whom it is the journalist’s job to bring an audience.

As journalists climb the prestige ladder, which I assume like any other profession is the goal, their audiences get increasingly richer and increasingly more educated. A career trajectory that consists of becoming more and more estranged from the public at large is not one I’d describe as nobly “serving the public.”

That’s not to say it’s a bad thing to strive to write for a more and more economically elite audience. It’s probably fun and fulfilling, if nothing else. It’s just not the kind of thing to get on your high horse about. The elite journalist’s job functionally consists of trying to make rich companies richer by exposing their wares to rich consumers. Is the corporate PR job really that different?