How accountable are the news media and journalists? Does it matter how popular they are?
Journalists usually rank near the bottom of surveys of popular opinion about various professions—j ust above advertising salespeople, politicians, lobbyists, and car salespeople in Gallup's annual poll. This could be attributed, in part, to journalists reporting unpleasant news, as well as information that clashes with the views of many in their audience. In addition, the missteps of the news media—errors, bias, plagiarism, and fabrication—are now more exposed than those in most other professions, except perhaps politics.
More important than popularity, in our view, is the credibility of journalism, whether or not it makes audiences uncomfortable. Journalistic credibility is dependent on news media accountability, which has actually increased in the digital age. Reporters, bloggers, and anyone else monitoring the news media can use the Internet to fact-check accuracy and expose plagiarism and fabrication, and anything they find can be shared widely on social media. This continual fact-checking of the news media—not unlike the news media's own increasing fact-checking of politicians and government leaders—could contribute to the perennial unpopularity of the press in opinion surveys. But it could also lead to increased credibility for those news media primarily engaged in verifiable journalism.
Just as important is that the judgments of their audiences in the digital echo chamber could matter more now to journalists than when they had been primarily dependent on the approval of other journalists, as sociologist Herb Gans observed during the heyday of self-admiring, comparatively autonomous journalism in the second half of the twentieth century. If journalism is indeed a profession, albeit without licensing or strict rules, it could benefit from the disciplining feedback, if not popular approval, from its clients and, increasingly, collaborators—the American public.