A force for good: poll shows positive impact of journalism

By Dominic Ponsford

A
unique survey commissioned by Press Gazette gives the lie to the often
quoted assumption that the British public does not value journalism.

More
than half those surveyed in a YouGov national opinion poll (52 per
cent) said they agreed with the statement: “Journalism makes a positive
contribution to life in Britain”. Some 32 per cent didn’t agree and 16
per cent were “don’t knows”.

Press Gazette has also conducted its own straw poll of public figures which has found some unlikely fans of journalism.

Among
them are England football manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, whose private
love affairs filled tabloid front pages for much of last year, and arts
minister Estelle Morris, who quit as education secretary after coming
under fire from the press.

But among those criticising British
journalism were Newsnight presenter Gavin Esler, who compared some of
it to the Daily Hate in George Orwell’s novel 1984. And PR executive
Mark Borkowski, who said journalism is: “all about the bottom line and
circulation figures”.

Broken down by newspaper, the survey
reveals that Financial Times readers are most likely (89 per cent) to
agree that journalism makes a positive contribution, followed by The
Guardian (71 per cent) and the Daily Telegraph (67 per cent).

Divided by age, over-50s are most likely to have a positive view of journalism (57 per cent).

The
YouGov survey also provided tangible evidence of the extent to which
journalism can act as a force for good: 47 per cent of Britons said
they were influenced to donate to the Asia tsunami appeal by reports
from journalists.

The Disasters Emergency Committee revealed this
week that it expects to reach £100 million in public donations and the
Daily Mail alone has raised more than £8 million with its Flood Aid
Appeal.

According to Press Gazette ‘s survey only one in four
members of the British public have yet to make a donation to help
victims of the Asia tsunami.

NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear cautiously welcomed the survey findings.

He
said: “At its best journalism not only makes a positive contribution
but a vital one in enhancing democracy, well-being and providing
information and entertainment.

“It stimulates debate and allows
citizens to make informed decisions. It is good news that the majority
recognise the positive contribution it can make.

“But our
industry should also be concerned that almost half do not believe it
makes a positive contribution and it is important the industry acts to
challenge the abuse of unaccountable press power which gives journalism
a bad name in the eyes of too many people.”

Society of Editors
executive director Bob Satchwell said: “Given the fact that journalists
only get blamed and rarely get credited for their achievements, it’s
heartening to see that so many people do accept that journalism makes
such an important contribution to life in Britain.

“That said, the figures show that we still have to keep working to convince the rest of the doubters.”

YouGov
interviewed 2,178 adults between 7 and 10 January using an internet
questionaire. The sample was weighted for age, gender, region and
social class.

In addition to the YouGov poll, Press Gazette asked
a selection of leading public figures the question: Does journalism
make a positive contribution to life in Britain? Here are their
responses:

Liberal
democrat leader Charles Kennedy said: “Thoughtful, waspish, strident,
energetic, journalism certainly makes an important contribution. “It’s
positive where it’s genuinely committed to the public interest:
righting or revealing wrongs, illuminating, informing and amusing us
all. But there is increasing evidence that the balance of stories has
tipped decisively towards the negative, overemphasising the destructive
and dark side of Britain. This is a good country to live in, but you
would be forgiven for becoming cynical and disillusioned if you paid
too much attention to our daily press. That’s not particularly
positive.”

Celebrity
PR guru Max Clifford said: “It can do…and I still think that even
with the increasing pressure that more and more journalists are put
under the pluses outweigh the minuses for a force for good.”

Arts
minister Estelle Morris said: “Yes. Our democracy is all the more
robust thanks to the press we have. Given the increasing importance of
the media in general, though, it is a real challenge to make sure that
the political debate is conducted in a way that informs people. I’m not
convinced that the current relationship between Government and the
media always serves the public as it should, but of course the best of
journalism makes a hugely positive contribution to life in Britain.”

Gavin
Esler
, Newsnight presenter and BBC special correspondent, said: “I
think journalism makes a very positive contribution to life in Britain.
It also makes a negative contribution. “The positive contribution is
obvious: our public life is largely clean. Our public figures know they
will not – usually – get away with the kind of villainy which
characterises other democracies, including those in Europe, or the
greed of political life in the United States. And our public figures
are mostly open to very robust scrutiny. “But there is a severely
negative side too. A great deal of British journalism seems to me to be
about confirming prejudices rather than examining or overturning them.
Some of it resembles the Daily Hate of Orwell in his novel 1984.”

England
head coach Sven-Goran Eriksson said: “Journalism undoubtedly does make
a vital contribution to life in Britain. “Media coverage is very
important to football, without it interest levels would certainly
decline. It is through journalism that players, managers, clubs and
football authorities are able to communicate with the most important
people – supporters. “The reporters and sports editors that I deal with
have a very important role to play and it is important that we all
endeavour to work together to communicate properly with the public.”

Julie
Mellor
, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, said: “Leading
edge journalists make real efforts to understand peoples’ lives. But
too often we see the stereotypes of 20 or 30 years ago used to assess
people’s unhappiness with their lives today. “Rather than focus on
supporting their readers with the information they need to make valid
choices, what is presented is a debate about parents having all or
nothing, about working or not working. The reality more often for both
parents is shades of grey. “For example, both parents, whether together
or not, want to share care of their children. The majority of mothers,
and some fathers, want to work more reasonable hours and have more time
to spend with the children. We don’t regularly see either of these
perspectives reflected in what we read today.”

Piers Morgan , the
Daily Mirror editor sacked last year for publishing faked pictures of
Iraqi prisoner abuse, said: “Of course not – journalists usually
inflict a corrosive, abusive, sneering, hypocritical and sanctimonious
influence on just about everything. But we make life much more
entertaining in the process.”

Mark
Borkowski
, PR pundit and MD of Borkowski PR, said: “I don’t think it
does nowadays. Part of the problem is that newspapers have lost their
definitive character – they no longer have the confidence and ability
to make a stand. There are some great columnists, and newspapers are
fantastic in terms of raising public awareness on issues such as the
tsunami and Africa, but they don’t carry the same old values. It’s all
about the bottom line and circulation figures. Journalists are too busy
hunting for exclusives as opposed to insighting values.”

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