Being a Journalist: The State of the Profession

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Snimka Zdravko YonchevPrepared jointly by the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria (AEJ-Bulgaria) and the Media Democracy Foundation, “Being a Journalist: The State of the Profession” is the first report analyzing the journalistic profession in Bulgaria with the help of media anthropology. The data was collected in February – July 2017 through interviews with 30 journalists coming from different parts of the country and representing all types of media who shared their diverse work experience.
The report’s authors include media researchers Orlin Spassov, Nikoleta Daskalova and Valentina Georgieva. They explore in depth the relationship between different social aspects of the journalists’ biographies and their approach to the profession. The study covers topics such as family background and education, early motivation for choosing a profession, labor migration, career development, current state of the working conditions in the media, types of control and quality criteria, and journalists’ free time.
Below we summarize the key findings of the study.
Education
 Most journalists have a high school diploma with a humanitarian profile, whether from a general or foreign language school. This predominantly humanitarian orientation continues in higher education, with journalists being equally likely to study journalism or philology (Bulgarian or other). Journalists with two university degrees often choose the same combination of journalism and philology. A large number of journalists speak English and/or other foreign languages but in many newsrooms they do not need these language skills on a daily basis.
 A university degree in journalism receives considerably more negative than positive assessments. The insufficient attention devoted to the acquisition of practical skills is seen as the greatest weakness of journalism studies at university. Only a few journalists think journalism education (at least at the master-degree level) is a must if one wants to work as a journalist. A significant number of media professionals see more advantages in university degrees in majors such as philology, economics, law, and European studies.
 Despite specialized knowledge being highly valued, many journalists suggest the type of education is not decisive for a successful career. Journalism, instead, is viewed as a profession in which one gets better through practice.
 Journalists with journalism degrees are likely to enjoy the warmest reception in public service media and private radio stations, in which they outnumber their colleagues with degrees in other majors.
Professional paths
 Practising journalism is not conditional on membership in an association or the possession of a license. Admission into the profession is free, with the possibility of a career start as early as high school. The age range for starting out as a journalist varies relatively widely.
 Journalists’ professional paths highlight the existence of diverse trajectories. The shortest registered stay in a job is several months, while the longest exceeds 20 years. Frequent job changes occur in all age groups. Unacceptable working conditions (insufficient pay, overwork, stress) are the main reason for labor migration. Losing their jobs is oftentimes the result of processes outside journalists’ control, such as financial troubles of the employer, workforce reduction, ownership changes, and bankruptcy. A third of the respondents have encountered such phenomena at least once in their careers.
 The unstable environment forces journalists to be in a process of constant adaptation and impose flexible satisfaction criteria. The overall instability poses difficulties for the creation of common values and visions in relation to the profession. Such an environment creates conditions appropriate not so much for collective policies but, rather, for individual strategies for survival.
 The respondents’ accounts indicate that one can easily start working as a journalist but (s)he can easily drop out of the profession as well. In the end, the perception of journalism as an attractive occupation may often prove illusive in the course of one’s career. Public relations (PR) is the most common professional alternative to journalism. For quite a few of the respondents, working in a media organization loses some of its appeal due to imposed restrictions and stressful working conditions and that is why they would readily leave journalism for more creative activities.
Work environment
 There is a widespread tendency of declining human capital in the media. The maintenance of thematic beats is becoming a luxury fewer and fewer newsrooms can afford. The gold standard of several journalists being responsible for one beat is being replaced by the practice of putting one journalist in charge of several beats. Only a very small number of the media organize internal trainings for their staff.
 The principle of interchangeability operates in almost all newsrooms. At the same time, profesisonal motivation varies and depends on the overall atmosphere in the respective organization. There is greater community spirit in smaller newsrooms in which journalists have known one another for a long time or belong to the same age group. The departments responsible for news and current affairs programmes at the biggest broadcasters operate under the most stressful conditions.
 The attitude towards new newsroom members is positive in most cases. However, the adaptation period for newcomers is short and they are soon thrown “into the deep”, sometimes even when they do not have enough experience and are thus likely to make mistakes. The opportunities for providing training to interns are limited.
 The feminization of the profession, recorded in previous studies, has been confirmed by the present survey. However, women occupy both low-paid and high-profile positions. Ethnic and religious diversity in newsrooms is either extremely limited or non-existent.
Working conditions
 The perception that the working conditions in the media have deteriorated over the past few years is widespread. The standard pay is around or below the average wage. At the same time, the profession is characterized by large wage inequalities – between media in the capital city and media in other parts of the country, as well as within some national media. Wages sometimes differ by a multiple of four. Noteworthy, wages are not necessarily proportionate to the quality of the media content, and the level of a journalist’s satisfaction does not depend solely on the size of his/her pay.
 It is common for many media, especially print and online outlets, to divide journalists’ wages in two parts: one based on a minimal-wage labor contract and the other in the form of additional honoraria as an author on a civil contract. This formula helps the media cut costs but it also harms the journalists in terms of social benefits and puts their future at risk. Employers sometimes resort to informal solutions, offering partial compensation for unfavorable conditions.
 Additional financial stimuli and social benefits above the required minimum are found in very few newsrooms (in some of the big electronic media). The present study has even registered cases in which journalists find themselves pressed to use their own money and other resources for work-related purposes. Other extreme but widespread practices include the delayed payment or the lack of payment for up to several months. These phenomena are present both in Sofia and across the rest of the country, with the most shocking cases involving media and journalists outside the capital city.
 As a rule, working hours are not precisely defined. Exhaustion and stress are common due to factors such as ineffective organization, insufficient human and material resources, overwork on duty, and the need for quick reactions. The most intensive and therefore the most overwhelming rhythm is found in the leading electronic and online media. Work-related health problems are not an exception.
 The overall instability in the sector notwithstanding, there are islands of relative stability, for example the public service media. Despite the non-defined working time and the differences in the volume of work assigned to staff members – problems that are also present in private media – the public service media have some advantages to the private sector, including better working conditions courtesy of collective labor contracts and the active involvement of trade unions.
Types of control and effects on work quality
 The present study confirms the trend towards an increase in the pressure on the media coming from political and economic actors. Journalists in regional media are exposed to greater influence because of the media’s dependence on the local administrations, particularly through contracts for information services. Long-lasting external interference pushes a lot of journalists and editors to get into the habit of self-censoring themselves.
 The quality of media content is deteriorating due to a combination of unfavorable factors, including external interference in an outlet’s editorial policies, job cuts, a requirement for journalists to produce a large number of stories, overwork, insufficient resources, and ineffective management.
 Many media organisations do not consistently adhere to certain quality rules and ethical standards. Noteworthy, there are journalists who even do not know about the existence of a written ethical code that sets rules for self-regulation in the field. Many of the respondents say they rely primarily on their own assessment, while others say the responsibility for stories violating the code lies with producers/editors.
 Journalists have accepted that the society has a negative image of them. Many of them say this negative image of the profession is justified and acknowledge that they find it difficult to produce quality products under the conditions in which they work. In some cases, the negative societal perceptions of the profession lead to journalists losing motivation and thinking about changing their job.
Lifestyle
 Most journalists do not have leisure time. The formula consisting of eight hours for work, rest, and free time each has been twisted in favor of work. Even when they manage to get away from their professional activities physically, they often devote their free time to self-preparation and following media competitors, including programmes and stories related to their work.
 In many cases, the lack of free time deprives journalists of the possibility of having a consistent hobby. The lack of clearly defined working hours makes it difficult for them to plan. Some of the journalists say they cannot rest effectively.
 Media professionals rarely have time for voluntary activities but when they participate in such activities, they benefit from their professional skills. Sometimes they think of their work as a kind of activism: with their stories/reports, they feel they can contribute to various civil initiatives or halt an unfavorable change in a field they care about.
 Journalists’ professional knowledge strongly influences their political choices. Journalists are particularly demanding of the politicians they vote for in elections. Some journalists give up voting or exercise a sanctioning vote. However, their support for a candidate and their refusal to vote are both the result of their being well-informed.
You can read and download the full report here (in Bulgarian).
*The survey is part of AEJ-Bulgaria’s project “Mediator 2: A Bridge Between Ethical Journalism and the Society”, supported by the America for Bulgaria Foundation.
Picture: Zdravko Yonchev