What is it like to be a journalist during the ‘fake news’ era? Not easy

Doctoral student Jeanna Sybert looks at how journalists in the U.S. are dealing with stress and job insecurity as newspapers shutter, wages are cut, and the legitimacy of their field is called into question.

Jeanna Sybert grew up the child of two journalists, but resisted going into journalism as she witnessed the challenges her parents faced in the field. But as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, she found she enjoyed studying journalism—how it affects culture, politics, and global conversation.

Jeanna Sybert.
Doctoral student Jeanna Sybert. (Image: Annenberg School for Communication)

Now a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication, Sybert studies labor conditions for journalists in the United States. Though many see journalism as a duty or a calling or simply a pursuit of the truth, it’s a job like any other, Sybert says.

Journalists deal with pay cuts, job losses, mistreatment from management, career instability. Even the smallest, family-run newspapers have occupational issues, Sybert documented in a paper in Journalism, despite the popular trope of “small local newspaper against the world.”

In June, 2021 Sybert published a study on employee welfare at the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette. Her interviews with reporters confirmed findings from other scholars: Journalism in the U.S. is a progressively troubled field. Journalists are stressed, overworked, and demoralized. Public distrust of media, violence against reporters, and the shuttering of print newspapers are affecting journalists personally and as a group. This has consequences for how the news is presented to Americans and how they understand it.

When Sybert conducted her study, the newspaper was going through some very public problems, including clashes with ownership, layoffs, a strike, and boycotts. Her interviews with reporters revealed a tumultuous environment filled with conflict and instability. Journalists at the paper faced a crumbling job market, attacks on the credibility of the press from a sitting president, increased workloads, and the unique challenge of, as Sybert puts it, “being expected to be the sense-makers of the crises they go through.”

Now, as a member of the steering committee of Annenberg’s Center for Media at Risk, Sybert has observed how difficult it is to be a journalist in the late 2010s and early 2020s. She’s concerned about the critical moment in journalism history that we are now experiencing.

Journalists have had to navigate life during a global pandemic while also sharing information about that pandemic to the public. They’ve faced heightened criticism since former President Trump waged a war on media, berating journalists and newspapers alike.

This story is by Hailey Reissman. Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.