Accountability vs. access
The reason that access journalism fails the test of true reporting is that access reporting depends on the acceptance of the writer by those from whom he seeks access (“The right debate,” CJR, January/February). The subjects of the news thus become the content editors of the news—that which they wish to grant to Writer A is disseminated. Access news reporting will never be able to completely rid itself of spin. Accountability reporting is much harder; it requires the reporter to come at a story from as many angles and sources as is possible under the constraints of time and budget. By forcing the reporter to take a 360-degree view of a story, it tends to remove, or severely limit, spin from any one source. To compare them is to compare a parlor game with a battlefield skirmish. Skirmishes are bloodier, but when you view the battlefield, you don’t have to wonder what really happened.
Perry White
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On a flight in the summer of 2007, I read Bloomberg Markets cover story series “Toxic Debt” (“The great story,” CJR, January/February). It was an in-depth look at collateralized debt obligations and the ratings agencies. It was probably too little, too late, but it was a damning series.
The Financial Times was also doing quite an excellent job on writing about debt products and imbalances in the markets. They are currently doing similarly excellent work about the shadow banking system in China.
From many of the business journalism sources I read at the time (the FT being one of the most consistent sources), it wasn’t so neat and tidy as access versus accountability. The story was there, and it was being covered well especially by serious business journalists but not very much by the general press. Maybe you mean something else when you talk about access journalism.
Kevin Anderson
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In the few years preceding the economic debacle I was a subscriber and daily reader of The Wall Street Journal. As a full-time investor, I was more than an idle reader.
Every Journal article that mentioned “short selling” seemed to include a brief but meticulous explanation of that process on a level as plain and simple as “McGuffey’s Reader,” although short selling is an old and established action that to my way of thinking sophisticated Journal readers would not need explained.
On the other hand, when it came to mention in the Journal of such essentially newborn “financial products” as Asset Backed Securities or Mortgage Backed Securities, Special Investment Vehicles or Collateralized Debt Obligations (frequently identified only by their even more opaque abbreviations (ABS, MBS, SIV, or CDO), there was not a breath of explanation (or of the exact manner and content of the “tranches” into which some of these products were sliced and diced).
Was this deliberate obfuscation? Or complete lack of knowledge with no ambition to acquire it? Or inability to comprehend a detailed explanation? None of these answers is pleasing.
Steve Brown
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The Editors