And it’s worth remembering that this crisis has brought a fresh set of allegations that an overly aggressive business press can do actual harm. Vanity Fair’s Bryan Burrough made an interesting, if not entirely convincing, case last year that CNBC (again, on the cutting edge of ethical issues) played a hand in the collapse of Bear Stearns. I’ve heard word of similar allegations (or are those compliments?) leveled against The Wall Street Journal for its coverage of both Bear and Lehman Brothers.
So, is some systematic discussion about the financial media’s role and performance in order? Absolutely.
Some of us hold that, far from being too aggressive, the business press hasn’t been nearly aggressive enough, particularly in reporting on the fundamental problems, I would say crookedness, that overran the financial-services industry and its Wall Street partners.
The most valuable section of the Tambini paper, I think, is a discussion of the importance of the role of self-definition for news organizations and reporters. What journalists think
their own roles are is a little-understood, but critical determinant what ultimately appears in print. Do they think they’re out to save the world—or the Dow? Do they serve readers as citizens? Investors? What?
Tambini interviewed journalists, executives, publicists, policy types, and others and found:
Some specialist business and financial journalists see their role entirely in terms of provision of information to investors, and their primary responsibility in terms of helping them make successful investment decisions. Some have a very developed sense of how they should serve investors, keeping a mental tally of successful calls and tips, and their implications for investors’ bottom line. Others are much less socialised into a general journalistic view of the world, seeing business journalism as a branch of journalism with the same orientation to the broader public interest as a whole. If a business journalist deals with a story on the ethical practices abroad of a company – a story on child labour or collusion with non-democratic authorities, for example – should the business reporter base news values on whether this is likely to impact the bottom line or on a more general journalistic notion of the public interest? Ultimately, do journalists have a broader professional duty to ensure that corporate malpractice comes to light, or is their role merely to provide whatever their readers want? And are those readers basically to be addressed as real or potential investors or as citizens with a variety of views? All outlets will develop their own ideologically tinged approaches to these fundamental questions. And whilst these abstract questions will rarely be explicitly discussed on news desks, the de-facto orientation of any journalist to these fundamental responsibilities will impact every aspect of her professional practice, in terms of what stories are sought, what news values are accorded to them, and how they are presented.
The report found little agreement on the title question: What is financial journalism for?
In summary, there is some general agreement on a basic tier of responsibilities that most financial and business journalists agree to: to respect the codes of conduct and the law, and to respect any particular guidelines that apply to the particular outlet in which they work. But the more positive responsibilities are much more disputed. Some reject the notion of any profession-wide template of responsible behaviour entirely, arguing that each media company, in providing news services, simply serves customers and responds to their demands. Others have a more developed notion of the role of financial journalism in the system of corporate governance: according financial and business journalism a ‘fourth estate’ role in relation to corporate power: holding both businesses and public authorities to account and investigating malpractice.
Or as the paper puts it elsewhere:
If journalists see themselves mainly or merely as serving the market or investors, they may be less effective in their watchdog role.
I agree. I would go further and argue that journalists who (consciously or not) see their role as serving investors first, or primarily, risk failing readers as both as citizens and investors. The current crisis illustrates perfectly that insistent, drumbeat, muckraking reporting (“holding both business and public authorities to account and investigating malpractice,” as the paper says) about systemic abuses in the lending industry, for one, would have provided the vital, longer-term warnings that investors clearly lacked. We’ve discussed this form of press myopia in relation to differing approaches by the mainstream media and the alternative press to coverage of Citigroup.
In any case, it is valuable that Polis has taken on the task of discussing such fundamental questions systematically and in the abstract, above the fray of daily journalism and the blogs, where such matters can be, shall we say, personalized, and finger-pointing is, um, not uncommon.