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.
The paper deals with other challenges to effective reporting, some touched on elsewhere, including the problems to journalism posed by financial complexity, the speeding up of the news cycle, and, interestingly, globalization.
And I haven’t seen much discussion about the rising clout of public-relations pros in the dissemination of business news.
One Business Editor with a long experience in the UK saw the rise of financial PR as the single most important change to have taken place in recent years:
“In the last ten, twenty years I suppose the biggest change has been the rise of the financial intermediary, financial public relations services. They are putting up barriers to information. I think they were always around but they’ve developed and become much more sophisticated. When I first came across them they were really kind of press cutting services. But now they are really strategy advisors. And there are some company directors that do not talk or answer phone calls without consulting them. And they have enormous power. In many ways, they set the agenda. They are the access point. They are making these people available for interviews or they don’t make them available for interviews. They release information in a, what’s the word, in a way which is carefully orchestrated to happen. […] Things are very controlled in a way compared with the way it used to be.
And here’s an interesting fact: Financial PR revenue in Britain increased nearly seven-fold from the ’80s to the ’90s:
Financial PR has been a high margin, rapid growth industry in recent decades. In 1986, British companies spent £37m on financial PR. A decade later the annual figure had risen to £250m. (Michie, 1998: 26). The evidence is that the past decade has seen similar or perhaps larger rates of growth. Industry sources estimate that financial PR consultancies can command fees up to 1 percent of the bid values in M+A deals (Miller, et al. 2000).
Wow. What do you think it did in the U.S. in, say, the last ten years? It’s a big number, I’m sure.
In the end, I like the Tambini paper because it does business journalism the honor of taking it seriously. That’s both good and bad news for the field, since that particular honor also brings scrutiny.