“Has the Business Press Failed the Public Trust?” – Notes from our Panel

Last Wednesday, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel at the Columbia Journalism School, co-organized by Public Business and the Columbia Journalism Review. The topic: “Has the Business Press Failed the Public Trust?’ The panelists – New York Times business editor Larry Ingrassia, Reuters blogger Felix Salmon, Wall Street Journal banking reporter Suzanne Kapner, American Banker’s Jeff Horwitz, and CJR’s own Dean Starkman – explored the distinction between reporting for investors and the general public, debated the the press’ ability to shape public debate, and argued over the role of non-business reporters in covering business scoops. We were lucky to have great input from the audience, both in the form of questions asked to the panel, and a robust discussion on Twitter, some of which I’ve archived.

There were a few points that stood out to me over the course of the evening. Very early in the evening, the question of whether the business press produced adequate coverage of malfeasance in the financial sector before 2008 was superseded by the question of whether the public would have read such coverage during the boom years. “Just reporting this stuff,” said Felix Salmon, “doesn’t help if it doesn’t catch some public desire for justice, if they don’t want to blame that organization…If you do the journalism beforehand, no one cares.” Dean Starkman disagreed, noting a number of investigations of financial institutions, during boom years, that had helped prompt reforms. Suzanne Kapner went further, arguing that the essence of journalism’s public trust is an obligation to make important stories interesting: “You can talk about Basel III and say it’s boring, but it’s going to affect how banks hold capital and lend to the general public, and it’s our job to relay that. I don’t think you can say, ‘It’s boring and we’re not gonna write about it.’ ”

A second interesting point came from an audience question. Legendary financial journalist Myron Kandel suggested that big investigative pieces don’t receive adequate follow-up. As a result, he argued, readers don’t see that the malpractice uncovered by a reporter at one company ‘isn’t an isolated situation,’ and systemic issues go unaddressed. Felix Salmon replied that most investigations face an institutional constraint where follow-up stories are concerned: “Once that story is out, every other publication is going ‘Oh the New York Times has already done that, so we can’t do it, because we’d just be copying it,’ ” he said. Salmon went on to note the way the blogosphere is changing this attitude, as stories are amplified by being re-posted, recycled and linked to.

Later, in discussing the impact the internet has had on business journalism, Salmon noted digital journalism’s push towards transparent reporting, where source material is uploaded online. At Public Business, we believe the shift towards transparent reporting is also the solution to the follow-up problem, which is why we’re investing in tools to help researchers probe one another’s sources, and follow-up on one another’s work. 

But by far, the most contentious point was the discussion about coverage of the role of government – both elected officials and regulators – in overseeing and interacting with business. Panelists noted that newsrooms are increasingly exploring ways to merge their regulatory and business staffs, but, from the floor, New York Times contributing writer Diana Henriques had a different take: why shouldn’t political reporters, foreign correspondents and journalists on other beats have the basic understanding of economics and finance? “It concerns me,” she said, “that we have ghetto-ized business journalism and given it these vast responsibilities for reaching beyond our natural borders when in fact what has happened is that business has escaped its natural borders and invaded every other beat at our news organizations.” Here at Public Business, we agree. We’re looking to launch a training program this year, where we’ll provide financial and economic literacy education to reporters – on all beats, because an understanding of business is increasingly critical for all kinds of stories. Expect to hear more about that soon.

For more, watch the full video of the panel here.