The financial crisis showed the need for more serious scrutiny of business actions. We are a collaborative nonprofit, supporting original journalism and public debate about the wider economic, social and environmental implications of business.
This summer, as part of the New School’s Professional Education program, our Executive Director Maha Rafi Atal and adjunct professor Joanne Bauer will be teaching a course on business and human rights. The course will cover human rights law as it applies to corporations, corporate strategies for managing human rights impacts and ways reporters can incorporate this background into their work. The course is a two-day intensive workshop at the New School in New York on July 18th and 19th. Registration is open now on the New School website; the full course listing is below:
In recent decades, the growth and global reach of the private sector has helped to lift millions of people out of poverty. At the same time, businesses have contributed to social unrest and environmental destruction, maintained exploitative working conditions, and aided repressive governments in citizen surveillance and online censorship. This short course, designed for media professionals, explores the relevance of a human rights perspective to coverage of such corporate social responsibility issues. The course covers the historical development of human rights principles and standards relevant to corporations; an overview of current human rights law and regulatory policies; case studies that illuminate key human rights issues, including labor, the environment, and civil liberties; and corporate best practices for managing and reporting on human rights impacts. Case studies will cover a wide variety of industries, including finance, energy, mining, technology, and retail. Discussion will center on how students might approach these cases as reporters. At the close of the course, students will have a firm background in business and human rights standards and practice, and a toolkit for incorporating this knowledge into their work, both in investigative reporting and mainstream business news.
Thursday and Friday
9:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
The political implications of these revelations are enormous, but we at Public Business feel strongly that these are also business stories. In the vast majority of the surveillance cases, the data in question has come from private services. Consumers surrender data to firms in exchange for free or cheap services, and the U.S. government – whose access to individuals’ data is heavily regulated – can access it with relative ease through the use of subpoena power or other legal tools. Meanwhile, private firms engaged in consulting to governments on security matters can often access this data as well, extending its reach. Indeed, the Guardian and Washington Post stories on NSA surveillance relied on a whistleblower who came across the project as a contractor for consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.
These are stories about the intersection of business and society, about the impact of business practices that involve widespread data collection, and about business structures increasingly integrated into the state. Further reporting, if it is going to explain how and why these data transfers happened, requires reporters who have deep sources inside technology and contracting firms, as well as in government. It will also require workflows and newsroom financial structures designed to support interdisciplinary work.
That’s why we are announcing today a special grant round for reporters with insight into the corporate aspects of the surveillance story. We are looking for stories that explain how the data transfers occurred at major consumer technology companies and to what extent corporate management knew of or enabled them. If executives were not aware or involved, what management practices allowed the transfers to occur without their knowledge? We are also looking for stories that illuminate the relationship between private contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton and government defense or intelligence agencies. How common are access protocols like those faced by Edward Snowden, and how strictly is access to this data managed?
Grants for pursuing these stories will range from $1000 or $5000. Proposals should follow our standard guidelines, though, given the short time frame, we will accept proposals that lack a publishing venue and understand that having publishable source material will be a tall order at this stage in a complicated story.
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.
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.