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Rethinking business journalism

If we want a better, more inclusive economy, we need a new, more demanding form of business and economic journalism, one that questions the assumptions our organizations, industries, and economies are built on; investigates not only how the systems that govern them are working now, but how they might be improved; and prepares readers to take action to improve them. In other words, we need business journalism to be more progressive.

Katherine Bell, Editor-in-chief of Quartz magazine

I came across this apparently heart-felt plea from Quartz magazine in the US to do business journalism differently. As a former business and economics editor, and university lecturer, I have considered the place of business journalism in the world for some time, and I thought I would share some of those reflections. However, I’ve come to realise that it is hard for people in the developed world to hear those speaking from this part of the world, “the periphery”. The unsubtle message is: How could any of us possibly have anything worthwhile to say?

Those in the centre, who often take for granted that they are in the centre, thanks to relative wealth and historical circumstance, seem to view the rest of the world as a savage place. Americans often used to say they wanted to visit “Africa”, a continent of 53 countries differing in languages and cultures. The Economist magazine famously dismissed Africa as “the hopeless continent”. A good place to start for Western journalists to improve their business reporting would be to see beyond the unconscious biases of their countries and cultures. 

Anyway, one problem with business journalism everwhere is that it is business journalism, and so by definition sees the world of business as paradigmatic, with some few spectacular failures that temporarily threaten the paradigm. These spectacular failures, such as the Enron disaster, are the source of sensational news and much hand-wringing – and then are forgotten until the next calamity occurs. Crisis characterizes capitalism, however, so that whatever lessons may be learned from one disaster may not be applicable to the next. 

The lessons of Enron would not have helped much in predicting the Great Financial Crisis and ensuing Global Recession. Enron showed up among others the weakness of financial reporting – and the collusion of banks and auditing firms in creating an illusion of financial success. It also illustrated the dangers of financial coverage that idolized CEOs of apparently winning companies. The GFC was more complex than that, with a number of events, trends, companies and financial innovations coming together in an explosive mix. Many thousands of words have been devoted to trying to understand its causes and the implications, and one thing seems clear the GFC was not simple and witch-hunts for individuals or companies were bound to fail. Blaming greed, capitalism, or neoliberalism – this last term too vague to be of use except as another way of saying capitalism or market fundamentalism or libertarianism – is trite.

One view of the problem with business or financial journalism is that it has triumphed in its focus on the details of what is working or not working in the business sector over economics journalism. Economics journalism should be able to take a much broader view of society and where business fits and what it should do. In practice, I find, economics journalists working for financial publications focus on monetary and fiscal policy in a neoclassical framework. 

I had some experience of covering bigger debates at the end of apartheid and the onset of democracy in South Africa, when an incoming liberation movement with an historically socialist tendency was coming to power in the wake of the collapse of communism and the brief period of capitalist triumphalism. I have tried in my writing to take a broader view, using my own experience of covering business, finance and economics, of what, for instance, residential real estate prices mean for ordinary people as homeowners rather than as investors.

I started my career as an industrial reporter in what was a growing city with the memory of a mining town. Industrial reporting, I sensed, was bottom of the rung of what was known as financial journalism, and I didn’t spend much time in that job to become very good at it. Degrading industrial reporting remains a big error in journalism. In talking to one of South Africa’s oldest labour reporters, for a course I was teaching on economics journalism, I realized that industry was a vital part of the development of successful societies and that it involved so many other reporting areas, industrial policy in economics, the finance industry and how it supports or fails to support manufacture, labour policy for how it helps or hinders industry and how industry affects workers.

So, it is not so much a question of beats but of attitudes and resources. Too much reporting is just stenography, whatever its supposed subject.

If you look at the GFC, the most intelligible and intelligent coverage in the news media was generated by Gillian Tett, of the Financial Times. Tett, famously, was trained as an anthropologist not an economist, and the FT allowed her to report in depth on the derivatives that proved to be so explosively faulty. The FT, by the way, does business journalism differently because its readers want – up to a point – to know what is going on, not simply have their prejudices confirmed. The Wall Street Journal used to achieve both objectives by letting their reporters report the facts and using their opinion pages to assure readers of the correctness of the conservative view of the world.

There is a challenge then, in the true sense of the word. Business, financial, and economics journalists do have a duty to look beyond the narrow interests of their audience – but only if they have the skills to make those forays interesting and to navigate bias. No one like to be lectured to, and audiences have choices, both in how they read, hear or view journalists’ outpourings and in whether to continue engaging with what journalists are trying to tell them. News media must balance telling people what they need to hear with not turning them off entirely. In my experience, you used to be able to run a profitable business magazine by adopting an ideology that assuages the potential guilt of rich and powerful people. The Economist magazine has from its early beginnings arguably done this, in subtle and unsubtle ways, according to a recent history of the magazine.

In the long run, that is unsatisfactory for both the audience and those who serve the audience, who demand authenticity and a commitment to deeper truths.

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