Both Sides Are at Fault in Business vs. Media Antagonism

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THE mutual hostility between business executives and journalists is well known. Many leaders of industry see media people as liberal and adversarial do-gooders who know little about the practical world of business. Many reporters perceive business people as conservative money-grubbers who evade tough questions and lie when it serves their purposes.

These charges are hardly novel, but a new report from the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center (``The Headline vs. the Bottom Line'') concludes that both sides may be right.

Drawing on a recent national survey of more than 630 executives and journalists, the center reported that a surprisingly high number of reporters (38 percent) agree that the news media treat business unfairly. An even larger portion of business leaders (69 percent) admit that they are not always truthful in dealing with the press. Thus, it is not surprising that journalists and businesspeople are so often alienated from each other.

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Given these statistics, it is hard to avoid the simple-minded - but apparently pertinent - conclusion that the relationship between business and the media would be improved if journalists would be fair in their coverage and business executives would tell the truth!

But a truly satisfying response to the media-business deadlock must go further. Senior management must become more accessible to the press (both print and electronic) and far more knowledgeable of the pressure of deadlines. They must learn that giving a fully informed answer hours after the reporter has submitted his or her copy is likely to result in being ignored in the article. Complaining afterward to the publisher while golfing at the club is no substitute for responding to the working press.

Simultaneously, the quality and quantity of the people assigned to business news coverage should be increased substantially. Despite the greater size of the private sector, the public sector (government) gets the lion's share of reporters' time and effort. Also, schools of journalism often fail to produce graduates with sufficient expertise in economics to cover business. They assume that they will acquire the requisite knowledge on the job.

Compare the technical expertise of a novice reporter covering a ballgame with the limited knowledge possessed by many journalists covering controversial business issues. Whether it is football, baseball, or basketball, the writer invariably knows the intricate rules of the game. Those assigned to a complicated controversy over an oil spill or a corporate bankruptcy usually are much less knowledgeable about their subject. No reader of the sports section would let a reporter get away with such a basic ``goof'' as not knowing how to keep score. In contrast, complaints by business executives about inaccuracies are frequently dismissed in a cavalier fashion.

Both the news media and business have remarkably similar missions and problems. Each must satisfy customers and each is distrusted by the public. A little goodwill extended by each side could go a long way toward changing the often-adversarial relationship.

Business executives should not try to hide important information even if it is bad news. Likewise, it does not diminish a reporter's independence to check the accuracy of quotations with the person quoted. Many successful magazines do that routinely.

The First Amendment Center survey confirmed another widely held belief: Local television coverage of business is poor, while national newspapers do the best job. Unfortunately, few local television journalists ever participate in economic-education programs.

Of course, even fewer senior business executives take the time to learn how journalists work. It's no surprise that this educator urges more education.

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