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How chief executive officers are hurting business journalism

July 20, 2022

Posted by Chris Roush

Talking Biz News is running excerpts this week from “The Future of Business Journalism: Why it Matters for Wall Street and Main Street.” Here is the third one.

After reporter Amir Efrati of tech news site The Information wrote an article about Tesla Incorporated, CEO Elon Musk replied with a tweet: “Can’t believe you’re even writing about this.” Efrati, who noted that Tesla’s public relations staff had confirmed the facts in his story, responded with “How about we set up an interview and you can tell me, among other things, what you think is worth writing about?”

Musk tersely turned down the offer, saying, “Uhh, hello, I need to build cars.” This exchange shows the problem in the relationship between business journalists and company executives—both sides disagree about the role the other should play in communicating news and information.

Business reporters and editors often argue that corporate executives often fail to tell the truth about their businesses or hide behind corporate spokespersons, leaving society with an incomplete picture of the impact of their companies. These journalists simply want to be able to tell consumers as many facts as possible, whether good or bad, about a company. Corporate executives believe that business news media predominantly portray their operations in an unfavorable light and ignore the good that their businesses provide to society. This conflict often limits the news that journalists can present to consumers about what is going on at companies, which has hurt the quality of business journalism in the past decade.

Executives also use other tactics that are interpreted as being adversarial to the business news media. In 2018 Facebook Incorporated CEO Mark Zuckerberg did not speak first to the media when it was disclosed his company had allowed another business to obtain data about its customers. Zuckerberg chose to make his initial comments in a Facebook post and in congressional testimony before speaking to the media.

Business executives also complain that the reporters covering their companies lack an understanding of their operations and fail to cover good news, even when the reporters are in the audience to report the news, said former Milwaukee Business Journal reporter Olivia Barrow. “I am literally here,” said Barrow. “What more do you want from me?” She added:

I write stories that aim to help businesses grow by giving them leads they can use to make sales, interviewing industry leaders, explaining touch issues, analyzing trends and helping them avoid huge pitfalls. That last part involves “negative” seeming stories—like reporting when a company is laying off hundreds of workers, or when their sales decreased for the third year in a row, or when they get sued, because other business owners need to know who NOT to do business with just as much as they need to know who TO do business with.

Others note that corporate executives should court the business news media. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Rakesh Khurana argues that CEOs must have the “gift of tongues,” which means having the ability to “inspire employees to work harder and gain the confidence of investors, analysts, and the ever skeptical business press.”

The business news media analyze and evaluate executives and companies for a wide audience, making interaction between journalists and corporate executives a necessity in society. “The CEO has become the personification of the corporation, and the changing environment has forced the corporation and the CEO into the public arena,” wrote James E. Arnold in Public Relations Quarterly. In addition, nearly every executive believes that media coverage influences the reputation of their corporation, according to a study by Ansgar Zerfass of the University of Leipzig and Muschda Sherzada, head of corporate communications at About You GmbH.

For the sake of a better-informed society, corporate executives and business journalists would benefit from examining this relationship. Both sides can do better in developing a relationship with the other side and in understanding the needs and issues of the other. A study—compiled by a journalist and a retired CEO—by the First Amendment Center at the Freedom Forum argues for better relations between the two sides, concluding, “There is no doubt that the relationship between business and the news media would be improved if journalists would be fair and executives would tell the truth.” Despite this study, there has been no concentrated effort to address the situation. As one corporate executive said, “Considerable effort on both parts is required for them to attain tolerance, appreciation and understanding for one another.”

Developing a better relationship between business executives and business journalists would lead to better coverage. Reporters would be able to write with more expertise and knowledge about companies and issues if they understood more about what was going on inside the business, and executives and business owners would receive news and information that they need to make important decisions.

This is an excerpt from “The Future of Business Journalism: Why it Matters to Wall Street and Main Street” by Quinnipiac University School of Communications dean Chris Roush.


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