OLD Media Moves

How did the business media perform?

April 26, 2009


Business journalists and experts differed Sunday on whether the financial press did a good job in warning consumers about the current economic crisis before it occurred.

The panel kicked off the annual meeting of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers in Denver.

Dean Starkman, a writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, said that the best work was done between 2000 and 2003 in terms of covering the issues in the housing market and the connection to Wall Street.

But he said, overall, the field of business journalism has not done a good job in warning consumers about the problems. He said the worst period was between 2004 and 2006.Â

“I sort of feel like the chicken at the annual meeting at Tyson Foods,” said Starkman, whose research into the coverage will be published in the next CJR issue. He took issue with an American Journalism Review article in its December/January issue from University of North Carolina professor Chris Roush who wrote that the coverage was well, but that readers ignored most of it.

Others took issue with Starkman’s assessment.

“I disagree fundamentally with Dean’s conclusion,” said Larry Ingrassia, the business editor of the New York Times. “Maybe the readers and regulators were asleep, but definitely not the reporters of the New York Times.” Ingrassia provided a number of examples of the paper’s coverage.

“Could we have done better? Yes, we can always do better. But the press was there.”

Personal finance columnist Jane Bryant Quinn agreed with Ingrassia. “We were reporting this story for the folks,” she said. “We were reporting the issues. We were reporting the dangers. I felt I was just so negative all the time.”

However, Quinn admitted that she didn’t “follow the thread back” to Wall Street when it comes to questionable mortgages.

But she added, “We have a panel here about did business journalism blow it, but I have yet to see a panel on did the bankers blow it.”

Greg Miller, a University of Michigan business school professor who has researched business coverage, added that business has gotten more complicated, which makes it harder for readers to understand what’s going on.

“The first challenge for you guys is understanding all of this stuff,” he said. “Individuals may no longer be able to understand it on their own.”

Alan Dodds Frank, president of the Overseas Press Club, was critical of TV business journalism, particularly CNBC, noting that they duck responsibility for their coverage.

The missing piece in the coverage, said Quinn, was the regulatory angle. “It was very unfashionably, generally, that as an extension of our business coverage, where is the Fed?”

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