By: Tony Case
Freedom Forum First Amendment Center survey yields
some candid admissions from business execs and journalists sp.
MORE THAN A third of business journalists in a recent survey admitted that they have been unfair in their coverage and a whopping 69% of corporate executives revealed that they have lied to reporters.
These findings “are enough to shake public confidence in both the news media and the business community,” according to a report, “The Headline Vs. The Bottom Line: Mutual Distrust Between Business And The News Media,” released at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers convention last month in Seattle.
“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,” the report determined.
The study, based primarily on a survey of more than 630 journalists and businesspeople in late 1992 and early 1993, was researched and written by Miami Herald assistant managing editor Mike Haggerty and retired Beatrice Foods CEO Wallace Rasmussen.
They worked on the project as visiting scholars at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, a research facility at Vanderbilt University in Nashville operated by the Arlington, Va.-based Freedom Forum foundation.
Haggerty and Rasmussen found not only a distrustful but an overtly antagonistic relationship between the Fourth Estate and corporate America.
“Executives perceive media people as liberal, adversarial, well-educated do-gooders ? mal-informed and misinformed about business ? who operate with little or no supervision,” they wrote.
Meanwhile, “journalists perceive businesspeople as conservative, adversarial, well-educated moneymongers whose only goal in life is to succeed at the expense of everyone around them. Greed is their god. Profits are their salvation.”
Sidney Topol, founder of communications systems manufacturer Scientific Atlanta, took issue with this view.
“The general theme of the press is that all business is greed . . . but there are a lot of business leaders who are very sensitive and compassionate,” he was quoted as saying in the report.
Robert Coppenrath, retired senior vice chairman of the Agfa division of Miles Inc., an imaging products maker, said executives have the opportunity to form cordial relationships with journalists.
“Don’t treat them like inferiors,” he urged.
Some businesspeople surveyed conceded that executives often are to blame for the bad blood between the media and business.
Ralph Whitworth, president of United Shareholders Association, a 65,000-member group that advocates public and corporate policy focusing on management accountability to shareholders, observed that executives at times shirk the role of company spokesperson when they should welcome the chance to serve in this function.
“It makes me cringe when I see in the paper that someone wouldn’t take a phone call or was not available for comment,” Whitworth said. “That breeds suspicion, not just in the media but in the public. They can’t spend all their time doing interviews, but interviews should be a critical and primary function of their job.”
He added, “I’ve heard a lot of executives complain about leaks within their organization. I believe a lot of those leaks are caused because there isn’t a good flow of information from the CEOs themselves.”
Newspeople and executives alike gave high marks to business reporting in national newspapers such as the New York Times, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal.
But businesspeople graded coverage by their hometown newspapers and television news teams poorly, and journalists themselves generally considered local coverage to be fair or good but not excellent.
Executives concurred that newspaper reporting is somewhat better than TV coverage.
Of those polled, 41% said business coverage by newspapers is fair, 12% called it good and 43% rated it poor. But 62% said TV’s examination of the business world is poor.
Not surprisingly, 79% of journalists polled ? the majority of them print reporters ? also rated broadcast coverage poor.
The study also found the following:
? Executives wish they had the opportunity to review final drafts and check quotes before stories are published.
? Staff turnover at media outlets and non-media companies is detrimental to press-business relations.
? Because the recent recession forced many media organizations to cut reporting staffs, business journalists now have less time and resources to effectively cover their beat.
? Journalism educators need to strive to make sure that graduates have sufficient understanding of economics to report on business.
The Freedom Forum report defines common goals of news organizations and non-media businesses ? customer satisfaction, responsibility to workers and their families, the promotion of diversity in the workplace. But it found that newspeople and businesspeople disagree on some significant points.
For example, 77% of executives surveyed believe they are more accountable to the public than the media. But 55% of reporters and 65% of editors polled disagreed with this contention.
Three-fourths of executives responding complained that journalists rarely get the technical details of business and economic news right. While most reporters (69%) and editors (59%) disagreed, a significant number of editors (29%) felt that reporters have difficulty getting information straight.
Some journalists may lack even basic understanding of business.
Tom Wathen, chairman, president and CEO of Pinkerton Inc., which specializes in security and investigation devices, reported having learned from an academian that the average college graduate is under the false impression that U.S. business makes 37? on every dollar it takes in.
“That’s their perception of profit margin, and I quote that example of how serious the gap between reality and perception is,” he said.
But, he added, “We don’t do anything to overcome that. I wonder how many public companies bother to put out an understandable annual report to their own employees. They put it out to the business press, which is populated by people who don’t have a business education.”
An overwhelming number of executives (68%) said business reporting is too sensational. Not surprisingly, most reporters (86%) disagreed.
Haggerty and Rasmussen noted that at the time the poll was taken, scandalous stories involving executive compensation, insider trading, and the savings and loan crisis had long dominated the front pages of business sections.
The report is full of hope in asserting that “the time is past due for misunderstandings between businesspeople and journalists to be cleared up” and “honest efforts to understand will help reduce the destructive levels of tension between business and the news media.”
But according to most reporters (81%) and editors (74%) who responded to the survey, this antagonism is inevitable.
Russell Rein of the Santa Barbara (Calif.) News-Press was quoted as saying, “I believe most of the problems occur because businesspeople are ignorant of the role of a free press in covering business. They want control just like they have in their business and resent it when we refuse to give in.”
Martin Baron, editor of the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times, maintained, “Everybody is coming at it from a completely different perspective, and neither respects the other’s perspective. The press doesn’t understand the internal workings of business and all the considerations involved. Business has no clue as to how newspapers actually operate, and they don’t feel the need to understand it.”
A lesser but sizable number of executives polled (51%) also appear to be resigned to this competitive milieu.
“My colleagues feel that no good can come out of a conversation with the media,” related Victoria Jackson, chairman of fuel-injection systems manufacturer Pro Diesel. “There is a lot of fear. To some people, their business is their identity, their soul. It’s hard to back away and be objective.”
Donald MacNaughton, chairman of healthcare provider HealthTrust Inc., said businesspeople should understand that adversarial relationships with the media often are “normal ? a series of contests.”
He observed, “Investigative reporting and an adversary press have taken on new dimensions since Vietnam and Watergate. And this new vigor on the part of the press is now being employed in its dealings with institutions other than government, including business, and we in business must face up to it.”