Journalists have long been the watchdogs of the world. Reporters and editors cover politics to keep world and industry leaders accountable, and tell stories about crime and justice to reinforce societal values. Recently however, journalists’ power to protect people from corruption and wrongdoing has been shrinking. As the industry diminishes, so does its budget, and unfortunately investigative journalism is not cheap.
In early September, Wells Fargo was revealed to have cheated its clients by creating over 2 million fake accounts from 2011 to 2016. The bank, one of Wall Street’s biggest companies, spread funds from real accounts into the phony ones and opened credit accounts without client knowledge, to be able to feed employees fat bonuses (CNN Money). The activity was illegal and immoral, and would likely have continued had it not been for federal regulation and business journalism. In a capitalist economy that depends on free-market competition, business journalism covers stories about economics, enterprise, and finance. Sources like The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal are needed to advise professionals while educating the general public.
Business journalism once focused on informing bankers about the economy using a detailed and investigative approach, but this changed as stock markets began to involve everyday people and technology emphasized access. News sources now glorify the stock market and look mainly to advise to people on how to make money from it. Meanwhile, Wall Street banks that maintain bad reputations are rarely confronted.
The lack of questioning can lead to critical issues, as during the financial crisis of 2008. Despite suspiciously high ratings for CDOs, malpractice by lenders, and negligence by the government, news agencies did not look into the issue. One who did, Michael Burry, wrote in an op-ed for the Times: “…our leaders in Washington either willfully or ignorantly aided and abetted the bubble… at this point there is no reason to reflexively dismiss the analysis of those who foresaw the crisis.” (The New York Times)
Most news sources today rely on ad revenue, so financial improvements are unlikely to boost investigation. However, another possibility is to change the culture of business journalism. One issue that complements the lack of investigation is the lack of comprehensive questioning. Bloomberg’s former editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler said that diversity is the best way to combat this. A diverse team of reporters and editors ask questions from a variety of perspectives, and so a diverse team is bound to be more informed. Bloomberg, by making diversity a top priority, has been able to access unique stories, including a feature of the first female CEO in the automotive industry.
Another way to empower business journalism is to use data. While news headlines and stories can draw attention and create generalizations, data can provide unexpected and factual insights. In a time when technology provides accessibility, journalism is a way to convey the important facts to readers. “If you can take meaningful and revealing data then translate it to the audience, you have the opportunity to give everyone a much more informed understanding of the world,” Winkler said. In 2014, Bloomberg gathered statistics of debt ratios to show that the nation was the healthiest it has been in the past few years, providing fact-based insight during a time of discord about condition of the economy (Bloomberg).
With a greater focus on diversity and data, journalism may be able to return to identifying issues, and work to improve the world by bringing attention to them.