Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

Business Journalists Need Specialized Finance Training

Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

Business Journalists Need Specialized Finance Training

Article excerpt

President Calvin Coolidge once remarked, "The chief business of the American people is business." This is even truer three-quarters of a century later, with a gross domestic product of more than $9 trillion, up from about $103 billion in 1929, Coolidge's final year in office. Between July 1990, when the nation emerged from a recession, and January 2000, the stock market exploded with an unprecedented bull market. During that time, the Dow Jones industrial average grew from about 2,500 to more than 11,000 points, an astounding gain of 340 percent. During about the same period, a broader index, the Standard & Poor's 500, saw a similar run-up from about 300 in late 1989 to approximately 1,150 in early 2000.

Accompanying that growth has been an increase in coverage of business and economic issues in the mass media. In daily newspapers, business coverage as a percentage of newshole grew from seven percent to 10 percent from 1963-64 to 1998-99. (1) The newshole doubled over that same period. (2) Meanwhile, the number of clients subscribing to the Associated Press' stock table service grew from 500 a decade ago to more than 900 today. (3)

Arguably, the complexity of business, finance and economics requires a sophistication not typically taught in journalism school. This situation raises several questions: Are readers being adequately served by journalists? Have journalists received the proper training, whether in college, in professional seminars or on the job? There is a broad argument within journalism that business and economics reporting is lacking.

Business and economic reporting have become increasingly important as more people turn to online trading or investing in the stock market through a vast array of mutual funds and retirement plans. A misinformed decision can be costly; indeed, it can make a family's nest egg disappear overnight. The popular and trade presses have been vocal in their criticism of business and economics coverage. Financial columnist Jane Bryant Quinn lamented the state of business reporting, arguing that too many journalists are in awe of those who make lots of money and are missing real stories about what's behind the money machines. She writes:

   In many ways, the personal finance press covers a world of predators and 
   prey. We're supposed to stick up for the prey. Who will defend them, if not 
   us? Yet we tend to dine with the predators, innocently, without even 
   thinking about it.... It's investment pornography--soft core, not hard 
   core, but pornography all the same. (4) 

James T. Hamilton and Joseph P. Kalt looked at journalists who cover business and economics for the Ford Foundation and the Foundation for American Communications. They surveyed 80 journalism schools and departments and 823 journalists in response to what they called a "consensus among scholars and laymen alike that the relevant principles of (economics) are not widely understood." (5)

The problem that this study addresses is the quality of business and economic journalism in daily newspapers. The solution, as suggested by Joseph L. Bower (6) and Hamilton and Kalt (7) is more education for those covering these topics, be it in journalism school, in continuing education or in-house. This study looked at the training of reporters and editors covering business and economics at daily newspapers. It also examined whether they believed such training was necessary. The answers are useful to newspaper editors in assessing the needs for hiring and staff training and to the academy in preparing future generations of business journalists.

Literature Review

The academic literature on training of business journalists is somewhat scant. Most reports about education are provided as asides in broader looks at business coverage. (8) A look at business journalists in Pennsylvania found that 48 percent had taken business or economics classes during or after college, and they believed that more formal education in business and economics would be helpful. …

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