Schifferes: too much information, too much specialisation

A great deal of recent backchat, panel burble and analysis of journalism lately has focussed on diagnosing spectacular “failures”. Why did the news media so easily swallow the idea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction? Why did the news media fail to foresee the financial meltdown in 2008?

My colleague Steve Schifferes, who directs the MA in Financial Journalism at City University, pondered on the financial failure in his inaugural lecture yesterday. (Full text here). There is a great deal to enjoy and appreciate in his look backwards and forwards over business and economic journalism, but two points in particular seem worth drawing out.

  1. We think that specialisation in journalism is good: specialist correspondents have cachet and better salaries. They can interpret and spot what general reporters may miss; they have contacts whose technical language they can speak. Or so goes the theory. But in the coverage of the crash and its causes, specialisation also mean fragmentation of knowledge and got in the way of people being able to see the big picture. The specialists who did glimpse what was happening never got their journalism out of the ghetto where it normally ran.
  2. The power balance in business journalism – which began in earnest in the 1960s – was always different. Such organisation as newpaper reporting had tended to be based on political journalism. The chances of finding out what was actually going on were fair: politicians needed to talk to promote themselves and their policies and there lay the opportunity. Businessmen are under no such obligation. Moreover, businesses have marketing and public relations resources sufficient to make the contest unequal. Hence, Schifferes argued, with far fewer bits of real information to go round business journalism had much less leverage. That built a less inquiring culture.
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