Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Business Newswriting: Pre-Professionals Are Not Getting Adequate Training

While legions of tailored suits furiously threaded together to form America’s corporate world in the 1960s, the microphones, cameras and tape recorders of the media were not prepared to keep pace. Only after Watergate, when journalists were afforded new investigative freedoms, did news organizations begin to recognize the need for business coverage in their papers. Since then, there has been progression in business journalism: business reporters of such publications as The New York Times enjoyed the addition of their own sections in the late 1970s and editors across the country realized the importance of including business news on the front page.

Still, there is much lacking in business news.
Enron functions as a prime example. Reporter Bethany McLean of Fortune Magazine and author of The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron, broke the Enron story after receiving a tip from an anonymous source who instructed her to review the balance sheets of this now infamous company. Since her undergraduate background was in math – not in journalism – McLean was able to discern that Enron’s accounting numbers did not work and went on to expose the company’s fraudulent practices from there. Had she not understood how a balance sheet worked, it is conceivable that Enron would have been able to continue deceiving investors for a prolonged period of time.

The great journalism institutions are not teaching what McLean learned. Of the country’s major journalism schools – Medill, Columbia, Annenberg and NYU – no school offers more than a few undergraduate courses in business writing. The David W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism has compiled an authoritative listing of courses and programs offered in business journalism from journalism schools across the country; its length illustrates the pitiful number of opportunities for students to engage in business writing. The page bemoans, “…the number of academic programs nationwide focusing on business journalism is few and far between....” With a lonesome two-unit course, USC’s Annenberg, which is committed to employing faculty with diverse academic and professional interests, can just count itself amongst this limited number of schools. Its rival counterpart, Medill, offers no undergraduate business journalism classes, but does boast three faculty members with professional business journalism experience.
Only at the graduate level do Medill and NYU offer a degree in business journalism. This garners applause. But wait – Medill reports that about twelve students a year elect to enroll in the program. This number, coupled with the fact that most professional journalists do not hold a graduate degree in the field, forces one to question how these schools can neglect to expose most of its student journalist population to business news?
Journalism schools are responding to the need for their students to have relevant training in the field in which they will report; some are adding courses in science reporting, including Annenberg and Columbia. An announcement about the addition of the Columbia science writing degree quotes a faculty member who says future graduates will be “bilingual in the language of earth sciences and the language of public debate."

Business journalists need a similar foundation to achieve success as liaisons in the field. Most business journalists are given their job title after having shifted from another journalism niche. Thus, they don’t often have the necessary business training needed to report on important players in the complex market. In the impossiby paced reality of the journalism world where one reporter must file in multiple media and do so with speed, even a basic understanding of business practice will undoubtedly aid in the elimination of some of the factual errors that unfortunately find themselves into news stories. Specific training in business practices will make journalists new to the business beat more than a simple reallocation.

Journalism programs at national universities, in their efforts to educate students across multiple media platforms, need to modify their curriculum to include programs in business writing and business practice. Universities will remember that journalists with ample background knowledge will be the most successful in informing the public of business issues. Poor business practices and the implications of market trends will not be interpreted by the public if journalists fail to recognize them correctly. Advances cannot be made in business journalism until its professionals are better equipped to adequately report on the field.


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