About those ‘negative’ stories…

by June 9, 2014

Business journalists especially face the accusation of being “negative.” Companies want to control their image. Many small outfits have no experience in dealing with the press. Also, more and more, we live in a culture of relentless sales and hype.

Good News Bad News paper gameMany Americans are irrationally optimistic, as Barbara Ehrenreich discussed in her book, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. If I had a dollar for every reader call and email, and every meeting with a flack or top executive, over a “negative” story, I would be long-since retired.

This term has driven me crazy since I was a cub reporter (is that term even used any more?). It is so subjective.

For example, if you write about a lawsuit that a company has hidden in the fine print of its 10-K, is that being “negative” or “positive”? It depends on where one sits. If one is part of the corporate hive trying to keep the stock price up, I suppose the revelation is “negative.” If one is a shareholder, employee, vendor or customer, the knowledge is extremely “positive.”

If only the “negative” news about the starter glitch in GM vehicles had come out sooner.

I say to you again what I have been telling businessfolk for decades: We’re not your cheerleaders or your publicists. It is the mission of a newspaper to report the news and raise hell.

Here are our obligations:

1. To be accurate. If a story has a factual error, correct it promptly.

2. To be as complete as time allows and continue this with relevant follow-ups.

3. To be fair. This includes giving a company or individual that is the story’s focus a chance to tell their side; providing context, comparison and mitigating factors; not to hold back a key fact that the focus of the story doesn’t get a chance to respond to, and to be careful with the language, tone, headline and placement of the story.

Do these things and you will do your duty to readers. I’m positive.