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Avoiding hypocrisy in business journalism

March 22, 2021

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Credit: Pixabay user Schwerdhoefer

If you are a business journalist, then you also have the role of critic. Not that you’re being paid to offer your personal opinions about this company, that stock, or the other product.

Instead, you are supposed to carefully capture details, build understanding, gather viewpoints, and find a way to present the integration of it all to your audience. That is being an informed and useful critic who can bring people into the spaces you inhabit.

There are dangers in all this: getting seduced by the people you cover, grasping for cliched explanations, forgetting your skepticism when enthralled by a concept. All the standard fare.

However, there is one additional issue that has been rising over the last few years. With all the coverage of such things as wasteful business models, sexual harassment, racial discrimination, political extremity, and more, you’d think that more news organizations might consider whether the issues applied to themselves.

In fact, given how women and people of color have brought attention to how often they are pushed aside in many newsrooms, and the many stories of sexual harassment and worse, you might have hoped that upper management would have listened.

But stories about what has been happening in newsrooms show those hopes to have shattered on the jagged rocks of reality.

Just look at the number of people major newspapers, websites, traditional magazines, book publishers, and broadcast outlets sent packing over the last few year years, and you’d have enough high-profile people for a good-sized newsroom.

But the point is not to finger-wag. Being guilty of something doesn’t mean criticism of another on the same grounds is illogical—a type of logically invalid defense called tu quoque, meaning “you, too” in Latin. (Or, “I know you are, but what am I?”)

Instead, news organizations should realize that it becomes difficult to report on issues when it seems that you are being hypocritical. You lose moral ground to call something out. Your claims sound hollow because if it’s all that wrong, why haven’t you addressed it within your own four walls?

In addition, if you are blind to a problem at work—which may be something unrelated to bias or harassment—you may have a harder time identifying and examining it elsewhere.

An interesting example comes from the New York Times. Charlie Warzel and Stuart Thompson had a piece criticizing the use of phone data to track people. They provided an example: an animation that showed the process of people at a Trump rally who then moved to the January 6 protest that eventually became the attack on the Capitol building. A stunning bit of work.

But I stumbled across a cogent criticism whose source, sadly, I can’t find. The author noted that Warzel, Thompson, and the Times had just done with data exactly what they criticized others for doing. If you’re willing to do what you say is bad to provide an example, then either your point is blunted or the problem is one you can’t document, in which case is it a story?

This is a topic with no easy answers, just many questions that should keep good journalists examining their own practices.

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