Can You Afford to Pay Attention?

Can You Afford to Pay Attention?

If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say "journalists never report the good news" I'd be able to retire and open a bed & breakfast on the shores of Costa Rica before I hit 40.

Cynical as it may sound, after more than a decade of having written countless "good" news stories, I can say with some authority, most folks don't remember (and usually don't read) "good" news stories.

My theory is that most news consumers don't remember the "good" stories because "good" happenings are so common and familiar they don't really register in a society drowning in information. In fact, common, ordinary, "good" news doesn't even satisfy the wide-spread urge to live vicariously through others.

But, the damned-if-you-don't side of the "good news" coin is the oft-heard charge that "the media dropped the ball because they didn't warn of us the looming (insert crisis here)." Take the financial meltdown, for example.

Last month, the business press was taken to the woodshed for allegedly failing to warn the public about the impending economic doom. Simon Dumenco of Advertising Age captured the sentiment of many media critics when he wrote:

"Of course, just as we're getting more self-pity than humility from Wall Street these days, we're not exactly getting much in the way of mea culpas from the financial press. Nobody's really been stepping up to the plate to say, 'With our woefully incomplete and often shamefully gullible reporting on the murky financial underpinnings of the real-estate bubble, we let our readers and/or viewers down.'"

Dereliction of duty charges are more than deserved - if you're talking about corporate media coverage of the "threat" posed by Iraq's non-existent WMD. But, a recent survey of the media landscape by American Journalism Review ( shows that the blame-the-media argument, accusing journalists of failing to warn of the financial WMD hidden in the derivatives markets, doesn't work as a scapegoat this time.

Way back in 1994, AJR notes, Fortune magazine's Carol Loomis "predicted that derivatives could be 'a villain, or even the villain, in some financial crisis that sweeps the world.'"

The Wall Street Journal aggressively covered the problems at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac going back a decade. A 2004 article Fannie Mae was compared to Enron and WorldCom.

Of course, there's also investigative business journalist Gary Weiss, now writing for Portfolio, who published a 2007 book titled "Wall Street Versus America: A Muckraking Look at the Thieves, Fakers and Charlatans Who Are Ripping You Off." How's that for a warning?

There's plenty more examples but the most interesting nugget in AJR's report is a 2003 Harvard Business School study that looked at more than 260 cases of accounting fraud. The study found that "nearly a third of (fraudulent business practices) were identified by the business media before the Securities and Exchange Commission or the company said they were targets of investigations."

So, it's no surprise titans of business journalism are speaking up to set the record straight.

Nikhil Deogun, former editor of the WSJ's Money & Investing section and now deputy managing editor, says: "I'm kind of curious as to why is it that people were shocked (when the bubble burst), given the volume of coverage."

AJR sums it up nicely: "Here's the issue that financial journalism faces: No one likes a nattering nabob of negativism, especially when the stock market is climbing and all of our 401(k) plans are tied to it. So we shut out what we don't want to hear because it conflicts with what we'd like to happen."

So much for my theory that people don't remember "good" news. Apparently, we don't remember "bad" news either.

Now the economy is in big trouble. But more troubling is the fact that even when times are good - or especially when times are good - most folks still can't afford to pay attention. Here's to the nattering nabobs.

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