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Despite its prestige (cf. the critical acclaim and status of The Financial Times or The Wall Street Journal) and omnipresence in quality news media (in broadcast, print or online modalities), economic journalism remains a largely unexamined field of professional journalism (but see Oberlechner & Hocking 2004; Duval 2005; Doyle 2006; Velthuis 2006; Corcoran & Fahy 2009).
As I will use the term here, economic journalism comprises two types of coverage: investor oriented news and consumer oriented news. I will use the term ‘financial journalism’ to refer to the former: typically ‘hard’ news coverage of financial markets, corporate finance and government expenditure. The term ‘business journalism’ I will use to refer to the latter: typically ‘softer’ news coverage of personal finance, consumer products and trends, marketing, and the like. A number of recent events have drawn public scrutiny of economic journalism. I will briefly show how these events came to my attention.
On 27 March 2009 more than 15,000 copies of a spoof edition of the Financial Times were handed out at various locations throughout London. Made by two professional journalists in their spare time, the fantasy edition, dated 1 April 2020 and titled Not the Financial Times, featured mostly satirical, anti-establishment articles (‘G5 unveil new oligarchitecture’) but also criticized the news industry for seldom writing objectively. The fantasy edition was a near carbon copy of the Financial Times newspaper and website, complete with the familiar advertisement of a Saint Bernard with a copy of the FT on its collar, overlooking a snowy, desolate mountain range (see Figure 1). However, the pink baseline text had been altered from ‘We live in FINANCIAL TIMES’ to ‘We live on FINANCIAL CRIMES’ and the poster text read ‘In a world of cold harsh truths, we rescue stories from the facts’.
Of course, blistering attacks on economic journalism like these did not come out the blue: the publication of the spoof edition coincided with the build-up to the G20 Summit in London on 2 April 2009, a formal meeting of leaders from the world’s largest economies to take stabilizing measures in the face of the worst economic downturn since World War II. Summarizing, the credit crisis broke in the summer of 2007 as a result of subprime mortgage defaults in the United States.
This caused the American housing market to collapse and the market demand for mortgage-based financial products to freeze up. As a result, banking institutions around the world started facing viability concerns, initially about liquidity but, as banks became increasingly unwilling to lend each other money, also about solvency. Finally, as major banking institutions such as Lehman Brothers in the United States collapsed in late 2008, the global financial system faced a massive crisis, grinding the world economy to a screeching halt.
The credit crisis exemplifies what Paul Chilton calls a period of “critical discourse moments” (Chilton 1987), i.e. socially relevant events that raise public awareness on particular issues. For instance, the credit crisis has propelled finance jargon like ‘credit crunch’ into mainstream vocabulary and, more important, has drawn public attention to the role and responsibility of economic journalism.
In a report commissioned by the London School of Economics, Damian Tambini describes UK financial journalism as “a branch of the profession which faces unique ethical dilemmas” (Tambini 2008: 5). Through interviews with journalists, financiers and regulators, the report provides empirical evidence for professional, technological and editorial challenges facing the field, including the generalizations that financial journalism exacerbates “capital markets dysfunctionality” (p. 9), that it spreads market “doom and gloom” (p. 12), that it reports on an increasingly more complex domain (p. 19) and that it is being colonized by “sanitized” financial PR (p. 22). These are pertinent claims that have been made elsewhere too.
It has been argued that the de-professionalization of print journalism (as outlined in the introduction to this chapter), along with the explosive growth of PR, online news sources and social media erodes the quality and reliability of news. More specifically, critics argue that newsroom pressure for increased productivity yields low-quality, pre-packaged news, spoonfed by legions of PR and news agencies to increasingly newsdesk-bound journalists as ‘information subsidies’ (Gandy 1982). Nick Davies for example, himself an investigative journalist, argues that much newspaper journalism is in fact churnalism, the recycling of pre-packaged public relations and press agency copy (Davies 2008). This – highly controversial – claim was based on a political economy of UK journalism. Lewis, Williams and Franklin (2008b), identify four interconnected ‘rumors’ which, according to the authors, underlie changes in UK news production routines:
(i) journalists have become news processors instead of generators
(ii) market demands force smaller workforces to produce more
(iii) journalists have become less weary of PR copy
(iv) editorial indepence in UK newsrooms has decreased
The authors back up these claims with employment figures, profit margins and pagination patterns at UK national newspapers, interview data and, most notably, content analysis findings suggesting that, in a sample of 2,207 UK domestic news articles, the journalistic reliance on PR and press agency copy is overwhelming. Specifically, the authors reported that:
approximately half (49 per cent) of news stories published in the quality press and analysed for this study were wholly or mainly dependent on materials produced and distribute [sic] by wire services with a further fifth (21 per cent) of stories containing some element of agency copy.
(Lewis, Williams & Franklin 2008b: 29-30)
Furthermore, journalistic reliance on PR materials
is similarly striking with almost a fifth (19 per cent) of stories deriving wholly (10 per cent) or mainly (9 per cent) from PR sources. A further 22 per cent were either a mix of PR with other materials (11 per cent) or mainly other information (11 per cent) while 13 per cent of stories appeared to contain PR materials which could not be identified.
(Lewis, Williams & Franklin 2008b: 30)
These findings are relevant to my study in at least three ways. First of all, Lewis et al.’s claims beg for further empirical scrutiny. How exactly do reporters knock PR copy into shape? Do they copy paste entire press releases? What about ‘unidentified’ PR copy? What information from PR or agency copy is ‘churned’? Second, Lewis et al.’s political economy of source reliance is of particular interest to economic journalism as economic newsdesks are inundated with press releases, press briefings, and news agency feeds that run the gamut from transactions and earnings to corporate governance and analyst research – all of which find their way into news texts. Third, the connection between source texts and newspaper articles focuses attention to what Bob Hodge (1979: 158) called for in 1979: an analysis of the “news transmutation process to the point of its final shape”.
By default, such an analysis is an analysis of intertextuality, i.e. how texts are historically and conceptually linked (see Slembrouck 2002 for an overview). Consider the genre of press releases. These texts are typically “prefabricated in an appropriate news style” (Bell 1991: 58) to facilitate reproduction in and by the media. This orientation to reproduction is otherwise known as “preformulation” – discussed at length in Jacobs (1999) – and includes the use of newspaper-like headlines, narrative structure and a number of metapragmatic features, most prominently third person self-reference (‘J.P. Morgan announced today’ instead of ‘we’) and pseudo-quotations (‘Fortis Bank CEO John Sheffield noted that ‘the merger signifies…’’).
Analysis of intertextuality need not, however, be restricted to a comparison of textual features. In reference to my view of news production as the gradual transformation of multiple texts into a single narrative, intertextuality transcends the textual definition of intertextuality as an inherent property of texts and becomes “a strategically deployed [social] practice through which producers […] construct meanings, frame activities and pursue outcomes” (Peterson 2003: 239). Each time a journalist lifts a quote from a telephone interview and inserts it into a news story, a truth claim is made, a professional activity is realized (sourcing) and a journalistic effect is encoded (e.g. authorial neutrality). This social process of extracting source material (decontextualization) and subsequently re-inserting it (recontextualization) into a news discourse can be referred to as entextualization (Bauman and Briggs 1990; Silverstein and Urban 1996) and will be used here as a vantage point for analyzing the process of economic journalism.
If we keep track of how talk and text shift between contexts by “following the story” (Boyer & Hannerz 2006) from its entry into the newsroom to the point it is copy-edited or filed for publication, we can begin to account for the ways in which economic journalism frames public understanding of events drawn from the world of business and finance. As such, the research presented in this book rises up to the challenge raised by Gaye Tuchman (2003: 89):
At the juncture between sources and reporters, ‘source media’ (press releases, government reports, telephone interviews, etc.) provide important and still under-researched raw material for what ends up as news texts.
With the field of inquiry set, it is time to unpack my theoretical and methodological alignment.