Media outlets reported on Monday that Dow Jones is in talks for a potential acquisition by supermarket magnate Ron Burkle. The Wall Street Journal outlined its parent company’s latest effort to find a buyer —a story that the New York Times, Forbes, and other publications also chased. How do newspapers report on themselves?
With difficulty. Newspapers usually don’t have a formal policy, but the journalism school answer to this question is simple: Reporters ought to pursue stories about their own news organizations with the same freedom they have in writing about any other company. They have conversations with company executives either on background or off the record, and for official word they go through public relations. At bigger papers, this job falls to the media reporter; otherwise, editors pick staffers who they trust will be independent and fair.
In practice, some level of censorship—either self-imposed or from on high—often seeps into the coverage. In a survey of journalists and news executives by the Pew Center for the People and the Press in 2000, 35 percent of respondents said journalists they knew often or sometimes avoided stories that would hurt the financial interests of their employers. At the Journal, editors with knowledge of the original acquisition bid from Rupert Murdoch chose not to pursue the story for two weeks in April. It was only after CNBC broke the news that the Journal acknowledged its closely held secret. The paper has since tried to make up for violating a cardinal rule of journalism—mixing business with editorial—by breaking stories about the deal. For example, the paper published an article on June 29 detailing how Leslie Hill, a Bancroft family member who was an early supporter of the Murdoch deal, had begun to push for other buyers. The Journal has also shifted some responsibilities to encourage unbiased reporting. Marcus Brauchli, the paper’s new managing editor, recused himself from overseeing the coverage since he had advised Bancroft family members on the deal. Even so, it wasn’t hard for observers to come up with a list in June of 10 stories the Journal has missed about the Murdoch deal.
Most of the time, there’s little incentive for reporters and editors to dig up dirt on their own employers. After Hearst announced plans to buy the San Francisco Chronicle in 1998, company executives nixed a story about the paper from appearing in a Hearst paper, the San Francisco Examiner. Examiner staffers were discouraged from writing about the deal. “We were told that if we were going to write about these things, it would go through banks of lawyers, and no one wanted to deal with that,” said one writer. For five months in 2005, the Chicago Tribune held a story that criticized the pay package of the Tribune Company’s CEO, but editors never gave the writer, Geoff Dougherty, a reason why. Dougherty finally quit—and ran the story on his own news site.
Sometimes the answer is to hire an outsider. In 2003 the Seattle Times chose a freelance reporter, Bill Richards, to cover its ongoing dispute with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. To ensure objective coverage, editors didn’t tell the owner what Richards was working on. Richards and the paper also decided that an outside arbitrator would have the final word on any disagreements.
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Explainer thanks Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Bill Richards, and Robert M. Steele of the Poynter Institute.