The dark side of business reporting
J-School lecturer says recent scandals highlight the media’s lack of financial savvy

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs

28 August 2002 | The “Business Watchdogs” class to be taught this fall by former Wall Street Journal reporter Molly Williams will teach journalism students how to read company financial statements and balance sheets, decipher basic accounting, and better understand the complex facets of corporate business coverage.

“I think it’s crucial for reporters to understand financial journalism and how to cover companies,” says Williams, who in addition to covering Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and other technology companies from the Journal’s San Francisco bureau also spent six years as a tech reporter with Bloomberg News.

“These stories are no longer relegated to the business pages, and they impact every aspect of readers’ lives —the products they buy, the flights they take, the stocks held in their retirement accounts, the medicines they buy, and more,” she says. “So reporters need to be especially vigilant in covering corporations.”

Recent high-profile financial scandals underscore the need for reporters to keep close tabs on business, Williams believes. “There are many in the media who wish they’d gotten it sooner. I think some might say the media got as caught up in the booming economy as many others, and wasn’t perhaps as critical or skeptical as it needed to be in the go-go days. But,” she adds, “there are also many examples of scandals that were discovered by dogged reporters.” Williams cites Enron as the best example of this focused reporting, and cautions that outright fraud can be especially difficult to uncover because of the deceit involved. That said, the press’s overall lack of skepticism will be thoroughly explored in her class.

Her “Business Watchdog” students will hear presentations by an official with the Security and Exchange Commission as well as an accounting expert from the firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers. Other guest speakers will include reporters who have covered the Enron scandal for major newspapers and who write about business regulatory issues.

Each student will study one company in depth through its public announcements, financial reporting, government filings, and media coverage.

The Graduate School of Journalism’s Business Reporting Program was established through a grant from the worldwide business-news organization Bloom-berg LP, which provides funds for Bloomberg teaching fellowships, scholarships and internships for students interested in this field. It is directed by John Battelle, a graduate of the journalism school, who was one of the founders and early editors of Wired magazine. He also was founder and CEO of the Industry Standard, a news magazine covering the Internet economy.

To help gain a more intimate working knowledge of business coverage, the journalism school helps students get professional internships at publications, broadcast outlets, and websites both in the United States and abroad.


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