With the rise of almost any journalistic controversy that makes reporters turn their gaze on themselves, the media is hit with accusations of narcissism.
Take the Jayson Blair case. The story of a young, successful reporter deceiving editors at the newspaper of record, combined with salacious details about drug and alcohol abuse, dragged theretofore unnoticed conventions of the profession into light. Part of the sprawl of the story was the resignation of Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Rick Bragg, who lost his job after an outcry over nothing less arcane that the paper's practice of using uncredited stringers in its reporting.
No self-respecting journalist will mind scrutiny of even these nooks and crannies of his trade. Yet even the most introspective reporters must have blanched upon seeing Blair on the cover of Newsweek - if only because it was sure to bring more shots about how media navel-gazing comes at the expense of more pressing stories, as it did.
But were these fair accusations? More generally, are reporters obsessed with themselves and their corporate employers? If so, should they be?
A recent CARMA International study tried to figure this out and put numbers behind a widely held suspicion. The media-analysis firm looked at three years' worth of business coverage in five of the US' largest papers to find how often they cover and what perspective they bring to 28 business sectors, ranging from aerospace and defense to retail.
Media, broadly defined not only as the field of journalism but also entertainment, was found to be the hottest topic. The Washington Post, LA Times, and USA Today each devoted almost 33% of their business coverage to companies like AOL Time Warner and Viacom. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal were more restrained, but media and telecoms still topped business coverage. In all titles, vital sectors like energy, utilities, and manufacturing were dwarfed by contrast.
"The media has a built-in advantage in attracting news attention: it's a topic every reporter has a working knowledge of," says Matthew Felling, media director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "But it's more than solipsistic navel-gazing. It's a concession that they have ceded the territory of deep, incisive reporting on major industries to the niche outlets in those domains."
For Stephen Solomon, who directs the business and economic reporting program in NYU's journalism department, these findings don't equate to narcissism. He says the self-fascination is due in part to mass interest in media and entertainment. Yet he warns that the effect from coverage decisions go far beyond the shape of the business page.
"A vigorous business press is crucial to ensuring information flows freely and that important institutions are transparent to investors and others," he says. "Coverage of an amazingly diverse economy should be an important priority to the press."