February 26, 2020

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Business Journalism: Meeting The Challenge In Covering Corporate Social Responsibility

CSR needs better coverage from business journalists to better educate the public about the issues.


By Maha Atal 

In 2010, I traveled to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to investigate a mining contract gone sour.

The story involved two multinational mining companies taking wildly different approaches to community relations, a local separatist movement inclined to mistrust foreign investors, a Pakistani state under pressure from international governments to protect the mining arrangement and NATO supply lines running precariously close to the mineral deposits.

It was a great scoop, but when I arrived in the border town where I’d be focusing my investigation, I found I was the only journalist around. Indeed, through the six months I spent pursuing the contract, local press made feeble attempts to crack the story open, while international reporters seemed not to take notice at all.

Four Challenges For CSR Reporters

1. Interdisciplinary Expertise

Stories about the wider impact of business necessarily cut across the traditional beats around which the modern newsroom is structured. 

Reporters covering CSR need to:

  • Know the economics of particular industries and maintain sources inside companies,
  • Understand the international regulatory frameworks that govern corporate behavior,
  • Be familiar with the historical and political context of local communities,
  • And grasp the science that explains when and how corporate actions may damage the environment.

In a newsroom with designated desks for business, politics, science and culture, this kind of interdisciplinary expertise is rare. In a conflict zone like western Pakistan, for example, most of the international press presence is comprised of political reporters whose attention is unlikely to settle on corporate actors.

2. Overcoming Time Constraints

Becoming an interdisciplinary-expert is prohibitively time-consuming for most business beat reporters and interdisciplinary training is prohibitively expensive for the cash-strapped news organizations that pressemploy them.

That’s why collaboration is key, both between reporters on different desks of the same news outlet and between reporters from different and even competing news organizations. Inside newsrooms, breaking down beat silos is a slow process, but between newsrooms, social media platforms are making collaboration the norm.

In February, for example, I was part of a team of several reporters and activists in four countries who collectively unearthed gender discrimination in a Unilever branding campaign by comparing Unilever’s public statements and official documents in different markets, leading to a change of company policy.

3. Finding Appropriate Training Materials

There is a dearth of impartial, accessible training material for reporters who want to broaden their expertise to include related topics that may affect their designated beat. Much of what is available is either too academic to be accessible or too explicitly partisan to be trustworthy.

Journalism education programs at universities are beginning to tackle this problem, with courses aimed at providing subject area expertise in addition to reporting, writing and production skills, but short-term courses for working journalists are also critical.

Business reporters are trained to take into account financial metrics and basic legal norms surrounding fraud or theft when covering any corporate activity. 

In an ideal world, reporters would have the same intuitive understanding of sustainability and the ability to check corporate practices against both relevant regulatory standards and firms’ own CSR commitments. When reporters fail to do so, it is often because they aren’t aware of institutions like journalism skillsthe United Nations Global Compact, or the widespread practice of corporate human rights impact assessments, and far more rarely because they have actively chosen to push these issues aside.

4. Expanding The Audience

Most business reporters are writing for an audience of executives and investors, whose primary interests do not include concern for the social responsibility of firms. This is changing, slowly, as socially minded investment grows in popularity, but far more important is expanding the general readership for business news to create an incentive for news organizations to offer more socially minded coverage.

Here, the training barrier is the lack of business and economic literacy in the wider news-reading public. Even in times of economic crisis, when interest in business news naturally grows, many readers find the business pages overly technical.

My organization, Public Business, sponsors public fora to improve the level of public debate about business topics, but successfully changing the public mindset will require more concerted and structured efforts from the education system as well.

About the Author:

Maha Rafi Atal is a freelance journalist covering the nexus of business and society. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Forbes, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, the Christian Science Monitor, the New Statesman, the Providence Journal and the Columbia Journalism Review. From 2009 to 2010, she was a foreign correspondent in South Asia for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. She is the Executive Director of Public Business, a nonprofit supporting public interest journalism about the wider impact of business actions.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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