We Need more ‘Accountability Journalism’ …

…and less of the prevailing ‘Access Journalism’.

An article by Robert Jensen analyzes a book written about how our journalists failed to cover the financial crisis. Mr. Jensen is a professor at the School of Journalism, University of Texas at Austin. He covered the book The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark, as written by Dean Starkman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and current editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.

There is a lot to think about in this piece, and much of it overlaps with how (and why) FAA continues to fail. Here’s an excerpt, with a few minor changes (highlights, color) by aiREFORM…

…the core mission of journalism is built around the Great Story “that holds power to account and explains complex problems to a mass audience, connects one segment of society to another.” This kind of journalism, he (Starkman) writes, “is also the one reliable, indispensable barometer for the health of the news, the great bullshit detector.”

Holding power to account and detecting bullshit are certainly admirable goals, and Starkman correctly points out that journalists who practice what he calls “access journalism” are unlikely to achieve them. Access journalists, as the label suggests, play the insider game and cultivate access to powerful sources. At best, access journalism can give ordinary people a glimpse of what happens behind closed doors, but on terms set by those who close the doors.

Starkman makes the case for the necessity of “accountability journalism” in the muckraking mode that is confrontational and accusatory, and that “provokes the enmity of the rich and powerful as a matter of course.” The access and accountability schools, he writes, “represent radically [emphasis added] different understandings of what journalism is [emphasis in the text] and whom it should serve.”

The book’s thesis, simply put, is that the news media’s poor performance during the financial crisis can be explained by the prominence of Access Journalism and the lack of hard-hitting Accountability Journalism. Here’s Starkman’s summary of these two styles:

Access Reporting tends to talk to elites. Accountability Reporting tends to talk to dissidents.
Access writes about specialized topics for a niche audience. Accountability writes about general topics for a mass audience.
Access tends to transmit
orthodox views.
Accountability tends to transmit heterodox views.
Access reporting is functional. Accountability Reporting is moralistic.
In business news, Access Reporting focuses on investor interests. In business news, Accountability Reporting focuses on the public interest.