(MENAFN - Arab News) Last Wednesday (Feb. 13), the Gulf Economic Media Forum held its second annual conference in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. It was a lively event where participants hotly debated whether business journalism has been behind the times, unethical, or merely incompetent.
The conference was attended by media men and women from GCC countries, especially from the host country. The event was organized under the auspices of the Eastern Chamber of Commerce, and as such had heavy business presence.
Taking part in this conference were representatives from old media and new, official media and private. They disagreed on many things, but they seemed to be in agreement on one issue at least: The need for a code of ethics for Gulf business and economic media.
The event enjoyed extensive media coverage, in part because its subject was the media itself and probably half the audience were journalists. But the main reason for this attention was the fact that the stakes in business and economic news were very high. Most in Gulf countries, and elsewhere, have been affected by economic media, in good and bad ways.
Economic media have been blamed for everything from stock markets' collapse to the global financial crisis. Journalists have been accused of spreading rumors intended to move markets, as well as trading on insider information. There were always claims that they complacently reported official economic news.
In my remarks at the forum I argued for adopting a code of ethics for business journalism in GCC countries. I pointed out that, on an almost daily basis, business media cross the line with abandon, back and forth, between reporting and promoting. I cited several examples from Gulf media where journalists, deliberately or inadvertently, promoted special business interests with little or no questions.
In one example I used, an extensive "report" published in a major newspaper in 2011 supported the views of clothing stores that they had to raise prices because international cotton prices were on the rise. The report came out during a time of sharp decline in international cotton prices and relied exclusively on sources from inside the clothing trade.
I cited the fact that during 2012, many media accounts accepted, without questions, local food retailers' claims of rising international food prices to justify raising their own prices. Had the authors of those accounts consulted authoritative international sources, for example data compiled by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, they would have found out that food prices were in fact on the decline, on average, during 2012.
In a third and glaring example I cited, a major daily published a report on its front-page, above the fold, on a local company that was nothing more than a rewrite of its press release. There was no attempt to cite independent sources, only anonymous quotes with unsupported claims about this company's successes.
Reactions from other panelists and the audience only confirmed the need for a code to guide the work of business journalists. One editor in chief of a Saudi newspaper said that it had always been difficult to find competent business journalists, but even more difficult to find business editors. He agreed that for long the line had been blurred between business news and advertisements. In one case, he said, he had to sack a reporter because he got suspiciously close to a particular company.
Another participant seemed almost hopeless about the fate of business journalism.
"Temptations are too great," he said, and the damage was beyond repair. Some journalists pointed out that in most cases, it is management, not reporters, who blur the line between advocacy and reporting, to satisfy major advertisers.
In the end, almost all agreed on the need for a code of ethics for business and economic journalists. The discussion was about who should draft it and what subjects it should cover. In my judgment, the code has to come from within professional business journalism circles, not from management and not from governments. The Gulf Economic Media Forum could undertake such a task. The code should not only focus on reporting news of private businesses, but should deal with reporting of government economic news as well.
It is not all about journalists or media owners deliberately selling out, but some of the problem lies in how complicated business news have become and how easy it is to succumb to assertions by experts who may not been all that independent. Understanding economic news has become very difficult even for specialists, thus making it easy for journalists to be taken in by advocates for a particular business or point of view. But this is a subject for another day.