Bad Company III: Executive Summary

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American businessmen and women put in hard work and take big risks to build successful companies. Those firms provide the jobs, products and services that drive the U.S. economy. When the work and risks pay off, businessmen become philanthropists who give billions of dollars to their communities and charities around the world. But when they are covered in the media – which isn’t often – they’re most likely to be attacked.

     In a yearlong study of evening newscasts on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and Fox News, the Business & Media Institute found businessmen little represented, even in stories about business. When they did appear, it was often in tales of "another corporate crook" or a CEO’s "stratospheric sums" of money. Researchers analyzed every broadcast of ABC’s "World News," the "NBC Nightly News," "CBS Evening News," CNN’s "Lou Dobbs Tonight" and Fox News’ "Your World with Neil Cavuto" from Jan. 1, 2006, to Dec. 31, 2006, for portrayals of businessmen and women. Among the findings:

    Businessmen on Defense: In stories that had an obvious viewpoint about businessmen, businessmen were most likely to be portrayed negatively. About 57 percent (481 out of 848) of the portrayals of businessmen were negative – for example, "corporate fat cats" and crooks "heading to the slammer." The most popular attacks had to do with money – consumer prices, CEO pay, or company profits.
      Where Have All the Businessmen Gone?: On the three broadcast networks (ABC, NBC and CBS), businessmen appeared in just 37 percent of business stories. It’s hard to imagine stories about the environment featuring environmentalists only 37 percent of the time. Or political stories with politicians only 37 percent of the time. Journalists use a model for business coverage that they wouldn’t use for other types of news stories.
      Big Oil, Big Food, Big Media: Big businesses were far more likely to make it into the news. About 78 percent of the businessmen mentioned came from big businesses. But small businesses employ about half of America’s private-sector workers, according to the Small Business Administration.
      Taking, Not Giving: Businessmen showed up as criminals 1½ times more often than they did as philanthropists. CNN had a 7-to-1 criminal-to-philanthropist ratio.
      Best Broadcast Network: ABC. "World News" was the most balanced of the network evening news shows, with exactly half of its portrayals positive and half negative. The ABC team also portrayed businessmen as philanthropists twice as often as criminals.
      Worst Broadcast Network: CBS. The "CBS Evening News" did the most stories featuring businessmen, but the result was negative. The show had more than a 2-to-1 ratio of criminals to philanthropists. In contrast, both other networks did more charity portrayals than criminal ones.
       was more balanced than CNN, with about 44 percent positive and 56 percent negative portrayals of businessmen. The overall tone of stories where businessmen appeared was equally split positive and negative. "Your World with Neil Cavuto" allowed businessmen more opportunities to explain their businesses, giving them far more time than CNN did to talk actual products and services.
      had 76 percent negative portrayals of businessmen and a 7-to-1 criminal-to-philanthropist ratio. In fact, "Lou Dobbs Tonight" had only one example of a charitable businessman. CNN put businessmen on defense 48 percent of the time, while Fox did 32 percent of the time. Best Cable: Fox Worst Cable: CNN

To improve coverage, BMI recommends that journalists:

    Let businessmen talk: Don’t create interviews or stories that set up businessmen with negative charges and allow them only one line to respond. If a businessman can’t comment for legal reasons, explain that and seek a trade representative who can give the business’s perspective.
      Don’t view money as evil: Businesses provide jobs and philanthropic support to communities. In order to do that, they must make profits, pay their executives, and sometimes raise their prices. Keep it all in perspective and avoid knee-jerk negative reactions to large sums of money. If in doubt, talk to an economist about the role of money in a particular situation.
      Pay attention to a variety of philanthropy: Sure, Warren Buffett overshadowed everyone in 2006 with a $43.5-billion donation. But according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, another 60 donors gave a combined $7.6 billion last year. There are businessmen giving in every city to both liberal and conservative causes, hospitals, schools, churches, and countless other beneficiaries.
      Find positive stories about big business: The majority of businessmen mentioned in 2006 came from big businesses, and the majority of those portrayals were negative. Small businesses were sometimes pitted against big ones to enhance the negative image of "big business." While bad things do happen in business, that doesn’t mean all big businesses are bad. Give balanced coverage to both small and big businesses.