There is nothing like a good scandal to get our journalistic juices flowing. Headlines practically write themselves. Titillating details fill pages to overflowing. In the past five years, with business bigwigs added to the usual scandal fodder of politicians, celebrities and sports stars, the media have had a good run of stories to fill newspapers, broadcasts and Internet sites. Yet as we rush to cover a good scandal, how many of us pause to think about our role in creating and sustaining scandal? How many among us ask whether we could handle this reporting in ways that might better serve the public interest?
In three decades of being a journalist, I’ve covered my share of scandals. (One of my favorites was the collapse of Barings Bank in Britain because of its colorful cast of characters and the drama of seeing old English aristocrats brought low by a brash young trader in Singapore.) What I’d like to say is that I reflected often on what I was doing and why I was doing it, but that would be a lie. I never gave any of this much thought until the fall of 2004 when I received a fellowship from the Chumir Foundation in Calgary, Alberta.
Ostensibly, I set out to research what happened in the wake of major business scandals, such as Enron and WorldCom. Once the bright media spotlight moved on, were lasting changes made to prevent a reoccurrence? Or, as I suspected, were cosmetic remedies applied and some speeches made to give the appearance of change while business as usual continued? But as I delved deeper into coverage of scandals (historic and current), I saw more clearly how the media, far from being passive chroniclers of wrongdoing, were active participants in the process. The press, after all, often determines which behavior deserves to be called a scandal and, as importantly, which does not. We drum up public outrage, put pressure on authorities to act, and lead the chorus for punishment. And a scandal is deemed over only when it is dropped from news coverage.
A lot of power rests in our hands, but are we using it wisely?
As I looked more closely at the media’s role, a pattern began to emerge in how a scandal plays out. Like the cycle of grief with its stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, the cycle of scandal inevitably goes through various stages: Anxiety is the hallmark of the first one and action by authorities signifies the last. Recognizing these stages helps journalists situate where they are in coverage of a scandal. Here is a description of these stages, with the caveat that of course there will be exceptions to these general rules.
Stage One: Anxiety. No scandal emerges out of the blue. There is always some existing anxiety about a situation or an individual that serves as the bedrock on which the scandal is built. Enron and WorldCom exploded against a backdrop of public unease about growing corporate power and the exorbitant pay of corporate leaders. Bre-X Minerals, a Canadian gold scam, occurred at a time when mining firms were going to far-flung places and investors were worried about the quality of information they were receiving long-distance. At the level of the individual, think of President Bill Clinton. Rumors of his extramarital affairs were widespread long before Monica Lewinsky came on the scene. Yet press coverage tends to present scandals as surprise events. When looked at in retrospect, we realize they are firmly linked to their time as a reflection of contemporary anxieties. That does not mean we can predict them, only that in hindsight we can see better the context out of which they arose.
Stage Two: Focus. Anxiety needs a focus. There has to be an event that captures the attention of the media. It could be the filing of a lawsuit, a police raid, release of a report, a sudden drop in share price, or publication of a paparazzi photo showing two people who should not be together at that time in the early morning. The editor of a Canadian newspaper used the term “crystallizing event,” which sums it up neatly. Such events provide a convenient focus for our existing anxieties, and it is at this point when the media’s role begins. But whether the observed behavior gets transformed by the media into a “scandal” depends on various factors. More important news happens, and the scandal’s launch is buried or spiked. Or the publisher or editor is persuaded by someone wanting to short-circuit media coverage that running the story is not in their best interest. Television often has to pass on a juicy item when they don’t have pictures or people to interview on camera. The media apply a complicated set of criteria to a story to determine whether it is scandal material, and these criteria involve gut feelings, legal realities and physical practicalities, and they aren’t always easy to explain to outsiders. But once a story meets these criteria, it is on the road to becoming a full-blown scandal.
Stage Three: Denial and Evasion. Would Martha Stewart have been sent to prison if she had taken responsibility at the very beginning for what she’d done? Denial and evasion turn out to be a necessary stage in scandal, sparking conflict, attracting and magnifying media coverage, and stoking public indignation. One tenet of corporate crisis management is that the best response to crisis is to admit responsibility and announce immediate remedial action. Though this advice is well known, when caught in their own personal crisis, few political or corporate leaders follow it. In the recent wave of business scandals, many defended themselves by saying they had no knowledge of the wrongdoing going on during their watch. Denials like these make good copy when linked with reporting about the massive salaries these executives earned for their stewardship of these companies.
Stage Four: Validation. While public anxiety, a crystallizing event and initial evasion or denial are necessary to give a scandal momentum, it will disappear unless the next two stages are reached—validation and definition. Official validation occurs when the authorities step in, confirm to the media, and through them to the broader public, the foundation for their suspicion of wrongdoing, and indicate that further investigation is required. Validation takes various forms: a commission, a judicial inquiry, a securities investigation, a committee hearing, or a court case. In the recent case of Conrad Black and his Hollinger media empire, a special committee of the board of directors validated the criticisms made against Black. Official bodies are able to uncover information not available to the media and force key players to testify. Their hearings and reports keep the scandal in the public eye.
Stage Five: Definition. In this crucial stage, the scandalous activity is defined, along with who is involved, to determine who might be punished and what measures authorities might take. Following the collapse of Enron and WorldCom, President George Bush defined the accused as “a few bad apples.” By placing the emphasis on individual actions, rather than on regulatory or systemic failure, the President tried to steer public attention away from shortcomings in laws and regulations. (He didn’t succeed, and Congress went on to pass the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to curtail these corporate practices.) Scandals can be defined in many ways. I covered a scandal in Britain that involved the selling of arms to Sierra Leone, which contravened a U.N. embargo and the use of mercenaries in a foreign war. But the focus soon switched to what government officials knew and when they knew it, and other aspects of this story quickly faded from view. In this key stage, people who might have been involved with the scandalous activity struggle to remain outside the investigators’ net. This period is fraught with politics and power, and much of the action goes on behind closed doors.
Stage Six: Punishment. This is the climax of the scandal cycle—the stage when indignation that has been stoked by publicity can be appeased by a fitting penalty. Prison sentences and other forms of public disgrace offer the media a spectacle to cover. But punishment can take many forms, not all of them forced by legal actions. The heads of Enron and WorldCom were initially “punished” when they lost their jobs. Conrad Black was deposed as chairman of the media empire he founded. Once this stage passes, much of the media lose interest. When journalists buy the “bad apple” argument, they are satisfied that the matter has been dealt with. And when this happens, pressure on authorities to move to the next stage is lightened or removed.
Stage Seven: Aftermath. This important last stage is not always reached. When it is, authorities work to address the underlying causes of the scandal as a way of trying to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future. A question worth asking is why the media appear to lose interest once the central figure in a scandal has been punished and rarely cover what ought to be the final—remedial—stage of scandal coverage.
The News Business
As I reflected on this, I concluded that while part of the reason is psychological, the mechanics of news coverage and recent developments in the media sector also play a part. They include the following:
Assignment editors send reporters to cover events, such as a trial or an inquiry, but rarely ask them to cover a process, such as drawing up new regulations or laws, which often takes place behind closed doors, where participants are reluctant to speak and there are few events to cover.
Reporting on a scandal’s aftermath requires time, initiative, and knowledge. With fewer reporters assigned to beats these days, journalists often lack the specialized knowledge they need to follow a complicated regulatory process, for example.
Convergence—in which journalists file stories to print, Internet, radio or television for the same news organization—also works against in-depth coverage of complicated issues. Reporters don’t have the time to do this kind of reporting across these various media.
But this is where the question of responsibility comes in. Some scandals have no public policy implications and can be safely dropped once the individuals involved are punished. Sex scandals often fall into this category, as do some political scandals. And celebrity scandals are generally bits of insubstantial puffery. But when a scandal points to holes in the law or in regulations, an absence of media attention after the punishment stage betrays the public interest. We can hardly trumpet our role as important watchdogs of the public interest unless we are willing to follow the story through and determine if the public’s interest is being adequately safeguarded. If we fail at this, we are nothing but scandalmongers.
Madelaine Drohan writes on economics and business from Ottawa, Canada. Her work appears in The Economist, The Globe and Mail, and other publications. She is the author of “Making a Killing: How and Why Corporations Use Armed Force to Do Business,” published in the United States by Lyons Press in 2004. Her research was funded by the Sheldon M. Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership.