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Liz Ryan Headshot

The Nasty Bias in Business Journalism

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I wrote a story for TIME.com about breastfeeding at work, and I talked about the fact that in the last Catalyst.org report on family-friendly benefits, only 28 percent of responding companies had a lactation facility for nursing moms. I thought the number was astounding, but the editor wasn't impressed. He asked me to find statistics that show that allowing new moms to pump milk is good for productivity.

Statistics? I have five kids, and I nursed them. I can attest: When your breasts aren't painfully full of milk, you're more productive. You might just have to trust me on that.

I protested to the editor, "Why can't it just be the right thing to do, to put a lactation room in any office or factory where moms might need to pump milk?" The argument is simple. The milk is in the mom. The milk needs to come out. If the mom doesn't pump, the milk dries up. The baby switches to formula, at great cost to the baby's parents and at great cost to all of us, because breast milk is healthier for the baby.

In the story, I talked about all that. I talked about what pediatricians say about breast milk (drink it, baby!) and I reminded readers how simple and inexpensive it is to install a lactation room. No avail. The editor said, "I don't think you can assume that people will agree with your argument. You have to convince them with data."

Now, I ask you: Do we have to convince a nursing mom that it's a good thing to pump milk at work? I wouldn't think so. So, who exactly needs convincing? Oh, wait: of course. Corporate leaders do. Is that the function of TIME.com's section, or any business publication: to speak to corporate leaders only? Must everything we talk about in business journalism be restricted to the frame "What's good for General Motors is good for America?" It feels that way sometimes. Not just sometimes -- nearly all the time.

You've probably heard disgusting-layoff stories from your friends, but have you ever read one of them in the paper? You won't, because the awful way that corporate reductions-in-force go down aren't deemed newsworthy by business section editors. You'll read in your local paper about a nice lady in your town who started a vermiculture club, and it's heart-warming and wonderful. When's the last time you read a human interest story in the business pages? We write about leveraged buyouts and stock splits as though the only news worth printing in the business arena is what the corporate leaders themselves tell the papers they are doing or planning to do.

I told the editor, "If you were editing the sports pages, would you only report on what's good for the owners?" People read the sports pages to get a 360 view. They want to know what the reporters and columnists think about the players, about the good and bad decisions by coaches and managers, and about fan reactions to personnel or strategy changes. They report on what's happening on the ground. We don't do that in business. We share lame how-tos and ways to make your employees more productive, like that's all there is to say. The business world, the working world where businesspeople spend three-quarters of their waking hours, has been deemed a secret kingdom like Narnia, except one that no one writes about. The business owners control the corporation, and as far as I know no one has even asked them whether they want it that way. It goes without saying. That's just the way it is.

When I wrote for the daily paper in my city, I begged the editors to put my column in the Lifestyle section. "Why is my stuff in the business section?" I asked. "I'm writing about reinvention and hope and faith and creativity and breastmilk, for Pete's sake. I'm writing about finding your voice and spreading pixie dust around. I'm writing about bringing yourself to work. Everyone works, and not everyone works in business. Why is my workplace column shoved in with the earnings announcements and merger-and-acquisition news?"

"Workplace advice is business advice," was the answer. But the TIME.com thing was worse, because the editor said, "You have to convince people to come on your side of the argument." (We were talking about pumping milk at work.) "Why?" I asked. "I'm a columnist. Can't I lay out an argument and let people debate it? Why do I have to get people on my side -- and why, especially, with data?"

Data is the language of business, not human experience. That's a tragedy and an insult. Who died and left data God? If someone hasn't conducted a study (they may have -- you got me) on the productivity gain or loss when moms can get the milk out of their breasts, then has a silent tree fallen in the forest? Is the topic observable, without the data to convince data-obsessed corporate decision-makers that it's safe, at last, to talk about milk and babies at work?

There isn't any fuel to power corporations or tech start-ups or not-for-profits or news organizations, except human spark and power. There isn't any fuel for those businesses apart from mojo. If we were talking about race cars, we couldn't conceive of talking about race results without spending a lot of time focusing on engines and fuel. In business, we ignore the human contribution and pretend that the spreadsheets and strategic plan have all the answers. How can we be so blind and so stupid? Do we think those numbers jump into the cells of our Excel spreadsheets, all by themselves?

People move the numbers. People build the products and have the ahas and design the supply chains. Without human mojo and pixie dust, we've got nothing, but the public business conversation denies that inescapable reality. People are meaty, earthy, milky, warm and wise. They power everything that happens in business, but we leave them out of the story and the equation. We don't send journalists looking for data to support the idea that paying executives tons of money is good for productivity. We take it as an article of faith.

I once had an editor of a big-city daily tell me that he couldn't run my story (gently chastising a large employer for lying to its employees about a company HQ move -- and looking back, I'm not sure why I was gentle about it) because the employer could turn out to be a big advertiser in the paper. I think that was an aberration -- I don't think it's a fear of employer retribution (in the form of pulled ads) that makes business-page editors so weenified. I think it's one of those unexamined American frames, just the way things are, never discussed, never considered through another lens, not even around the business-page editorial table.

If we can't say how a theme or a notion helps corporations make more money (pumping milk at work, for example, or reversing the steady mechanization of people at work that started with time-and-motion studies and continues through tighter and tighter turns of the screws in American workplaces every day) then there's simply nothing to say about it.

That's wrong. It's not responsible journalism, but more than that, it's not responsible citizenship.

Just because there's a mechanical transaction ("I hired you; you work for me") underlying the boss-employee relationship doesn't make it a less than human interaction. I pay my kids' piano teacher for piano lessons, and I still hug her when I see her and tell her the truth about everything. I don't act differently around her than I do anywhere else, and when I write about kids and piano lessons and our beautiful piano teacher, I write the whole story. I don't go looking for data to support my views, because I experience them in my body. That's how I know they are real.

Who made business any different?