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Mar 25 / King Kaufman

How access can be a hindrance to getting the story right

We’ve talked a lot about access over the last few years here on the B/R Blog.

We’ve talked about the pros and cons of access. It can lead to great, detailed storytelling and analytical insight. It can also be used as a carrot or stick by those controlling it, thus allowing them to control the message.

Sometimes, both can be true. The Columbia Journalism Review has a piece about coverage of the Target stores data breach that provides a great example of why access isn’t always a recipe for great writing.

In a piece headlined “For the WSJ, access doesn’t pay off,” CJR’s Ryan Chittum details how the Wall Street Journal had gold-plated access to Target’s C-level executives as they dealt with the crisis, while Bloomberg BusinessWeek was completely shut out by the retailer. Yet it was BusinessWeek that got the story:

The Journal story presents an executive team as action figures under siege through no fault of their own, fighting valiantly to serve their customers and save the reputation of their firm. It’s reminiscent of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s upside-down view of the financial crisis in Too Big to Fail. The Journal says that the hack was “highly technical and sophisticated,” according to the Secret Service and dutifully reports [Target CEO Gregg] Steinhafel’s claim that “it would be hard for any retailer to withstand this.”

Cue high fives from Target’s crisis PR team. Page one of the Journal!

But wait. Turn to the second story. Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports that the hack “wasn’t particularly inventive, nor did it appear destined for success” and that it was “absolutely unsophisticated and uninteresting.”

More problematic: BusinessWeek finds that Target’s security systems flashed red for more than two weeks before anything was done about the hacking.

Chittum notes that the Target story is packed with color, with details. But he writes that they’re of “dubious relevance.”

“One person’s color,” he writes, “is another person’s irrelevancy.”

Access can be a great tool. Lack of access can be a great hindrance. That part’s easy to understand. Where things get complicated is that it’s also true the other way around.