Writing Tips II

Dos and Don'ts

Graham Watts

  • Backgrounder

Not many economics reporters go home at night and keep their families or friends gripped with tales of what they did that day.

But what we write about is often more to do with life and death than much of what our colleagues do - and that includes the crime reporter.

It just seldom sounds like it – and that’s partly to do with the fact that much of the time we are thinking only about the content of what we write, much as we did at school or university. When we were students we poured all our efforts into making sure we convinced our teachers that we were able to use the terms and concepts we had been taught. Now, because our subject matter is serious, we think of our readers in the same way - people who know a lot and can tell when we don't.

We sometimes forget that we're in the communications business. Being an economics reporter means being a good writer, a good communicator, not just someone who is knowledgeable about the subject matter. So if you want to do what you’re doing better, don't spend all your spare time studying heavy economics textbooks - read a good novel instead.

Being a good communicator also means we have to be expert journalists, not experts in finance or economics. And we have to keep doing what all journalists do, expertly judging things with the same instincts - Is it new? Is it big? Is it different? Is it interesting? Is it entertaining, even? And why does it matter?

And we should approach the information we are given with the same caution and concern: Where did it come from? Does the source of the information have an interest in seeing the story presented in a particular way? Who else can I talk to so that I can confirm that the information is accurate, fair and balanced? Have I spoken to everyone involved in the story, or at least enough people to get a fair cross-section of opinion? Have I asked experts (since I am not the expert) what they think about it? Have I got some good quotes? What is my lead going to be?

One way of thinking about this is to say to yourself: This is my story! You might have been given some information to start with, but you build the rest of it yourself. You begin by asking yourself - or your news editor or colleagues – all the questions you can think of that might make the story better, more interesting and easier to understand for your readers. And if there is something you don't understand, don't just put it in your story and hope for the best. Take command of the story and build it from a variety of sources, not just the one that issued the press release or held the press conference.

Here are 10 steps to better economics reporting:

1. Get a clear picture of what the story is about.

The most common single problem with poor stories is that the reporter hasn’t been clear in his/her own mind what it was about. One way to get it clear is to tell someone else what the story is. In an ideal world, that means your news editor. S/he should be asking you questions, all of which are designed to judge whether you have a story and if so what it is. Sounds simple, but it’s not. If you are not lucky enough to have an excellent news editor then do the job yourself. Imagine you are telling a friend or a family member who is not particularly interested in or involved in business or finance. But don't be tempted to pump the story up into something it isn't.

2. Widen the story.

Make the story your own – what we call “adding value”. You start asking questions that arise from the information you have been given. The first place to start is to take it beyond the specific person or government department or country involved.

So you start asking questions like:

  • Is this the first time something like this has happened in this part of the economy?
  • Is it part of a trend?
  • Or is it against the trend?
  • Or does it signal a change in the course of events?
  • Now that this has happened, what might the consequences be for the economy or country or region?

And if that sounds difficult, remember that you don't have to know everything - if you have good contacts, you will know someone who does. Ask "stupid" questions when you are building your story rather than look stupid in print. And don’t print anything you don’t understand.

3. Decide on what details you will need for the lead.

Give the story real substance without cluttering the lead. You need just enough for readers to know who or what you're talking about, but not so much that they find it too much to take in. Well-informed, expert readers do not find it irritating when all the names and numbers are not at the top of the story. They "scan-read" down through the bits that are simple or which they know well until they find the details they want.

4. Tell the reader why the story matters.

This is the most added-value bit of the actual writing of the story. It is the “So-what?” element of the story that tries to tell the reader in a nutshell what it means. It's the justification for the story being published. It's the help, the guidance and the interpretation you offer to the busy reader who has all these questions churning around in his/her head but not enough time to put them in any order, let alone find out the answers. That's your job, and it's an important one. But do not think you are the person who has to know the significance. If you do your job properly, you will find out from the experts what it means. For example, This is the first time the deficit has gone beyond 3 per cent of GDP and analysts say it reflects a loss of control by the government over the public finances. The figure will also be greeted with dismay by the IMF, which is trying to negotiate a loan deal with the government.

5. Provide background.

Many readers of a news story are what we call “new readers” - ones who have just begun to venture into reading financial news, or have just come back from travelling abroad or from having a baby, or whatever. Help them. Develop a sense of where readers might become puzzled or lost because they don't know what has gone before. The skill is to boil down the information you have gathered from the archives and from your reporting into sentences and paragraphs that "remind" readers of what has happened. It is important that you think of it as reminding, because many readers will already know what happened yesterday or last week. So you don't want these paragraphs to sound patronizing. That means you should drop the background into the story as you go, often as clauses within sentences that are giving the latest information, sometimes as well-timed sentences, sometimes as whole paragraphs.

6. Provide context.

Just as important are the “surroundings”. Economic decisions are not taken in a vacuum. Often they are intended to address a particular problem or to give in to political pressure or follow from some event. Tell the reader about those things, otherwise they will not understand all the implications of what has happened. For example, The unemployment figure, higher than expected, comes as the ruling coalition is preparing its election strategy. The opposition has already attacked the government for its poor economic record, and there have been signs from the opinion polls that the government is scoring low on economic policy among voters.

7. Keep it balanced.

No one knows all the answers to all the economic questions – not a fraction of them. So ring around, ask different experts, follow your own doubts and concerns. And when you have a variety of opinions and interpretations of the significance of something, represent the main ones in your story. The best way to inform is not to be seen trying to “make a point”. Intelligent readers can spot a story with a particular bias from a thousand paces, and dismiss the whole thing.

8. Use numbers well.

An essential part of context and background is the numbers. All good financial journalism needs a certain amount of solid, properly measured statistical information to underpin it. Not a lot, but some vital building blocks to any story. Make the numbers serve the story not the other way around. Think: what is the story about? And then, at first, answer without using any numbers. Even if it is a story about the latest economic indicator, you will be forced to say the story is about why the economy has grown or why inflation has risen. That way you will stop yourself from being enslaved by the numbers. In other words, think of the numbers as instruments for telling the story, not as the substance of the story. Here are some guidelines:

  • If you think the numbers are essential to understanding the story, don't have more than two in the lead. Even that might be one too many.
  • Distribute the numbers through the story. Don't bunch them. Try to ease the pain by separating them from one another with pace-changing quotes (see below).
  • Keep numbers together that belong together.
  • Remember that numbers are just one "turn-off" factor for readers. Others are long sentences, unfamiliar names and technical language. Keep these things apart from each other as much as possible. Where you have any of these, try to keep the numbers down to a minimum.
  • Consider taking out some of the numbers and getting them made up as a table or graphic so that the information is there and the story can flow.
  • Check, double-check and triple-check them all.

9. Give the story life by using quotes.

Stories without quotes are dead. Find one to put high up, possibly as the second paragraph, straight after your lead, or by the third or fourth paragraph at the latest. If you have done your research and reporting properly, you should have plenty of quotable things in your notebook - in fact the problem should be what to leave out, not what to put in. Quotes lend a sense of authenticity (reality) to a story, because they are the dialogue of real people in a non-fiction story. They change the pace and give color to a story. They also capture things in everyday speech, which is often hard to convey in economics and finance.

10. Define and explain.

Too many financial journalists still believe that their readers know what all the technical terms mean. They don't. Many readers buy and skim the financial press for news that directly affects what they do. The rest they leave, unread, even if they have the time to read more. That's because while they might be highly-paid experts in industry, finance or government, they are only experts in one thing. A good accountant or banker doesn't necessarily know anything about what's going on - or what the jargon is - in trade policy. A good agricultural economist doesn't necessarily know anything about how pension funds invest their money. And a good manager in the retail sector doesn't necessarily know how foreign exchange markets function. So we have to define and explain as we go.

Helping the reader with the technical bits doesn't have to be an obtrusive and clumsy process. There are several ways it can be done:

  • Rather than stop the story and insert a definition, use a phrase that defines the technical term as part of a sentence in the normal flow of reporting. For example: The trade deficit rose 65 per cent to a record $271 billion as the country's strong economy pulled in foreign goods much faster than exports expanded. In other words, make the definition part of the information.
  • Use the technical term in a normal sentence and then in the next sentence, use the defining phrase as an alternative while giving further information. For example: Inflation was 6 per cent last year. This is the first time the government's measure of the change in prices for goods and services has exceeded 5 per cent a year in the last decade.
  • Insert a crisp, clean and clear definition at just that point in the story when you think readers are in danger of turning the page because their ignorance makes them feel either uncomfortable or irritated. Just stop the story and define the term. For example: A non-performing loan is one on which neither the principle nor the interest has been paid for a specified period – such as two consecutive quarters.
  • Give a mini-lecture. Sometimes what the reader needs help with is not just a technical word, but understanding a process. An example is when shares fall because of a threat of an interest rate rise. Even this reasonably widely known process could do with some explaining, for example: Investors do not like interest rate rises because they make borrowing by companies and spending on credit more expensive, damping demand - and ultimately profits.

You might find that some of your bosses and older colleagues will tell you that you don't have to do all these things - that your readers know all this stuff. This will make your task even harder, but keep working at it. It is worth it in the end, and it makes the job much more enjoyable. Because if you can explain something clearly that others know is important but they don’t understand, you will be listened to as avidly as any fascinating crime reporter or conspiratorial political reporter. It’s the communication that matters, not the subject.

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