Economics reporting: so mistreated, yet so needed

On 8 April US journalist Diana Henriques; Lucy Marcus, host of the Reuters TV series In the Boardroom with Lucy Marcus; Ben Page, at the helm of the polls agency Ipsos Mori; and Michael Steen, Head of Media Relations at the European Central Bank (ECB), were the protagonists of a panel chaired by John Crowley, Editor-in-Chief of the International Business Times UK, discussing the challenges to report economic issues in 2017.

As Crowley asked panelists to reflect on the current hurdles for business reporting and how to overcome them, Henriques kicked off recalling that Economics took a central stage in ordinary news only a couple of decades ago, and that the digital revolution is now bringing it to an entirely new phase. Looking back at the evolution of her profession, she remarked that Business journalists are still catching up with the growth of the financial sector, and the non-stop innovations in Business and Economics.

Page and Marcus both highlighted how sectorial expertise is under valued in the public debate today, with Page recalling the anti-experts narrative used by the UK Tory politician Michael Gove during the pro-Brexit campaign.

On a more positive note, Marcus commented that new technologies have led to the democratization of expertise, allowing her editorials to reach physically remote areas and audiences. “We need to bear in mind that what is sometimes causing problems can also be a big driver of the solutions,” she said about social media, referring to their ability to put pressure on corporations to improve their governance and business conduct.

On his side, Page explained that working on polls led him to observe how many people “do not understand numbers” and the basic concept of probability, including politicians and sometimes journalist themselves.

Steen shared that he too has had to deal with these challenges on a daily basis at the ECB. His job requires him to explain extremely complex subjects, such as monetary or supervisory policies of which the EBC is responsible for, in a simple way to be understood by non-experts. Matching the speed of the outside world with the inside world is one of the key challenges for him: this is even more difficult today as complex economic policies have become a matter for the front pages of newspapers and are increasingly politicized. He cited the example of a German newspaper that labelled the ECB the ‘Satan Bank’ for its low-interest rates. Steen is trying to bridge the knowledge gap with a number of communicative tools, such as an explanatory page with simple Youtube videos, or through Twitter. As for Facebook, the social networking service is not currently the subject of a similar exercise.

When it comes to the possible solutions, Page pointed at fact-checkers as the way forward, but also commented that it may not be enough owing to the fact that “a lot of people will just not want to pay attention to the facts” and rather follow narratives which meet their biases, even when their fake nature is easy to demonstrate. Henriques further recommended that fast-reporting media, such as radio and TV, should learn the basics of finance, economics and business, so to be able to identify and counter fake news and to explain to ordinary people complex issues. Marcus endorsed her colleague’s recommendation, flagging that financial journalism is actually one of the few sectors still growing.