When journalism misses the big picture

By Felix Salmon
July 7, 2009

Robert Teitelman thinks that since he’s in charge of a publication aimed at financial-market professionals, there’s no need to spend much effort on making it easy to read:

There’s an entire world of B2Bs like The Deal and Dealscape that, in fact, are targeted at practitioners. The difficulty of the B2B game is not necessarily to write more accessibly as it is to report and write with greater sophistication and depth.

There are two problems here, as I see it. Firstly, there’s no reason that accessible journalism can’t be sophisticated and deep. It’s not necessarily easy to write accessibly about complex and sophisticated ideas, but yes, it can be done. The main problem is that it takes much more time and effort: the amount of work I put into my Wired story on the Gaussian copula function, for instance, was a good order of magnitude greater than the work that I would put into writing at that length on the blog. Maybe straitened journalistic enterprises don’t have the resources to make their stuff accessible.

But secondly I think that financial journalists are deluded if they think financial-market professionals are willing and able to wade through pages and pages of dry, jargon-heavy prose. The financial professionals I know tend to have short attention spans and have no particular eagerness to read the trades — especially any story in which they’re not quoted. Just because you’re writing for a business audience doesn’t mean your writing shouldn’t be lively and accessible. And, ideally, short.

Teitelman adds, apropos my call for more accessible financial blogging,

Salmon and his commenter skip past the hard question here, however: Can the complexity of finance (and economics) be effectively captured by the kind of simple explanations required by an audience that barely knows the basics? Let’s put it another way: In telling that “simple” story, is the journalist distorting the situation, highlighting certain aspects, accentuating certain tendencies and ignoring others?

It’s true that the mass audience does tend to be attracted by simple explanations; I got a worryingly large number of emails after my Wired piece came out essentially saying “thanks, you’ve now explained everything”. Which of course one article about one formula could never do. But I never asked for journalists to oversimplify, and there’s no reason that accessible journalism can’t show many sides to any given story. What’s more, trade journalism is also guilty of many of the sins which Teitelman enumerates.

It’s not just journalists, of course, who will highlight certain things and ignore others. Often, the journalists do that just because they rely, of necessity, on their industry sources — and their sources are doing it too. One of the problems with trade journalism is that a lot of day-to-day reporting is done via the banks’ PR departments, and the PR departments tend only to serve up managing directors and above for interviews. And when you talk to high-level people, you’re often talking to people who are genuinely ignorant. Think of AIG Financial Products, as described by Michael Lewis:

It’s hard to know what Joe Cassano thought and when he thought it, but the traders inside A.I.G. F.P. are certain that neither Cassano nor the four or five people overseen directly by him, who worked in the unit that made the trades, realized how completely these piles of consumer loans had become, almost exclusively, composed of subprime mortgages.

Or think about Bob Rubin, who famously told Carol Loomis that he’d never heard of the notorious liquidity puts which ended up all but destroying Citigroup until after it was far too late — despite the fact that Rubin, more than any other individual, was meant to be the person taking the big-picture view of the bank’s overall risk profile.

Looking back at the history of journalism over the course of the financial crisis, the problem was never too much oversimplification as it was too many journalists taking a narrow view of the market: they didn’t think nearly enough about — or push bankers to answer tough questions about — big-picture systemic risks. It’s a hugely important role of journalism to put events in large-scale perspective. Those stories should be written more often, and they should be written as accessibly as possible, by journalists and bloggers both.

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