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.

5 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

This comment might miss the mark, but hasn’t this crisis shown the need to explain everything clearly and effectively? After all, the professionals in the businesses involved are pleading stupidity right and left. Apparently, they can’t handle excessive jargon or complexity either. These professionals should now want the more abtruse products explained simply or chucked out.

Also, I always refer to two of my teachers, John Searle and Paul Feyerabend, on this question. Searle holds, following his teacher J.L. Austin, I believe, that if someone can’t explain something simply, then they don’t know what they’re talking about. The one exception being Kant.

Feyerabend always told me the same thing. Experts are master obfuscators, but the ones worth reading are capable of making the most complex ideas comprehensible. Feyerabend himself made very abstract scientific theories very clear. When you do that, it’s much easier to determine which theory is worth something.

You won’t get all the nuances or be capable of doing the work yourself, but you should be able to understand the basic idea and import. Remember:

“Where questions of style and exposition are concerned I try to follow a simple maxim: if you can’t say it clearly you don’t understand it yourself.
John Searle”

And Wittgenstein:

“Everything that can be said, can be said clearly.”

DtlD, well and truly put. The point Felix makes is applicable universally.

And it strikes me that this crisis continues to seem far larger and deeper than merely a financial one – if the western capitalist system fails because key people cannot clearly communicate with one another, is that not a deeper crisis of culture and education?

Posted by Eric Dewey | Report as abusive

The point that bears mentioning here is that Managing Directors often do not have the proper perspective with which to understand the risks to which their companies are exposed. Large companies such as Citigroup are so complex that it is impossible for a person sitting in the loft perch of a managing directorship to be able to assess the granular detail required to correctly opine on its risk exposure.

Journalists, having never worked at a company, don’t necessarily understand this deficit, and the managing director, pleased to be quoted in the press, won’t acknowledge it.

This dynamic should be intuitive, yet it seems to elude those tasked with uncovering stories.

Posted by Dave | Report as abusive

Horse donkey and Anglo-Saxon hybrid race now occupied 60% of the earth in wealth and guns around the world to plunder a wealth of others. Then use the money to support and the help they rob spending more wealth provides the opportunity of the clown, this is why the dalai lama and rebiya kadeer is the source of the market.
This past or being plundered all the people should be awake, resist, and as the hybrid method

Posted by youpijiufang | Report as abusive

“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.”

This is definitely true, but at the same time, financial professionals don’t want to wade through explanations of what Libor or a credit default swap is every time they read an article. You’ve got to strike a balance.

It’s also worth noting that there are different kinds of professional/trade reader. An article aimed at the MD types you describe (or senior management in general) should take a different approach to one aimed at people working at the coalface, so to speak.

Posted by Ginger Yellow | Report as abusive