By SHIRLEY LI
Global Business Journalism reporter
With three decades of experience as a business reporter, Mark Hamrick knows how to tell (and sell) a story in the changing media environment. Hamrick, the former president of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing and the National Press Club, led coverage of global economic issues for Associated Press radio and television before joining Bankrate.com as senior economic analyst and Washington bureau chief.
During a guest lecture at Tsinghua University in May, he described five skills that will help young journalists launch their careers in business reporting.
01. Know your audience
“Know Your Audience” is a basic rule in journalism. However, dealing with complex economic terms and specific policies, business journalists should pay extra attention to what their audience already knows and provide incremental information accordingly.
For example, when U.S. President Joe Biden and top House Republican Kevin McCarthy reached an agreement to raise the debt ceiling, CNBC’s coverage was titled “Traders turn optimistic on debt ceiling deal” – precisely serving an audience with a professional business background or at least economic knowledge by emphasizing critical analysis and market impact. In contrast, the BBC’s story, “What's in the US debt ceiling deal?”, left more room for explaining key terms and presenting the overall landscape, catering to a broader range of readers that may not have been following the story as closely.
Meanwhile, thanks to digital technologies, journalists today can include hyperlinks on their web pages, allowing readers to selectively click for more basic explanations or deeper insights instead of overwhelming them with unnecessary details and explanations. Readers of business news are among the most educated and sophisticated news consumers. Respect that knowledge and don’t write down to them.
02. Provide context
An article that provides updates on the debt ceiling negotiations between Biden and the Republican Party may be well written. However, it can hardly convey the significance of the news to readers without proper context. As Hamrick pointed out, the United States is the only major country with a debt ceiling. It has been raised 78 times in the past seven decades, and default has never actually happened.
Providing a global comparison and historical background allows readers to understand the uniqueness of the U.S. debt ceiling crisis and how close the largest economy in the world came to a historical moment in June 2023. This approach of contextualizing today’s breaking news can (and should) also be applied to other coverage.
03. Characterize the impact of the news
Veteran journalists understand the importance of emphasizing the significance of the story, but exceptional journalists can truly convey the impact of the news on readers. A White House report published on May 3 forecast that an actual breach of the debt ceiling would have caused an 0.6% decrease in annualized real GDP growth. However, it is the duty of business journalists to explain what this figure really means to the audience in a precise and vivid manner.
Hamrick gave a good example by using an analogy of dominoes. “Dominoes don’t fall all at once,” he said. “With the disruption of payments, federal employees can go unpaid. The Social Security system can become unstable. If the default is prolonged, the unemployment rate would rise sharply. More lasting economic damages are foreseen through that eventuality.”
04. Assess the accuracy of projections
Business journalism frequently deals with economic projections from governments, businesses, and industry and media analysts. These projections can be inconsistent with each other, infused with ideological bias, and sometimes turn out to be inaccurate. In the case of the debt ceiling crisis, while Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen reiterated a default day as early as June 1, financial giants like Goldman Sachs were projecting the deadline to be a week later. It is important to assess the validity of projections as you provide analysis and context.
According to Hamrick, the lesson is never to take economic projections at face value, but to “avoid isolating them.” This means seeking out experts with different opinions and analyses, and asking ordinary people whether they are aware of the issue and have faith in the projections. However, Hamrick believes that there’s no need to avoid mention of disputed projections as long as adequate context and outside analysis are provided . “If someone thinks they can explain exactly what will happen, that’s probably erroneous,” he warned.
05. Always be curious
The debt ceiling is about far more than the recurring conflicts between the Democratic and Republican parties, the negotiating prowess of Joe Biden, or structural changes in American politics. It’s also about real people and their livelihoods. The way to truly tell the story of real people, Hamrick advises young journalists, is to “be in the field.”
“People in business journalism should have a native curiosity that never sleeps,” Hamrick emphasized.
It’s not an extra burden, he said, but an integral part of daily life. Observe how business operates when visiting a market or engage in conversations with local people when exploring a new city. These seemingly trivial actions can enhance your interview skills, help you build a journalistic network, and even become underpinning narratives for future stories.
With the debt ceiling crisis averted in the final days before default, economic journalists have moved on to the next hot topic. But, as Hamrick has pointed out, the debt ceiling coverage is a reminder that young business journalists should always expand their skill sets to be prepared to communicate with the audience about the next big “uncertainty.”