Business journalists must improve their ability to communicate economic information, Tsinghua forum participants agree

With the global economy in flux, it is more important than ever for journalists to be able to understand and explain economic information, a distinguished group of journalists and educators told the ninth annual Tsinghua Business Journalism Forum.

The May 27 forum, entitled “Communicating China’s Economic Information in Cyberspace,” was hosted by the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication and featured veteran journalists and communications specialists from China, the United States and Europe.

Cinzia Dal Zotto, a professor at the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland, noted that transmission of economic information is not just a communications issue but also is a fundamental global financial matter with high stakes for governments, business and citizens.

“There is a great need to explain complexity,” she said. “There is a great need and a great opportunity for journalists to specialize in business and economic journalism.”

Administrative Dean Jin Jianbin hailed the forum for addressing “a vitally important and timely theme.” Welcoming the participants on behalf of the university, he said the forum builds on the innovative efforts of TSJC and its Global Business Journalism Program “to enhance business journalism curriculum-building across China.”

Professor Dal Zotto said Tsinghua students “are really privileged to have such a specialized program” as Global Business Journalism to combat the widespread “lack of specialized training in economic, financial and business journalism.”

“Business information, which is produced by the media system, is part of the economic system,” she said. “It can directly affect the value of market shares.”

Robert Picard of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University in the United Kingdom stressed the importance of journalists adding value to the information they collect through thorough reporting and rigorous analysis.

“Data doesn’t explain; someone has to make sense of it,” he said, adding that better training for business journalists in data skills is vital.

“What does one do when the press doesn’t get the explanation correct?” he asked. “Journalists and media scholars should monitor and improve content.”

Tsinghua Professor Hang Min, co-director of the Global Business Journalism Program, warned that economic coverage too often is not written with news consumers in mind.

“There’s a gap between the media and the audience,” she said. “We need to cover more of what the audience cares about rather than macroeconomics.”

Jane Sasseen, executive director of the McGraw Center for Financial Journalism at the City University of New York in the United States, reviewed global news coverage of the Chinese economy and concluded “there’s very little consensus in the Western media why China’s growth has slowed.” She said most of the positive coverage of the economy involved company news and technology. Much of the negative coverage related to the broader Chinese economy, debt burdens and difficulties facing specific economic sectors as they adjust to the new realities of slower growth.

GBJ co-director Rick Dunham described a study conducted by his data journalism class that found widely divergent coverage of the same Chinese economic issues in China’s media and international news outlets. While 51.4 percent of coverage of Chinese economic issues was positive among mainland media during the 10-day period studied, just 14.1 percent of coverage was positive in the U.S., 19.4 percent in Europe and 36.3 percent in the developing world. Stories with a negative tone ranged from 21.8 percent on the Chinese mainland to 59.9 percent in the U.S.

Readers around the world receive “alternate realities” based on the economic analysis offered by their nations’ journalists, Professor Dunham told the forum. With such divergent coverage, conference participants focused on ways to improve the skills of business journalists globally.

“You have serious macroeconomic issues [in China], and you have inexperienced journalists covering them because more experienced journalists have moved on to other careers,” said Rongyi Ke, director of new and digital media for China Daily.

Global Business Journalism Program Professor Lee Miller noted that many journalists “freeze from fear” when they see numbers. But he said they have to learn the basics of economics and data analysis.

“If you don’t understand the numbers, your audience won’t understand,” the veteran Bloomberg News staffer said.

Pamela Tobey, visuals director of Beijing Review magazine, discussed the importance of presenting economic data clearly for news audiences.

“Keep it simple,” the former Washington Post graphics specialist told the audience. “Don’t overcomplicate the visuals.”

Participants in the forum repeatedly stressed the need for reporters to be trained in journalism fundamentals as well as data skills.

“A great thinker cannot be replaced by a robot,” said Lin Hui, assistant dean and head of the Department of Economic Journalism at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. “A journalist should be encouraged to be  thinker. There are certain traditions to hold onto in the era of the internet.”