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When numbers tell the story...N Madhavan on biz reporting

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When numbers tell the story...N Madhavan on biz reporting

“Numbers are not the story, but they tell the story,” remarked Narayanan Madhavan, Associate Editor, Hindustan Times. He, however, cautioned that numbers in business journalism were like a “minefield” and one needed to walk through carefully. First and foremost, the economic indicators had to make sense to the readers. According to him, “qualitative and quantitative facts are interlinked - or should be.” And one shouldn’t get easily impressed by the numbers but see them in the context that they are mentioned.

Madhavan felt that every journalist must have a “bullshit detector” since sources for the numbers varied and so did their credibility. These sources could be the Government, which were quite reliable; corporations, one needed to approach such numbers with care; think tanks; market research agencies; activist groups; consulting firms and the academia.

Madhavan listed some rules to follow while covering economic indicators.

Rule 1: Apples are not oranges
One must compare like with like and also adjust for inflation. Quarter-on-quarter was different from year-on-year and depended on time series and seasonality.

Rule 2: If it can’t be told in words, it may not be news
Madhavan advised that numbers mush be embraced by words to make sense, although some numbers were telling.

Rule 3: Know your definitions and abbreviations
A business journalist should refer to financial and economic glossaries to get his facts right. One should also remember that definitions could vary from country to country and from time to time. It was important to get one’s concepts right; if one wasn’t sure, then speak with someone who knew.

Rule 4: Look for a pattern
The basic story lay in what was new or what was different, according to Madhavan. He stressed on seeking the “aha” factor in the story. The report needed to be sprinkled with tables/ graphics to elaborate the points, which made the story more reader-friendly.

Rule 5: Know your audience
“Business audiences are not consumers, consumers are not citizens, citizens are not academicians, hence it is important to know who the audience is,” he noted. He further said that talking to ordinary folks involved analogy.

Rule 6: Visualise
Since images tell the story better imagery helped numbers come alive. According to Madhavan, too many numbers could be an overload on copy. He further said that it was important to connect with the “you” factor where possible.

Rule 7: Get your conversions right
Google search could be used for real time currency conversions while filing the story.

Rule 8: Look for the fine print & define exceptions
While filing reports on financial results, one needed to pay attention to the footnotes with the tables given as some could include figures like one-time charge or extraordinary income which need to be factored in. One also needed to check with independent sources and analysts to authenticate the numbers.

Rule 9: Know your accounting standards
One needed to keep in mind that US GAAP differed from Indian GAAP (general accounting practice). Also, stock exchanges had varying disclosure rules.

Rule 10: If you are lost, so is the reader/ viewer
According to Madhavan, one needed to define the exceptions while filing a story. He also cautioned against making a non-story into a story. One needed to guard against biased statistics that could be shared by interested parties.

Rule 11: Infographics are cool
Web presentations helped one tell more in a story. Newspapers and TV channels regularly used infographics to enhance the story’s appeal. “Don’t get stuck in words where an infographic may work better,” Madhavan said.

He concluded by saying that journalists needed to understand in which context they were functioning.

N Madhavan was speaking at the day-long work shop on ‘Reporting on Business in a Global World’ for business journalists, held in Delhi on February 23, 2012. The workshop was organised by the High Commission of Canada, in collaboration with exchange4media.

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