As local businesses closed around the world, laid-off workers applied for unemployment benefits and central banks bought up government bonds to inject money into local economies, the COVID-19 health crisis has also turned into a deep economic crisis.
“This is devastating for the economy across the entire world,” says Rebecca Christie, a visiting fellow at the Brussels-based Bruegel economic think-tank who worked as a journalist for 22 years prior. “No-one is buying anything. People are laying off their workers. Businesses across the world are having to dramatically rethink their supply chains.”
At this stage, it’s clear that the pandemic will cause the global economy to go into a recession — a period of significantly less economic activity — but anything beyond that is tea-leaf reading, Christie says. “We don't actually know what's going to happen. We don't know if this is going to be a two-month pause, or if this is going to be an 18-month total rethink of how we do things.”
What we can be sure of is that economic, business and financial news is going to be dominating headlines and homepages, much like they did during the 2008-2009 economic downturn.
“The economic crisis is so widespread everywhere in the world and so deep that business reporting is becoming everyone's beat,” says Carlo Piovano. As the London-based Europe business editor for the Associated Press, Piovano works with business reporters daily. He also helps the wire service’s general interest reporters shape, pitch, develop and write stories.
Christie recommends reporters with little business reporting experience lean toward factual sources rather commentators the coming months.
“It's really tempting to want to go find an analyst out there to say: ‘Here's what you should think about this; here are the good bailouts, and here are the bad bailouts,’” she says. “The key for business reporters trying to learn about this is to seek out sources that are fact-based and not commentary-based.” She recommends the Investopedia dictionary for definitions of commonly used economic terms and the Federal Reserve’s comic books to better understand banking systems.
It’s also a good idea to take a step back and try to wrap your head around the economic system behind what you’re covering, Christie says. “Even if it's a very simple stick figure, think about where the money starts, think about where it goes, and think about where it needs to end up,” she says. “Having that kind of an anchor point can avoid some of the blind spots that we all fall into when we start writing about only trade or only health care or only whatever.”
Use numbers sparingly, and with context
Also don’t fall into the numbers trap a lot of journalists before you have made, Piovano advises. “I think the tendency among non-business reporters is: when in doubt, just add more numbers,” he explains. “That's wrong because, obviously, it shows that you don't know which one's the right one.”
According to Piovano, a good business story instead uses figures sparingly and with discernment. “You want, ideally, just a few that really tell the story and you want to put them into context,” he says, adding that reporters should also think about context when using figures. “You need to compare [the figure] with a previous year, compare it with another country, and put it into context and frame it.”
Focus on the narrative
In other words, use numbers to build out your narrative by interviewing people – both independent experts and people affected by the thing you’re writing about. For instance, reporters doing a story on plummeting car sales in Europe should think about ways to make those figures more concrete. For instance, how are these numbers affecting a particular company? What impact are they having on consumers?
“Ideally, if you have the time and space, you'd want to personalize the story, humanize it. Maybe get the voice of somebody who's in lockdown and worried about their money and note that they were going to buy a car, but now they're no longer going to […] or the car salesman, for example.
Finally, Piovano advises reporters on other beats not to lose sight of what a business story revolves around at heart. “Like any good journalism, business news is about a narrative and it's about people,” he says. “The big mistake is to think that business news is about looking through a bunch of papers and looking at a number and working off numbers. Because that's only part of the story.