Too many journalists lack the basic numeracy skills required to report on business and the economy, according to a group of senior broadcasters, financial experts and journalism tutors gathered at a Radio Academy debate in London last night.
Jan Whyatt, a radio journalism tutor at the University of Westminster, called for a compulsory numeracy exam for all journalism students – and argued that financial training should be as important as media law in any journalism course.
“In my experience, a lot of journalists are not all that numerate. They don’t really feel comfortable with financial news,” she said. “The people who recognise and accredit journalism training should strongly consider making it an absolute requirement to pass an exam demonstrating numeracy.”
Personal finance journalist Jasmine Birtles, who runs the website moneymagpie.com, said she was surprised that even some of the most senior journalists who approached her for a quote did not seem to understand the issues.
“A lot of journalists do ask the most basic questions – but then so does everyone else. I’m constantly amazed at what they don’t know,” she said.
Her comments were echoed by the director of propertyfinder.com, Nicholas Leeming, who said he often had to tell journalists what questions they should be asking him, because “frequently they haven’t got a clue”.
The BBC’s acting economics editor, Hugh Pym, said his predecessor Evan Davis had been vocal about the lack of business knowledge among some journalists.
“[He] can’t understand why people are quite happy to admit they know nothing about business, as if it’s cool,” Pym said. “I admit there should be much more financial knowledge across the field.”
But Pym said he believed that journalists should not have to undergo the same training required to become an independent financial advisor – and said it was ultimately up to the audience to make their own decisions based on the information they receive.
“You don’t need to be trained as an IFA to present what’s happening in the markets in an entertaining and factual way,” he said. “It’s a free market of information. It’s up to them to decide how they process it.”
Bloomberg journalist Sarah Lowther, who was in the audience, said reporters had a responsibility to be careful when reporting on stories which, if handled wrongly, could affect share prices and markets.
“We’re not allowed to go on air until we’ve been trained in currencies, derivatives and bonds so that we don’t patronise our main audience,” she said.
“What we pride ourselves on is being incredibly dull. We just give the facts. As journalists we’re not allowed to use adjectives at all – the colour comes from the soundbites and we have to be really careful.”