Business journalists discuss transparency and conflict of interest in reporting business news and financial information at Newsworld Asia, held in Singapore May 9-11, 2001. Thanks to Newsworld for permission to publish this transcript.
Moderated by Chris Donville, Bloomberg, and featuring panelists Matt Winkler, editor-in-chief, Bloomberg; Melvin Yong, Finance News Editor, Channel News Asia; Zafar Siddiqi, Chairman and CEO, Middle East Business News; Cynthia Owens, Vice President for News Programming, CNBC; Debra Kocher, Vice President for Business Programming, CNNI
Chris Donville: On the panel today we have Matt Winkler, the editor-in-chief of Bloomberg. We have Melvin Yong, finance editor, Channel News Asia. There's Zafar Siddiqi, Chief Executive of Middle East Business News in the UAE. We also have Cynthia Owens, vice president of News Programming, CNBC, and here we have Debra Kocher, vice president, Business Programming for CNNI.
Today's topic is a topic we all are very well versed about. All of us, in one way or another, will have found ourselves in a situation where transparency and conflict of interest will have come up in some form or another, which makes our job very difficult to do at times. Transparency could be the case of companies not be forthcoming in the way they announce that information, or being very selective with whom they want to announce the information to. Conflict of interest could arise when we stumble upon inside information, about a potential merger or acquisition for instance, and we want to know what to do about it, and how we proceed with that news. So, how do we cope with each situation, and how do we do it in a way that's credible and that's accurate? In other words, how do we keep to our journalistic integrity? That's exactly what we're going to discuss today. I'm going to invite Matt Winkler to kick off the session. Matt, would you do the honors for us please?
Matt Winkler: Thanks very much. What I'd like to show you is a picture of insider trading that happens, or has happened, as long as anyone can remember in the United States in the greatest bull market of all time, and, until late last year it was wide-spread. There is new regulation that was passed that was designed to curb it. So let me explain to you what this is, and how we all fit in as reporters and editors.
This line here is a price graph of a company called Western Digital, based in the United States, and this happened to be, this line, December 1st, 1998. And on December 1st, 1998, about one hundred and twenty companies and the CEOs and their CFOs gathered at a resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, and they were feted and entertained by the Western Bank in Boston, and about three or four hundred of its best customers. And December 1st, in one of the rooms at the Phoenician Hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona, the chief executive of Western Digital said to everybody assembled, that's stockholders and big investors, that business was pretty good, and it was likely to get even better. And the people in the room reached for their cell phones and the stock had its biggest one-day gain in the history of the company. There was no press release, there was no press conference, there was nothing. For those hundred and fifty or so people gathered that day, it was an easy way to make money.
Just to put it in perspective, this is a story that resulted from that event, and as I said it was December 1st when Western Digital stock went up 37% and most of the 3,700 shareholders of the company couldn't explain the sudden spurt that added about 427 million dollars to Western Digital's market value in a few hours. They hadn't been invited to the Phoenician Hotel, and Haggerty--Phil Haggerty was the CEO--didn't inform the other shareholders at the same time what he told this group, which was things were looking good, and before the day was over the stock was up four and thirteen sixteenths.
Now, these briefings, which as I said, have been around for years, decades, they're typical, and during that year executives at Dell Computer, Barnes and Noble, Northern Telecom, they provided enough insight into the situations that prompted their stocks to rise, and most of their shareholders were not clued in, and as Barbara Roper said at the time, "It sounds like insider trading to me." Since then the FCC passed regulation FD, which stands for "fair disclosure," and what it's designed to do is make sure that the stock market in particular is a level playing field for all shareholders.
Unfortunately, without that rule, the media, all too often, was co-opted to the extent that--and it was the case in this event too—several news organizations went to the event but they went to the event with the understanding that they would not write about, or otherwise report, what they heard or what saw on that day. Which is unfortunate, because the news was what happened to the stock, and why did the stock move. The US is probably further along than any other region in dealing with this subject, selective disclosure, in making its markets more transparent. If you look around the world probably meetings like this, between company executives and analysts and money managers, are common, and at these meetings frequently things are said. And the result is a sudden spurt in the share price, and there's no explanation until maybe later, and most shareholders are not in a position to benefit.
A valid way to make this point clearly and to show you just how dramatic this is: if you were somebody who owns stock, and you weren't one of the chosen, you would have been left in the lurch. What we try to do at Bloomberg is to keep a record of every company that has these sorts of briefings, meetings, on a selective basis, and we've been doing this since 1998, but even today and even with this rule, there are many examples where companies have these kinds of briefings. The reason I picked this example for this briefing today is because it's perfectly legal throughout most of the world. It just happens to be rotten, it just happens to be something that is insidious, but most markets and most countries don't have any provision for selective disclosure. It's our obligation, as a news organization, to get to these briefings as often as we can, and to make them as public as possible, because once we do, the market becomes more transparent, and information, which is money, is then accessible to everyone. That's the extent of my intro to this panel, and I hope it leads us to bigger ideas. Thank you.
Donville: Thank you, Matt. Let me throw open what Matt said to the rest of our panelists, in no particular order, if any of you want to jump in and comment.
Cynthia Owens: Matt is clearly right about the United States, and I think that's only more pervasive as many of you know in Asia. Especially with family-owned companies where the families are majority shareholders, as we've all discovered, it can be nearly impossible to get accurate information. In many places of course it's impossible to even get government information. When I arrived in Japan in 1986, we were promised that eventually the press club system would open up. Well, our correspondents are still fighting the system today. So for us it's been fighting on a country by country basis. I'd be very pleased to know if anybody out there has any other solution for making progress and inroads.
Winkler: Well, I'd just like to add one point. I think the press actually has a great deal of power, and unfortunately doesn't always exercise the power that it has. Everyone is so intent on gaining access to sources that the result is too often that there's some kind of Faustian bargain between the source and the news organization--if you let me in, and I'm the only one in, I promise I won't say anything or won't say it that day, I'll say it two days later. If there was more of a code of conduct, I suppose, it would ameliorate that. Even if you do get access, your obligation is to your reader, to your viewer, to your listener, to report what you see, particularly as it plays to the shareholders, and we'd all be better off. But I think unfortunately too often our sources play news organizations against each other, manipulate them, because everybody wants to have the so-called news first, and too often what happens is we wind up becoming captive to the very people who are often manipulating the market.
Donville: Competition among news organizations seems to be a key--people like me for instance who try to get in on the scoop before any other news organization does. Do you have any comments on that?
Debra Kocher: I think we have to be very careful about gaining access and at what price, because there is a very fine line to be had in terms of cultivating sources versus agreeing not to discuss certain subjects. But like I don't think there's ever a time when you can say "We won't discuss this, we will not." I mean we've talked about areas where you say, "I know you don't want to answer a certain question but we're going to have to ask that question." And here you go ahead and you say, "Well it's fine if you want to say to us, 'I won't answer that question or it's not a subject that I want to discuss." But that doesn't mean that we don't have the right to ask that question. We're not going to go into an interview agreeing not to ask a certain question, and it's very similar going into an analysts' meeting or a private meeting where they discuss certain specific subjects with some sort of agreement on that.
Melvin Yong: The question though in Asia is that, while you're cultivating your sources, they have an implicit agreement with you to say, "OK, I'll grant you an interview, on condition you don't ask me these questions." So how do you balance that? Winkler: You don't do the interview! [laughter].
Kocher: We have had many circumstances under which we have said, "We will not agree to these conditions," and in that case that's fine, we won't do the interview. There is a certain large company that tends to make that request on a regular basis, because of various reasons why they're in the news at the time. They'll say, "Well, we'll give you an interview with the chairman, but he is not going to talk about this and we don't want you to ask him that." I also think to a degree, some of this comes down to the PR people trying to get you to not ask the question, whereas the chairman knows what to do when you ask the question. He will just dodge it or he'll move on, or he'll refuse to answer or he'll give you an answer that's vague.
Winkler: Why should CEOs be held to a different standard than presidents or politicians? If you're going to an interview with a president or politician, you're going to ask the most painful questions you possibly can. Particularly if you're doing TV, you want the soundbite. I don't see why the CEO should be held to a different standard.
Kocher: And I don't think they are.
Donville: OK, sometimes public relations will try to protect their boss or try to shield them. OK, he may be prepared to answer this question, but just try not to, just in case. They see how far they can push the media into going along with them. For instance at CNBC when a guest comes on and says, "You can't ask certain questions," I said sorry, we have to ask them anyway, but it's up to him whether he can answer or can't, either way, but we have to be seen asking the question, so tough luck. That's the conditions under which you come on the show. A comment from the floor?
Audience member: Presidents represent democracies in the West, whereas CEOs represent companies, which is a different thing.
Winkler: They represent shareholders.
Audience member: But that's the thing, isn't it, that's the difference between them. They represent shareholders and not every viewer of CNBC is a shareholder or every viewer of CNN or Channel News Asia. I don't think that they have the same feeling as politicians that they belong to everyone.
Matt Winkler: Well, they get paid a lot more money [laughter] and they often have a lot more perks. And they're trying to sell as much of their stock as they possibly can, to as many people as they possibly can.
Audience member: Exactly, but I do think that generally there is that feeling out there that somehow they're not part of this necessarily, but that they are responsible to their board members.
Winkler: And it's our job to ask questions. We don't have to be unpleasant about it, but it's our job to ask as many questions as possible. Like asking somebody, "So where did you go to school? Did you really go to Stanford? [laughter] And when were you there?"
Kocher: I actually think it's changed, too. I think that the business press has become far more aggressive. It used to be very cozy, many years ago, before business became much more of a broader subject for the average viewer. And as that cozy relationship has gotten more controversial, I think the business press is not as hand in hand with the corporation. I think businessmen are more accountable and I think that they understand that more.
Zafar Siddiqi: The other question is one of manipulation of the press. I mean you've mentioned that press releases were not released at that particular conference, but if you look at a recent instance in the Middle East whereby stock prices were manipulated by manipulating press men and there are huge vested interests out there. The question in Asia, I think, is how you protect minority interests, because these are businesses controlled by families who own a majority of shares and it's the minority shareholders and sometimes it's, in these developing markets, it's people who really don't know how these companies perform and move. I mean, how do you protect these people's interests?
Winkler: Well, in a way we protect the public interest the way we protect our readers' interest, by providing as much accurate information about the shares as we possibly can. We're not really in a position to judge beyond that, just to ask as many questions, to get the accurate answers, and keep doing it again and again. It don't think it's more complicated than that.
Owens: I think over time, as more disclosure becomes more acceptable in Asia and demanded by more reporters, that in fact the companies that disclose will find that they have more liquidity, they become more popular among shareholders, and it's the other companies that drop out. That could be a long process, as some of you know.
Donville: We have a question from the floor.
Audience member: A question and a comment really. I'm David Marshall, I set up a business show in Australia for Sky News a few years ago, I co-hosted it for over six months, and in doing that I came across something which leads me to believe that the media is somehow to blame for this. Because of the cost efficiency of having commentators talk on CNBC and Channel News Asia and CNFN (China National Financial Data Network), to the point now where cable finance channels appear content-light, because we've lulled our staff into the belief that this is the way we report finance news, we go and talk to such and such at Salomon Smith Barney, we go and talk to such and such from DVS. We don't actually go to the company and ask the company. For the first six months of setting up the show, I had my reporters out there chasing people and I'd be talking to the heads of companies who said, "We've never done this before." It took six months to break it down to that fact that, no, sorry, you are accountable, we can ask you these questions, we have camera crews, we can do it. It took a little while to turn around.
Owens: It's turned around substantially in the United States. CEOs book time on CNBC when they want to make an announcement now. They know that they have to be on Bloomberg when they make an announcement now. I think that in the United States there's been a substantial change in the last decade, in that business people and CEOs feel how much they need to be out there, and I think, Matt, you could speak more to this, the new regulation in fact forces them to either make it public to the press or not say it at all. I don't know how effectively that 's working.
Winkler: Well, actually, CEOs have the freedom to talk to any journalist they want. I mean that's one of the exemptions in regulation FD. They are required to tell all shareholders at the same time whatever they're going to say to some shareholders, if they're having such a meeting. But they have no restrictions in talking to the press, so if they want to come into someone's studio and do an interview and say something that is material that might lead to the stock rising 37 percent, a CEO in the US can do that on a network if she wants to. But in any case, the principle of regulation FD is that no shareholder should be denied information that another shareholder has if it's coming directly from the company.
Same audience member: In the heyday of bull markets last year when everyone was basically expecting the technological boom to continue, there was a lot of criticism of CNBC and CNFN, which CEOs they put on, when and which stocks they picked in the morning. Sometimes they would pick a few stocks in the morning, and by the time the market opened, that stock was up 15, 20% just because it was on CNBC, and I think obviously it's not an ideal situation. There might be good news about other stocks and they weren't necessarily put on and they didn't rise as much. How much of a responsibility do you think Bloomberg, CNBC, Channel News Asia have in choosing what CEOs to put on in that morning, and how many reservations should they have about mentioning stocks when they may affect an option.
Owens: I think the market chooses the stocks we cover.
Same audience member: But here may be other stocks that also have news value as well that aren't on the stock reports as much. Do you see what I mean? That's editorial, and that moves the markets early on.
Winkler: I think what Cynthia is saying is that the news judgment that's applied to covering a stock market by most news organizations that are dedicated to covering a stock market is determined by the stocks that have moved the most, have fluctuated the most in price, or are about to fluctuate the most. In the first case it's almost self-evident, it's essentially which stocks move the most in the trading in the most recent session, and in the latter case it's news that has been reported after the stock has traded in its most liquid market. Say, if it's in the US, a company that reports earnings at five o'clock in the afternoon and most of the trading has already occurred during the day, there's a good chance that that's a stock that you're going to be following if the news is surprising. I think that is what governs most selections.
Same audience member: But then there's always stock that do fall by the wayside or ones that get mentioned while others don't.
Winkler: We're not infallible. We have a long way to go.
Kocher: And there are a lot of stocks out there as well. What we're geared to do is make a decision based on our experience, to choose a specific stock just because it's moved a lot when that's out of the ordinary, out of its regular trading range, or because there is an event that has actually triggered a stock price move. I think one of the dangers that we've run into now is (a) because of the competition among us and (b) because of the access and just the sheer amount of time that we have to fill is the ability, now CEOs have to use us and put their people out there. They're trying to move their stock one way or the other or to get their story out, and it's our job to make sure that we don't get used and that we do have our research done and make sure that we have the whole story.
Siddiqi: I'll echo that. In fact, it's a judgment call at the end of the day, where you're backed up by your news editors, your research department, and you make that judgment call. In fact on an average I don't know how many interviews you would be having here. I mean if you look right across CNBC in fact, it's close to 50 to 80 people, a day. So it's a judgment call.
Donville: But don't forget nowadays in these market conditions, that stock goes down as well, so it goes both ways. We're not just looking at one scenario here. Can we have your question?
Audience member: I'd just like to raise the point that some Asian companies have been criticized for being not very transparent, but what I notice is that before and after the tech crash—before the tech crash a lot of wonderful, important American technology companies could do no wrong. After the tech crash what I notice in business news coverage is that there's more hard scrutiny of their very creative accounting techniques and an examination of how they book revenue which drives up their stock price. I've heard a story of chief financial officers being fired from some American technology companies. Do you think the current tech crash is forcing American companies themselves to be more transparent in their accounting techniques and do you think this is a good thing?
Winkler: Well, there's nothing like a bear market to make people more honest. That's just a reality of bull and bear markets in general. I'm not sure it's necessary to apply it so much to so-called technology companies. In the sixties there was a whole other group of companies, and the same thing happened. I wouldn't say that the accounting was necessarily so creative. There definitely was a perception in the latter part of the nineties that earnings didn't matter, and there were a lot of journalists who bought into that ridiculous notion, that you could have a company without earnings indefinitely and it was still a company worth owning. And what you're describing is the aftermath of that burst, but there're a lot of people who have always said, "Amazon will crash." And so will most of these companies, these dot coms that didn't have any earnings. Is there going to be more scrutiny now, yes, because once you've been wounded, you're a little bit more cautious the next time. But, you know what? There'll be another bull market like the one we had, at some point and people will make the same mistakes.
Owens: That's true. Also if the market's your guide, even though it was often mentioned that these companies weren't making money, there was some mention of their accounting practices, if the market is your guide and your stock is up 30 dollars today, that's what gets to be the headline, pretty quick.
Donville: Anyone else from the floor?
Audience member: What's the effect then of websites like f***company dot com? Do those sorts of websites have an effect of making you more honest? In your reporting, in being able to be more serious, being more credible, being harder at what you're reporting, particularly with the dot com crashes over the last year or so.
Owens: I think you have to be more careful because there are a lot more rumors out there and it's a lot easier for rumors to be spread. So, it's sometimes harder to separate fact from fiction when these rumors get out there. Just as so many of the dot coms have gone under, everyone's questioning the validity of what you read out there. There's loads of websites out there, but who are you going to go to for real financial information? You can narrow that down to ten probably.
Yong: I was just going to pick up on that one, and I think a lot of it has to do with our own journalistic integrity as well for the station that you report from, and that is, the onus is on the journalist and the station to check their facts, really, with a few sources, rather than just listen to market talk. That goes on in the wires and the websites. At the end of the day again there's a judgment call, I think. From my own perspective at Channel News Asia we will check various sources to see if something we hear is right or wrong. I think that's our public duty to really set the record straight if the rumors that are floating around the market are wrong.
Kocher: I think that with any marketplace, if you have too much wrong information that continues to go on that site, people will stop using that site and it will die out and market forces will prevail.
Donville: OK, let me throw a curve ball. What happens if the information that's rumor or speculation is indeed true? That there was a leak somewhere? What of our duty to pass along the information that's pure rumor. Do we bring on an analyst to talk about it? How do we do it in a way that's credible, because our viewers need to know about it. How do we do it in a way that's credible and accurate?
Winkler: Well, there's a saying "It isn't news if it isn't true." So you've got to start there. Then, what makes you want to cover anything is that it moves. If the price of anything moves, you want to explain why it moves. You have to cover the movement; that's news, because the movement is the surprise. And the movement could be because of misinformation. So no matter what, you're going to end up reporting about the company or the commodity or the currency or the debt security or whatever it is, if it moves. The great news organizations figure out why it moved, and it could have moved for reasons that have nothing to do with the price going up. It could be misinformation, and so as soon as you report that it's speculation and it's unfounded, then the price will go down presumably. But that's a duty and a service that news organizations have. But the real proviso is if it moves you've got to cover it and it may take you longer than you like, but you do have an obligation not to report something you can't verify. In other words you shouldn't report rumors unless you know them not to be rumors. There are situations where you can take something that's off the record and confirm it elsewhere, and once you've done that then that's probably acceptable. But you probably have to take that extra step. Stories that are anonymously sourced are bad stories.
Kocher: But you have to use it as a starter, because if you don't even get the off the record then you don't have anything to work with in the first place. Then there's also the differentiation between off the record and background and attribution to a source within the company, etc.
Winkler: The hazard is, once you've agreed to off the record, you've become the agent of your source, not your reader or your viewer or your listener. You want to be sure you know what you're writing, what you're saying. The great risk of off the record stories is that the journalist becomes manipulated.
Kocher: But there's also the off the record stories where they're actually steering you away from a wrong story, and they'll say, "You didn't get this from me, but, off the record, you're dead wrong." And then you use that as a starting point and it may end up serving your readers as well.
Donville: Let's move on to a fresh topic. I'm just curious, in terms of the various organizations that we come from, do we spend time in properly training our journalists as to what to look out for and how to report a story accurately? Do we have a certain guidelines, a certain code of integrity?
Winkler: We do, we have a very substantial staff now worldwide that does nothing but train reporters and editors in just about everything. Most of these people are former bureau chiefs and editors who do nothing now except teach in-house. It's probably the most important thing we do, and we don't have enough of them.
Owens: In terms of training I think it's a huge challenge, given the demand to financial journalists around the world. You're often getting people who are young and there's a lot of advantage in that; you can really train them in the best ways to do things. More and more I notice upon coming back to this station in Asia is that some of the people who were news assistants and one woman who was a secretary when I was here before are now running the place. To hear them talk now about journalistic integrity--all of that just flows right out of their mouths. [One woman] was making fun of a competitor for not honoring a certain standard the other day, and I was just pleased to hear her say it, because I think you can train people. But it is an enormous cost for every company trying to grow and get new financial journalists. It is a challenge to constantly monitor those people as they move up through your organization and they become reporters on their own, and editors, and it's a challenge for everybody.
Donville: What about Channel News Asia?
Yong: Obviously, it's a pretty new station compared with the CNBCs and the CNNs of this world, but we do have our own people in there who have risen up the ranks and we look at some basic journalism qualities. That is, journalistic integrity of course. How do you measure between living up to the expectations of your viewer, fulfilling the public's right to know, and also how exactly do you actually report the truth, because there are always problems. We've been talking about transparency of course. Getting your sources and telling stories off the record, on the record, whatever the case is. But it's difficult on the record because how do you decide. I guess the thing that we balance every day is that we hear things from these contacts. We try to verify them elsewhere to see if you can use these stories. The question is do you want to burn that contact, so that they never tell you anything again and you probably will never hear from them. And there's your basic duty which is to let your viewers know exactly what the facts are. So we weigh considerations like that on a day to day basis, how we treat stories.
Kocher: I would also say that training takes place on two different levels. You have training in terms of the work that you're doing as a journalist, but you also have training in terms of where the internal conflicts of interest lie within the company and its code of conduct and a standard in terms of investment policy, what stocks you're allowed to hold, how often you're allowed to trade those stocks. We have a group within CNN that's called the Ethics Committee which basically oversees investments that might be considered a little bit unusual, these are all about journalists not being able to invest in certain areas, about not being able to trade within three days of doing a story, and it is something that needs to be addressed for business journalists. We have to hold ourselves to a much higher standard than the average journalist who may not be reporting on business news.
Siddiqi: For such a small organization which doesn't have the resources that large broadcasters possess, we do have a value system within the company and there's a code of conduct, no one can trade in stocks, no one can own stocks, full stop.
Donville: No one?
Siddiqi: No one. On the journalistic side, that is. The other important thing is training; obviously because of resources, there are European training centers where we do send our younger staff who have potential. That's how we do it.
Donville: What about choice of words? We're always as a news organization trying to make things very attractive to our viewers, trying to jazz up the story. Instead of saying "full" we say "lavish." The choice of words that we use sometimes is questionable. How can we go about deciding which phrase or which terminology to use?
Winkler: With use of anecdotes and examples. Instead of saying "surged" you'd probably want to say "was the biggest advance in two days" because it puts the move in the market in a context and makes it newsworthy for people. It tells you that today was different from yesterday and from the day before and the day before. The more you can explain the market with examples and anecdotes, the easier it is to avoid hyperbole, which is what you're talking about. Another rule of thumb is to avoid adjectives and adverbs.
Yong: At Channel News what we do is, instead of using the word "plunge"--if a stock falls ten percent, that's a "plunge"; if it falls one percent that is not a "plunge," it probably just "dipped." If it falls about two percent, maybe that's a little bit of a "drop" perhaps. [laughter]
Winkler: Why characterize? Why not let the reader decide for him- or herself. If you explain that it fell two percent, then the reader will decide whether it's a "dip" or a "plunge" or anything else. [laughter]
Yong: I take your point on that one. Increasingly we've been using the words "fall" and "rise."
Donville: What if it falls ten percent every day? [laughter]
Kocher: Then it's a volatile stock, because the stock that goes up or down ten percent every day is a very volatile stock. That's just the way it is and so there's nothing out of the ordinary, and we probably shouldn't be reporting it anyway. [laughter]
Yong: If a stock drops ten percent every day for ten days, there's nothing left to drop!
Audience member: In financial news, often you have young journalists who are interviewing people who made, let's say, ten million dollars a year, and they're so happy or they're so intimidated to be interviewing them—or as in the case earlier, there's the Faustian bargain to get that interview. So I'd like some advice from our panelists for young journalists in particular, how to avoid that intimidation factor, when they go and interview CEOs or chairmen.
Owens: You're representing shareholders, you are representing people that own this company. You are not representing yourself, you are representing shareholders.
Kocher: I think research is a factor, and you have to know what they're taking about. Just like you do with any interview, you lay out your set of questions, and you should know what the answers are. It's like getting a good lawyer, he'll know roughly what the answer's going to be. And then when you get a surprise, then you know what to follow up on. But they should have a rough idea of what's been said before, and it's about research. I vote for not sending out young journalists [on some stories]. Inevitably that does happen. But if you get a big interview, you should be sending out a more senior people as well.
Audience member: I think business news has a challenge which is different from general news, in that how do you find images to make a compelling topic about a particular story? It's difficult to find compelling pictures sometimes to accompany the story. As organizations that are international and have pretty good resources, or very good resources in some cases, you have easier access to images. But for example, a local station that wants to cover some of these stories but they might not have a freelance journalist in Hong Kong. How does one go about getting compelling pictures for business news?
Owens: What Matt just showed you was pretty compelling. [indicating chart] He showed you how much money a very small number of people made in a very small bit of time. We can't forget that, if we really are reporting on finance, you are reporting on numbers. Numbers are your bag. They don't lie, they are what they are. And that chart right there tells you a lot. Your boss may say, you have to have the latest pictures, but the facts, that's your picture, that's what tells the story. You could take this graphic a step further and say, if you owned a hundred shares, how much did you make in that day? Or, this is what a very select few people made. Put it in dollar figures.
Winkler: It's that picture and that particular stock that prompted the SEC to start considering the change in the rules, because it was so obvious that there was something awry in the market. I mean, if you look at the bottom graph, this right here, this is volume. Nothing was reported by the company, and yet they had the biggest volume of the year, in the stock, at that point. It was the end of the year and no stock had been traded.
Kocher: I think what you're pointing out is that business journalists have it a lot harder in terms of presenting a story, and many stories on any given show may not have fresh pictures, and graphics are playing a much bigger role every day now in the way we create a program. Automated graphics are huge and you see them all over all of our networks. We couldn't have done it, I don't know how we did it before.
Donville: On CNBC there's an international report from the trading floor. There's just so much activity that's going on, you're just overwhelmed by the whole picture—what you're saying, who you're spoken to, what stocks are moving. You go to the NASDAQ caller, he's a top engineer, he's talking about what stocks are moving, it's all very active. You don't necessarily have a picture of a person. Things go up and down, and move here and there.
Winkler: The best picture is "What happened to your money!" [laughter] And actually a graphic artist can have a lot of fun with it if he or she has the data. She can say, "Your money was worth twenty dollars, or your shares were worth twenty dollars, yesterday, and now they're worth ten dollars." You can creatively do lots of things about it as an artist.
Owens: Last year CNBC was going to discontinue running a chart that it does called the Wealth Meter, which is who made the most and who lost the most today. And people complained because they wanted to see that Bill Gates or whoever it was lost eight million dollars today, isn't that great, or they made that much. [laughter] And that tells a big story.
Donville: Does anyone have any more questions?
Audience member: Just interested to hear your collective views on when enough is enough in terms of business and finance. It's become the most sexy area of journalism in the last ten years, I guess, and in news management we're always saying "We've got to have a new business program, we need more business coverage, we need more business specialists" looking at the mainstream media. All right, you're all finance specialists. What's your view on how much the audience wants, and have we reached that saturation point? And are you getting a lot of audience feedback from people that they're finding your work interesting?
Winkler: Well, I'd come at it another way. I'd say that there was always a false dichotomy, because business news is news about enterprise, and if you think about the world today, even North Korea is going the way of capitalism. There really isn't any other economic system that competes with capitalism in the world today. And if you think about what governments do--and everybody has to cover the government, that's supposedly a general news story--governments exist by financing themselves and by taxing their citizens and by selling debt securities, otherwise known as bonds, and in order to exist and to pay the politicians and to make sure that social services are there, it all comes back to money. So I don't think that there ever should have been a dichotomy between war, peace, and airplane crashes, and between markets and companies and industries and the economy, because actually they're all bound up together. Even when you're covering a plane crash, even when you're covering this plane that they're trying to get back to the United States, it has a monetary value. It happens to be a very big story, it happens to be a story that probably everyone should be interested in, because of that value, and who makes the plane, and why is it something that everybody covers. And if you just wrote about that incident solely from a perspective of ideology, or rather simple politics, you would leave out a big part of the story. So I'm not advocating that we should have stock analysts twenty-four hours a day; on the contrary I think that we probably have too many analysts quoted and interviewed. We'd probably all be better off if we didn't do that. But the better story is the story of "who's paying for this?"
Same audience member: The research in Australia is that people are very sick of hearing about politics. They say we do too much politics. And I wonder if we've gone along the same path, making the same mistake with business and finance, where the audience may say enough is enough. I'm not saying that they are, and I'm not saying that I don't enjoy the product that you all have broadcast. But it's just a question that we're always asking ourselves, trying to get a feel for what the audience wants, how much they want, and where is the line between business and finance stories that are interesting to the specialists and the investors.
Winkler: There's no excuse for being dull, right, and shame on us that we're dull and shame on us if we're boring, no matter what the subject is.
Audience member: I'd like to hear the panel's views on how we're doing. We've talked a lot about conflict of interest and transparency, but how is the industry, how do you think we're doing in covering these positions?
Owens: We've got a way to go. It's part of the opportunity, it's part of the challenge, it's part of the fun, but we've got a ways to go on our part and in Asia in continuing to push for the access that we need, and making sure that at the same time we're holding our standards to the level that we know we should.
Kocher: I think there's always room for improvement, but let's not forget that lack of transparency has been around for a long time. If you go back for instance to the early eighties and the Hunt brothers who tried to manipulate the silver market, none of this is new. This is human nature, it's people being greedy, it's a question of just keeping at trying to get to the bottom of what's really happening. And it happens everywhere, every country.
Yong: And I think that collectively we probably need to continue to push in Asia especially for that sort of transparency, because obviously transparency in Asia has not really matched the standards that we have in the US, and Europe. In Asia, you know, many companies are not that transparent yet, although there are some countries in this region that are moving in that direction. As news journalists and business journalists, and business networks, it's our duty to hold those companies accountable as well.
Donville: On that note, I'd like to thank everybody for joining us today.