Top Tips, Data Points and Story Ideas for Covering COVID's Economic Impact

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Four financial experts shared their best advice and insights for covering the ongoing financial impacts of COVID in a session, moderated by RTDNA Region 9 Director Sherri Jackson, during RTDNA and NEFE's recent Money Matters Day. Watch the full session here or read on for our top takeaways, data points and story ideas:

Go beyond the headline

Mark Hamrick,, says it’s easy to fall into a “trader” mindset when reporting on economic numbers and trends, looking at expectations and week-to-week changes, for example, when unemployment numbers are released each week. But the stories that are most compelling and useful to news audiences are stories from those who are impacted by the numbers, tied together with expert insight and resources for real people. Epperson added that experts have a role but journalists need to get out of their comfort zones, out from behind the data, and make real people, especially those who have fallen through the cracks, the focal point.

Connect the Dots

Jill Schlesinger, CFP®, is a CBS News analyst and past RTDNA/NEFE Award winner. As a financial analyst, she says it’s important to present a story people are hearing about with context, adding analysis and context non-experts should know. That also means, she said, talking to people affected in different ways. She pointed out that only one unemployment number really matters to people: whether they have a job.
Part of connecting the dots, Schlesinger said, also means building the broader context of economic trends and systems into your reporting. Economic trends, such as the long-term trend of wage stagnation, don’t usually have simple policy causes or solutions. Economic experts can help add the context needed to frame the story. The economic crisis brought on by COVID, she said, has illustrated the need for deeper reporting on the complex underlying economic problems.

Data point: surveys show one top financial regret is not saving enough for emergencies or retirement. They also show that half of those surveyed say their top priority now is just paying their bills. More: Bankrate Latest survey

Recognize the limitations and opportunities of financial education

Hamrick pointed out that economic data can have limits or gaps, and it’s up to journalists to ask what – and who – is missing. The most truth, he said, comes from the people who are experiencing the financial challenges behind the data. Hensley added that “tips” only go so far, especially in such dire economic circumstances, and that financial education alone can’t make up for flawed policies or systems, but can help people navigate them. Schlesinger suggested framing stories about economic policy options as questions with multiple possible answers. Economics, she said, is built on data, but the analysis and interpretation of that data does lead people to different policy ideas, and even experts espouse different approaches.

Quick tip: When vetting experts, Epperson suggests looking up if they have donated to a campaign or party in order to establish their possible political leanings. When looking for more neutral expertise, certified financial planners with records free of disclosures or complaints are a good resource.

Find stories of hope and help

Sharon Epperson, CNBC, advises journalists to find and tell stories of hope and help, including reporting on resources that don’t normally get covered, like local nonprofit organizations. When the larger economic picture is out of an individual’s control, it helps to focus on what you can control. For many people in a news audience, that may mean finding alternate income streams for when unemployment benefits run out, especially as further federal aid remains pending. People need the tools to see where they can go from here.

Data point: Half of adults in the United States do not have a will, Schlesinger said. Journalists can help their audiences have those hard conversations and be proactive, at a time when so much is out of our control. Doing so can go a long way in helping people be prepared for the unexpected. Epperson added that she knows that’s true through her own personal experience.

Watch the full session, along with a panel of Personal Finance Reporting Award winners, for more tips and ideas here.