A panel of business reporters discuss the benefits of understanding economics and why you sometimes have to ask the stupid question.

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By Amy Tucker

Pairing courses in economics and business with a journalism degree will help young reporters ask the right questions when interviewing business experts, according to a panel of business reporters and editors taking part in a symposium hosted by the Journalism Society at Mount Royal University in Calgary Oct. 20.

Jeffrey Jones, reporter for The Globe and Mail's Report on Business, said asking the right questions of business professionals requires reporters to learn in advance about the topic at hand, which allows them to dig deeper during the interview.

“Ask good, clear questions,” Jones said, adding that you need to express what you learn from the answers with authority in your stories.

Chester Dawson, a Wall Street Journal correspondent covering Western Canada, added that since a reporter can’t master every business discipline, it is important to ask the “stupid” or simple questions for clarification.

“You get a lot of jargon,” said Dawson. “People use terms that they’re familiar with that you may not be.” He said asking such questions may prevent you from being stone-walled by your sources.

The panelists agreed that having background knowledge of the business world will  help a reporter identify business elements in news stories on non-business topics.

The Lac-Mégantic train disaster in Quebec in 2013 is an example of this, said Jones, as it involved many issues surrounding the oil boom. He argued that if a reporter has an understanding of business principles, such as supply and demand, she can extrapolate from the social story and highlight a related business issue.

“To have reporters who are well schooled in all aspects of that, you can really weave together quite an interesting story or series of stories,” said Jones.

The moderator of the panel, Toronto Star columnist Gillian Steward, said it can be difficult for a business journalist to identify an audience.

However, Jeremy van Loon, Calgary bureau chief of Bloomberg, said honing your soft skills will help make your interviews more conversational and your story more colourful.

“You will always have an audience for an interesting story,” said van Loon.

Stephen Marsters, director of the Daily Oil Bulletin, said from an editorial standpoint, he continually responds to what is most popular with and engaging to readers.

“At the end of the day we know exactly who are readers are and exactly what our readers are interested in,” said Marsters.

Paul Haavardsrud, a writer for the CBC, said business journalism is the front line of journalism. “You set the agenda for the news.”

[[{“fid”:”4917″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”attributes”:{“height”:888,”width”:592,”style”:”width: 75px; height: 113px; margin-left: 5px; margin-right: 5px; float: left;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”},”link_text”:null}]]Amy Tucker is an idea shaper, writer and photographer based in Calgary, AB. Currently a third year journalism student using her j-skills towards positive change for environmental and social justice. Reporter for the Calgary Journal. 

H.G. Watson was J-Source's managing editor from 2015 to 2018. She is a journalist based in Toronto. You can learn more about her at hgwatson.com.