Better Consumer Finance Reporting

by May 24, 2016

Amid the rush to cover corporate earnings or the latest big acquisition, reporters often skip over consumer stories. But helping out the reader is a basic tenet of journalism, and personal finance reporting remains a meaningful way of touching readers where they truly feel it. Unfortunately, too much personal finance journalism starts with press releases or surveys from financial services companies rather than from nuts and bolts reporting — yet it needn’t be that way. A few places where seeds of good stories are nearly always lurking folow:

In the fine print.

Every financial agreement you sign today has some caveats that can cost you dearly. By law, for instance, you are supposed to “opt in” to the right to overdraw your checking account (at a charge of $35 or more per infraction). But do people actually do that? Do they know that it’s a choice—or what it costs them? Jessica Silver-Greenberg of the New York Times is a star at finding these stories, from the numerous clauses that require arbitrating any disagreements—at a disadvantage to the consumer—to hidden fees that cost ordinary people lots of money.

In the fees and rates.

Speaking of those fees, reporters might struggle with knowing what’s reasonable and what’s not. Service companies have to earn a living, for sure, but consumers shouldn’t pay too much. But comparing prices, or even student-debt interest rates, is often unreasonably difficult or daunting. Clear reporting and writing can make a difference to readers.

In day-to-day living.

Truth is, most of us are too busy to clean out the refrigerator, never mind shop around for better deals on car insurance, cellphones or Internet service. While we could assume people are too lazyto go to the trouble, bottom line: sorting through financial services offerings remains challenging. You need advanced algebra to compare cellphone plans, with their different charges for service, phones and data used. And while you might possibly save 15 percent by switching to Geico, it will almost certainly take you more than 15 minutes. Give your readers a hand by showing them the way.

In the permanent record.

Oh, yes, you do have a permanent record: your credit report. And what’s in there can affect not just your mortgage or auto loan rate, but also your car insurance rates and even your ability to land some jobs. Yet what goes into the report, and the way that information is molded into various scores, is baffling. How the reports work, how errors are (or are not) addressed and the impact of the financial crisis a decade later on our creditworthiness remain meaty issues.

In the big decisions.

Remember the first time you had to choose a 401(k) or other retirement plan? Could it have been any more complicated? I’ve been writing about investing off and on for decades now, and I still feel anxious when I must make investment choices in my 401(k). For many people, choosing a retirement option, borrowing for college or picking a health plan feels scary, laden with confusing  jargon. Explaining the options and the consequences, in much the same way health and exercise are covered, can demystify the process. Admittedly, business staffs are often thin and companies feel challenged to commit resources to consumer issues. But every beat reporter, whether the subject is technology, travel, banking or real estate, can add it to the mix–enlivening the coverage and truly offering readers a public service.