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Know the timelines in your reporting

July 22, 2021

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People you interview may say something that is blatantly false or true, and you might be able to verify, one way or the other.

But often there are relative truths that depend on time. This used to be true, it’s true now, or it will be true in the future. But for how long.

Stepping out of business journalism for a moment, Antonio Regalado, who writes about biotech for Technology Review, a few months ago tweeted that, in the context limits on embryo research, “biologists have plans to take down the most important stop sign of them all: the 14-day rule.”

“In the updated guidelines, we heard from several sources, that growing human embryos or models beyond 14 days would no longer be prohibited,” he further tweeted.

And then, the kicker, that “scientists often cite it when reporters ask about their embryo creations” but “what’s not as honest, lately, is saying this knowing the rule is going away.”

Some truths are eternal; others, temporal. Something that applies one day may not the next. One more example outside of business, the classic interview in which Bill Clinton used the “meaning of the word ‘is,’” to excuse misleading people about an affair he already had. All in the timing, and I remember at the time hearing an interview with him, noting the use of the word “is,” and wondering why the interviewer hadn’t immediately caught that.

The use of time to be ethically and morally questionable, even if legally not, also appears in business. For example, in 2016, Scott D. Graffin and Steven Boivie wrote in the Harvard Business Review that “firms try to anticipate and manage market reactions to major company news by releasing other important information, or ‘strategic noise,’ around the same time.”

Our findings suggest that by announcing a new CEO appointment alongside other important news, such as the firm’s annual earnings announcement or a change in its dividend policy, it becomes harder to point to the immediate stock market reaction as being diagnostic of how shareholders felt about the new CEO. In other words, if the reaction is good, then the firm can use that as an example of the market embracing the new CEO. But if the reaction is bad, the firm can spin it as being related to the other news announced simultaneously. The strategic noise gives the firm and the new CEO plausible deniability. Interviews with board members confirmed this idea.

Also in the announcement realm, many companies provide an earnings press release before the 10-K or 10-Q, which may have more ambivalent or negative information, comes out. The initial release gets the press attention and there’s little digging into the following details.

Or when a company receives criticism and immediately touts its new initiative to “change” things, which may be sincere or also can be an attempt to shift forward in time to eradicate the existence of the criticism, with a “that was then, this is now” follow-up.

Keep an eye on the timeline when reporting. Many in business will use it as a form of camouflage.

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