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Journalists are qualified to do their job

A long time ago, when I was cons-idering a career in journalism, the traditional entry route into the industry for most budding reporters was via a local newspaper.

Generally after A levels, you signed up to do your indentures, a two or three year apprenticeship interspersed by and concluded with a series of exams set by the National Council for Training in Journalism, at the end of which you qualified as a senior reporter.

I mention all this by way of a long-winded introduction to an issue that appears to trouble one or two readers, who have written emails to me in the past week – why is it that someone like me can pontificate all day, yet somehow has no need to obtain any qualifications?

The answer is that we do. Quite apart from NCTJ qualifications, around 8,000 students currently attend a proliferation of university media courses around the UK, most of which do not just teach media theory but also offer practical training for those who want to join the profession.

Others, myself included, have attended postgraduate journalism courses, which require further exams.

Such a reply will not satisfy those who would like to see financial journalists obtain the same qualifications they do.

I do not have any problem with journalists who want to pass financial advice exams but there are a number of points worth noting. The first is that this obsession about journalists obtaining qualifications relating to the industry they write about is unique to financial services. No one asks transport corres-pondents if they have piloted a plane or learnt to drive a train, football writers are never asked if they took their coaching badges before pontificating about Manchester United’s team selection.

Which is why in the near 20 years that I have covered the financial services industry in general and personal finance in particular, what has always amazed me is the crass way that some advisers try to deflect their own academic inadequacies by demanding that those who comment on their work should pass the rather minor qualifications they would rather not obtain themselves.

My second point is that advisers who feel all journalists should sit the same exams as they do confuse the different roles of scribes and financial advisers.

A journalist tries to bring together the opinions of so-called experts and write about them vaguely coherently. He or she may offer an opinion from time to time but any comments are always understood to be strictly those of the writer or broadcaster and they are never aimed at individual readers or viewers.

An IFA, by contrast, sits opposite a client who is paying him or her for advice that will, in all probability, affect the person’s financial future. The advice is supposedly tailored to the needs of that individual and is being given precisely because the adviser wants the client to take a specific course of action. It also results directly in a payment, either by commission or a fee.

It makes complete sense for the adviser to be required to demonstrate a proficiency in the subject he or she is discussing with the client, particularly if they earn money from that specific advice given.

This already ridiculous attempt to establish some pretend parity between journalists and advisers reached its nadir last week, with the publication of a letter in Money Marketing asking why it was that while a consumer can make a needless complaint about IFAs to the Financial Ombudsman, a journalist apparently gets away scot-free.

That was the general tenor of a letter to Money Marketing, proposing the setting up of a Journalists’ Monitoring Authority, whereby “any articles not properly researched will incur heavy fines.”

It is not clear precisely what the author means by “not properly researched” or whether such a general stricture would apply not just to journalists but also to financial advisers. Right now, a complaint to the FOS generally involves an allegation of poor advice as a consequence of which the client has lost out financially.

Lack of research in and of itself is not generally considered sufficient grounds for a complaint, which is probably just as well for some IFAs whose ill-prepared and barely legible advice plans I have seen.

Some of the proposals made were obvious cut-and-paste jobs based on the latest circulars from fund managers and insurance companies.

Luckily, their clients mostly chucked them in the bin – thereby not suffering any financial detriment and, therefore, not generating further complaints to the FOS.

Which is why my own question is not so much why journalists ought to have IFA-style qualifications but whether advisers should be required to learn to write in semi-intelligent English. Not even GCSE-level English, mind, 11-Plus would do for a start.

<B>Nic Cicutti can be contacted at nic@inspiredmoney.co.uk

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Comments

There are 31 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Well said Nick! Totally agree. Some IFAs (judging by their written output) appear to be barely literate.

  2. Methinks he doth protest a tad too much! Nice to see him slightly on the defensive for a change!

  3. wot rubbish! how can u say peeple in the industry r bearly litterate?

  4. Yeah But No But yeah But

    Things a bit slow for a Friday?

  5. I don’t think IFAs expect journalists to have qualifications if they are truly journalists . I think the issue is where journalist purport to give advice to consumers themselves and make out they are ‘experts’ when in fact they hold no relevant qualifcations and have never been in advisory role either… a certain website run by a person who claims to be such an expert and author of faddy books springs to mind.

  6. Can’t disagree with this – journalists observe,comment & inform, they don’t need the technical knowldge advisers do because they really aren’t influencing clients in the way advisers do.

    Of course there are those people who will believe everything they read in the press, but are the journalists really to blame? I don’t think so – more the gullibility of some individual acting on comments without full knowledge of the subject or what the consequences (often unintended might be).

    Yes, there are bad apples in journalism, there is sensationalist writing (which is obviously designed to sell papers rather than give balanced comment) which I detest because it is normally full of “if’s, could’s & possiblies”. I was on the receiving end of one attempt at a “sting” many years ago where the journalist basically lied about everything that had happened.

    There are bad apples in every industry/profession, just look at what the intention is before demanding that everybody commenting should have Level 4 or whatever.
    As Anonymous says, the literacy levels of some individuals does leave a lot to be desired, particularly in written English.

  7. He is right; it would be ridiculous to attempt to establish some pretend parity between journalists and advisers – and you would have to pretend, as journalists could never achieve that parity.
    He is also right about the FOS where complaints generally involve an allegation of poor advice. The problem is that even where the allegation is shown to be completely without foundation, the IFA still has to pay up.

  8. It is an interesting point. However regarding English GCSE the grammar in the article needs tidying up with less inappropriate use of the hyphen.

  9. I think Nick belittles his logic by his tone and somewhat offensive comments. My response follows:
    1. If journalists do not seek to ‘affect the person’s financial future’ too, then what are the objectives of their articles?
    2. A journalist’s article has mass circulation potential, therefore can achieve significant impact.Far greater than a personal consultation.
    3. Comparing financial advice to football comentary further belittles your point. Comments made about such professions are clearly interpreted as opinion, whereas comments on financial products appear more ‘black and white’.
    4. There is a very fine line between providing information and advice. A line that financial advisers have to clearly document, whereas the boundaries are less clear with journalists.
    5. Financial Advisers cannot use ‘similar’ qualifications to support their career and I struggle to understand how those of a journalist qualify them to provide what is often deemed as advice, not information or opinion. In addition, if the exams are so “minor” then what is the problem with Nick, or all financial journalists, taking them? It might be a good idea to do this around your current workload too?
    6. I see no difference between the Financial Adviser being paid to give advice or the journalist who is paid to write an article. Both should be based upon sound understanding, good judgement and provide a balanced arguement. On this basis, both ‘communicators’ should have the same level of expertise when commenting on the same subjects.
    7. If some documents are badly written by advisers, it is sometimes because they are aware that their clients do not value them greatly and they are merely trying to adhere to illogical compliance processes. FSA compliance processes make a mockery of writing in plain English and having the freedom afforded to journalists would be welcomed by many.

    Just like many areas of journalism in this country, it would feel revolutionary if journalists were to ever offer praise for a financial adviser or our industry. Why do you feel the need to be so negative?

  10. Light the blue touch paper. Stand well back and it must be Friday! Too much cage rattling going on at the moment from both sides.

  11. We were in the Sunday Times on Sunday… Given the feeback it was widely read. However 50% of what I allegedly said was not accurately reported and while none of what was written would cause an investor a problem it was not accurate.

    Many of the quotes I give out to FA & MM are inaccurately reported. But if advisers are a single word out in a report its meaning can be changed and the adviser is open to to censure or litigation. However if people read and take aciton based on the perceived advice of journalists and it is not accurate, then there is a problem.

    It is not that journalists should be qualified, although that might help. It is more that they should be more responsible for accuracy. I am sure they would be if they were writing about their own money or faced personal penalty if they got it wrong.

    Teh defence IFA’s aren’t that literate either is about as vlaid as an adivsers defence that he read a bit in a paper that said ti was OK..

  12. If IFAs expect journalists to have financial qualifications-then editors will expect any IFA writing editorial or advertorial to have journalism training and qualifications.

    And before taking potshots at financial journalists -remember that some of us also have financial qualifications-I am an ACII, have an economics degree from a top six university, write as an expert for the CII, and used to be a City broker.

  13. …and my Dad is bigger than your Dad!

  14. FSA has lately given guidelines of how only PR people in financial firms should be allowed to speak to the press as it has to be accountable and it has to be recorded, etc, if I understood them correctly. I cannot see why journalists should be treated differently. It is what they talk about that matters not which occupation they have.

    Secondly, I also think there is an impact on what is being said, depending on the size of the media the journalist is speaking from. If it is a small local paper what is being said may not have such an impact, but if we talk about the national press and TV station like the BBC, I think they have a huge impact. An example is how the BBC on News 24 and Sky News literally talked about how bad things were day and night when we headed for the recession. They talked about nothing else, and we saw where it all ended up, stock market, the banks and all. There is no doubt in my mind that we probably made the matters worse by having 24 hour television and the newspapers were not much better, coming to think of it.

    I think we all have got a responsibility when it comes to how financial information is being distributed, just as much as I would want freedom of the press and the right for all of us to express our views. I think there is a fine balancing act and I think it is a very important debate that we need to have.

  15. I have a CDM and am trained in eating chocolate.

  16. Nic should realise that the contempt he apparently has for some IFAs is heartily reciprocated.There are good and bad journalists.
    Personally I respect a journalist doing his job of reporting always provided he keeps his opinions separate from the actual reporting; where they merge however is where we are entitled to insist on knowing the basis for his opinion and if it is not first hand experience-eg at least some form of professional financial qualification-then we are entitled to ask who is he to pass judgment on us.
    Most of the knowledge journalists have on any technical aspect is passed to them by their contacts in the profession and many of us are only too happy to offer the advice. This is however a dangerous path because some journalists appear to be intellectually unable to grasp the finer points. This results in flawed and incorrect articles – references to “compulsory annuitisation” for example.
    The worst example of this was some years back when a financial journalist-a household name-wrote in a national paper about the evils of commission, claiming “some clients would be horrified to learn how much commission is paid on their investment bonds” (this long after commission disclosure was obligatory), IFAS “never used NSI products because there was no commission payable” (IFAs frequently use NSI products as part of a portfolio-check with Lytham St Annes) and a string of comparable remarks, similarly nonsensical. I wrote to the paper a very mild letter pointing out the article was a load of nonsense and never received a reply or even an acknowledgment. Some time later I discovered the journalist was no longer on the paper’s staff-the contract was not renewed- and the journalist was now freelance. The article had been the swansong.
    I am not sure what constitutes a good journalist-I suspect many publications would say it was one who provoked reaction and interest, even if that was only because his or her writings were so fatuous or extreme. Again personally, I would say it was one who held opinions based on hard evidence and deep conviction, who expressed them coherently and who was prepared to concede there may be other points of view just as valid. In this case if a major part of his Nic’s argument is that some IFAs are not terribly literate then he is a lot older than he looks. The modern world attaches much less importance to such things than Nic does; and as a matter of fact,and as the father of a recently university graduated son, I too rather mourn the passing of good grammar,sound spelling and other similar disciplines. They do not add up however to a good or bad IFA

  17. This article is a perfect illustration of the fact that qualifications do not necessarily make you better at your job.

  18. Paul Standerwick 1st October 2010 at 3:14 pm

    Who really cares what this guy thinks, I couldn’t even be bothered to finish reading the article.

    A message – Nick, I don’t want to know about you or hear your opinions, you have an over-inflated opinion of yourself and your opinions.

    If you want to be a useful journalist stick to unbiased facts.

  19. Jennifer Nicholls 1st October 2010 at 3:45 pm

    When it comes to writing, why do you get typed perscriptions now from your doctor? My kids school reports were always illegible.

  20. Suzanne Lubenko DipPFS 1st October 2010 at 3:45 pm

    A transport correspondent necessarily writes about his personal experience of transport and has practical experience of the subject, by being, for example, a motorist himself.

    Most financial journalists are not writing from personal experience of anything to do with finance, but are reporting their impressions and beliefs in relation to an industry/profession which covers numerous areas. In my view!

  21. Both sides of the argument are mute points. The internet will be the death of both. Advisers are soon to be replaced by a rodent and his comparison site. Professional journalists will find themselves competing futilely against Hunter S Thompson inspired Gonzo internet bloggers.

  22. As soon as I saw the title of this piece I knew that the face grinning out of the photo would be that of the original IFA-hating old hack.

    Mind you, given the number of page impressions he generates at least his employers are getting a return on the fee they paid him for this skoolboy rant.

  23. It is true that the journalism profession is changing dramatically, as is what is considered a “trained journalist.” While I agree that journalist don’t always need a degree in whatever field they work in, I also believe that industry insiders are sometimes more fit to talk about what is going on in their industry. I just read a interview series with some top experts that talk about the changes taking place in the journalism world, and what the future looks like- highly recommended – http://www.ourblook.com/component/option,com_sectionex/Itemid,200076/id,8/view,category/#catid6

  24. Well, you certainly provoked plenty of reaction, Nic!
    But, with great respect and after rather more than 20 years in journalism, I think that you and most of your respondents have overlooked a basic point. Journalists are and should be no more than well-informed members of the public. That does not absolve them from the need to be accurate and fair, which in practice necessitates knowing the subject they are writing about. But it does not follow from that that they should have formal professional qualifications in finance – nor, as you say, football coaching badges. Journalists must always be outsiders, and their readers always healthily critical and sceptical. If they are inaccurate, unfair or their comment has no value, then the market will ensure that their platforms are withdrawn. Readers will ignore them, editors will sack them. And rightly so. And the fact that a writer has professional qualifications, advertised or not, makes no difference to that discipline. The qualified insider is much less likely to point out the emperor’s new clothes.

  25. Agree with Nic on the trade press but think the consumer press, especially at the weekends, get away with murder. They certainly do offer opinion. Indeed they often make recommendations and stray into the realms of advice (biased and usually negative) with complete impunity.

  26. C’mon Nic – We are talking about level playing fields. You may well attend degree level courses and have to take exams. Most of us have to be tested on CPD each year and prove levels of attainment. But tell me – in your chosen profession would you be barred from your job if a new examination encompassing every aspect of a journalists job including knowledge of any regulations, press complaints committee were introduced at a specific date ?

  27. Just listened to the BBC news ( they are journalists aren’t they ?).

    In the space of a few mins they made 3 very basic mistakes regarding tax levels in relation to child benefit.

    Not talking concepts here – simply basic facts.

    I doubt if the average IFA could do as much damage in 30 years as the BBC is capable of doing in 3 minutes

  28. “some advisers try to deflect their own academic inadequacies by demanding that those who comment on their work should pass the rather minor qualifications they would rather not obtain themselves”

    1 I am one of the lucky ones who has never had difficulty passing exams – and I have them
    2 IFA qualification exams are not “minor”
    3 The difference between journalistic football commentators and financial commentators is that often the public regards what is in the articles as “advice” and they act upon it. There isn’t anyone in our profession who hasn’t heard comments from clients like, “Which (Money Mail etc.) says this is no good.”

    My own view is that, if the national press knows as little about the subjects of which I know very little, as they do about the subjects of which I have a very good knowledge, then the papers aren’t worth reading.

  29. Nasty Nic only puts out articles like this to get a reaction.
    he does not know enough about anything except winding up IFAs, whom he detests,to write a decent article.
    If he were a royal reporter he would have been found in the tunnel “hunting Diana”
    Just stop reading his rubbish that will shut him up.

  30. I wonder where people find all the time to get upset by this and write huge responses.

  31. Damn misssed this one!!

    I do not think the journalists should be qualified I think they should be CAS status so at least they know what they are on about.

    Clearly if this were the case then the media outlet employing the journalist would look for an employee who writes well.

    I would imagine they would have to learn that skill before applying.

    It is so amusing though that he can see the shortfall in IFAs inability to write but not financial journalists inability to communicate accurate information to their readers.

    That says it all really.

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