Beyond the Numbers: Stories Enliven Data

From Journalists

At the Society of American Business Editors and Writers fall workshop in October, NEFE President and CEO Ted Beck told financial journalists: “None of you have this on your resume, but you are all teachers.”

While data drives much of the news coverage in the Information Age, journalists are the ones educating their audi¬ences on what it all means. Numbers might be the headline, but stories from real people provide relevance, build cred¬ibility and, most importantly, help the audience connect to the topic in a meaningful way.

 SABEW panel
Kelli Grant of CNBC, Blake Ellis of CNNMoney and Mandi Woodruff of Yahoo Finance (left to right)

For example, each month when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics releases data on the number of jobs created, most news outlets run headlines that say: “Unemployment Up” or “Unemployment Down.”

The better employment story, said veteran journalist Bob Sullivan in his keynote speech at the NEFE-SABEW event, puts those numbers in the context of people’s lives. It intro¬duces you to the 64-year-old mother working at Wal-Mart to pay off a $100,000 student loan that she took out for her daughter to pursue a career in social work. It informs readers when $30-an-hour jobs have been replaced with $12-an-hour jobs, Sullivan said. And it speaks to the anxiety that Americans—employed or not—are feeling every day.

“There’s nothing worse than telling people everything is fine when they know it’s not,” Sullivan said. “We don’t have mass bread lines, but we have mass lines for Xanax.”

Media’s Teachable Moments

Journalists are teachers not only in how they tell their sto¬ries, but in which stories they choose to tell.

“We keep hearing that ‘retirees are screwed,’ ‘Millennials are screwed,’” Beck says, “but these headlines don’t show the whole picture. Personal finance stories can engage and inspire people to change their behaviors. But negative pronouncements also can discourage people and scare them into inaction.”

Storytelling emerged as a theme throughout the SABEW event, which NEFE sponsored for the second year. Panel top¬ics ranged from Consumers in Credit Distress to Covering the Financial Impacts of Disaster and Aging and Finances.

Hearing about other people’s experiences—whether good or bad—engages the audience in a way that statistics cannot. And when the audience is engaged, says NEFE Director of Education Billy Hensley, Ph.D., they are learning.

“NEFE has known for a long time that sharing personal stories plays a crucial role in financial education,” Hensley says. “It makes sense that the same can be seen in personal finance journalism. Stories help the listener—or the reader, or the viewer—have empathy and ask him or herself, ‘what would I have done if I were in that situation?’”

Learning from Conflict

While personal stories help readers engage with finan¬cial issues on a deeper level, there also can be unintended consequences.

 Author and journalist Bob Sullivan  NEFE CEO Ted Beck

Sullivan, who spent nearly 20 years at and NBC News, now covers consumer and technology issues as an independent journalist. In his ongoing series called The Restless Project, Sullivan posts a real fam¬ily’s budget on his blog each week to illustrate the stress felt by Americans in nearly every income bracket.

Recently Sullivan shared the budget of a Texas family struggling to make ends meet despite a six-figure annual income. The family was finan¬cially devastated when their infant son was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Their son recovered, but the family still lives paycheck to paycheck.

The response from readers was unsympathetic. In fact, Sullivan said, the vitriol directed at this family was unlike anything he has ever seen. Readers condemned the family’s $2,700-per-month mortgage as extrava¬gant and irresponsible—some going so far as to say that the couple’s son deserved to die.

Sullivan attributes these hateful responses to the heightened anxiety felt by nearly everyone at all economic levels—and the unfortunate ten¬dency to attack people rather than addressing the structural roots of the problem. But, he added, telling real people’s stories is still the best way to humanize personal finance issues and create better understanding of our common struggles.

Even a negative reaction can be a teachable moment, Hensley says. “Every learning experience doesn’t have to be positive—conflict and dis¬agreement are teaching opportunities too.” Financial educators can use the public’s engagement with these top¬ics to encourage self-examination and reflection. For example, financial educators could guide people such as the readers who criticized the Texas family’s spending to apply the same critical eye to their own budgets.

“These stories are teaching tools,” Hensley says. “Journalists can’t always capitalize on the teachable moments, but financial educators can.”

More Stories in Personal Finance Journalism

  • Blake Ellis, a senior personal finance writer at, said if not for the insights she gained writing about one same-sex couple’s difficulties filing joint federal taxes, she might have never investigated similar issues faced by same-sex couples with regard to health and life insurance benefits—reporting that earned Ellis numerous awards and brought to light the financial challenges unique to lesbian and gay couples.
  • Joe Ryan of Newsday said he didn’t know where to begin reporting on the effects of Hurricane Sandy until he walked the ravaged neighborhoods of Long Island knocking on doors. He found families caught in red tape and insurance loopholes—such as the Amityville, N.Y., couple who discovered when they went to cash the $20,000 check from their insurance company that the couple’s mortgage lender also had to endorse the check—which the bank refused to do until the repairs were completed.
  • For her reporting on Millennials, Mandi Woodruff of Yahoo Finance, a 20-something herself, said she draws upon her own experience as a recent college grad who was laid off and had to scramble to make it in a big city. Woodruff said real stories—such as a young woman Woodruff profiled who works six jobs to support herself—often run counter to perceptions of Millennials as lazy and entitled.
  • During the Aging and Finances panel, Lauren Young of Reuters, who has been gathering personal stories from retirees, was asked if she has uncovered any positive news about getting older. Young replied that, in contrast to the bad news in the media about the prospects for comfortable retirement, the retirees she has interviewed are “the happiest they have ever been."


  • Paul Golden

    Media Relations Director

    Direct: 303-224-3514
    Cell: 303-918-3620
    [email protected]


  • Paul Golden

    Media Relations Director

    Direct: 303-224-3514
    Cell: 303-918-3620
    [email protected]