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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Always dig beyond the ‘exciting’ headline to get to the facts of the story

Recent articles about companies in the region have made me more aware than usual of the need to spare no effort in understanding exactly what is being written

The whole point of my articles is are to help provide an alternative lens in interpreting financial statements.  Getty Images
The whole point of my articles is are to help provide an alternative lens in interpreting financial statements. Getty Images

I prefer to use numbers to discuss issues because it is harder to manipulate numbers. Words are easy to manipulate. But I still receive comments saying that when I analyse financial statements provided by companies, especially banks, I am not reading the accompanying management statements to understand the numbers.

The whole point of my articles are to help provide an alternative lens in interpreting financial statements. It is because the numbers can give a different view than management’s discussion. The same can be said of stories reported by business journalists and not just what companies say. Recent articles about companies in the region have made me more aware than usual of the need to spare no effort in understanding exactly what is being written.

While I am not a journalist by profession, I can offer some insight, both as a consumer of financial news and as a regular columnist for this newspaper.

With this article I’d like to show how even financial information that is qualitative rather than quantitative can rationally be explained in a manner quite different from the original presentation and I provide a few points below that are worth remembering when reading articles in the financial press.

Headlines from global news agencies can often scream out at you. Don’t stop there. Always read the article. Often, the title, by not making any specific clarifications about the story can leave the reader with the wrong idea.

The very first sentence of an article can often directly contradict the statement and implicit assumptions of the title, so always read on beyond any potential inconsistencies.

When something is tagged as “exclusive”, ask yourself what exactly is exclusive about the information in it. If the source is exclusive, then it should not have to be unnamed, if it is the information then is that explained? It might just simply be that no other media outlet has thought of writing on this topic, which could apply to any article, justifiably or otherwise.

Unnamed sources are a useful tool for journalists and companies alike, but comments made by those unwilling or unable to provide their name should be treated with some degree of extra caution when reading any story quoting them. Even more so if the headline mentions the information being attributed to “sources”. Of course, people avoid using their name when disclosing sensitive information but when someone avoids using their name when giving an analysis or opinion then it seems fishy. What is there to to hide? Keep that in mind.

The language in a typical business story can often be overly-dramatic, necessary for interest’s sake but again this has the potential to confuse. Expressions used such as “scrambling to secure” financing or a deal do not represent the reality of doing business. When I read this I think to myself, since when does any global company have to “scramble” to do anything?

It is also worth noting that the very reason an article is deemed newsworthy is a link to a particular individual or company. Seek out the basis for this link. Ask if there really is any liability on their part, whether to customers, investors or others. Are there other companies and vehicles involved that have greater liability? Can the person or company linked in the article actually take a decision on the matter? Also from what point of view is the article being written? From the point of a shareholder, creditor or otherwise? For each there is a professional and rational thing to do and they won’t always agree and this can cause ill feelings for some. This takes a bit of work but if you are going to believe what you are reading then it is worth knowing the background, context and history of a topic if you don’t already. Now that you’re interested thanks to the exciting headline and dramatic writing, take a deeper look into the topic and do some research.

When you come across technical terms you don’t necessarily fully understand, look them up, because it might be the case that the journalist has an even more slender grasp but used it anyway because of the need for drama to peak the reader’s interest.

Finally, read every article to the end. Sometimes the story can only be made clear in the final paragraph or sentence as a material fact or piece of information might be too complex or clunky to include further up – the editor might have moved that lower to avoid letting the reader get bogged down in jargon or technicalities too early on and potentially lose interest.

The closing line to an article can often be the most shocking. Or not.

Sabah al-Binali is an active investor and entrepreneurial leader with a track record

of growing companies in the Mena region. You can read more of his thoughts at al-binali.com