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Why financial media may add an edge to their tone

When the stock market was heading straight up, people couldn't get enough financial news. TVs were tuned to it in airport lounges, locker rooms, and sports bars. And newsstands were brimming with money magazines boldly taking investors where the market had never gone before.

Through articles and chat rooms, Americans became as conversant in P/E ratios as they were in Brad Pitt - a fact punctuated by the Charles Schwab ads featuring celebrities, such as tennis star Anna Kournikova, spouting investor-speak as if they were brokers.

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Now, the desire for stock quotes and CEO interviews has been tempered by the war on terrorism and the reality that the market is not attached to a helium balloon - an idea that sunk in with investors earlier this year when the Dow was down and it was clear stocks were not rebounding to where they were more than a year before.

Some investors have decided in recent months to forgo the do-it-yourself approach and are seeking the help of financial advisers. The press has also hit some bumps - thanks to a weak advertising market and the end of the dotcom boom - with magazines Family Money, Your Money, and Individual Investor closing this year.

Since the market leveled out, people may have noticed more talk about risk in the media - an approach some news outlets say they've always taken, although critics say there is a need for more.

"In the past nine months or so, there have been more articles on the notion that investing is a risky proposition. We didn't hear that before," says Gerald Perritt, a financial adviser and editor of a mutual-fund newsletter. "The media was basically reporting on what was going on in the markets, and the markets were going straight up."

This year, the news that the market wasn't rebounding hit home with investors, who weren't interested in the downsides during the good years, and still may not be, despite the fact that now is the time when people most need to understand what's going on.

"When times are great, people just don't want to hear about the potential thorns that come with the rose," says Bill Griffeth, an anchor at financial network CNBC.

As experts point out, most people who have come to investing in the past few decades haven't experienced a significant downturn, so for the public and some in the media, it's difficult to imagine and then act on such news.

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That's why there should have been more cautionary reporting during the time when stock prices were rising dramatically, says Newsweek financial columnist Jane Bryant Quinn. She says the media "didn't come anywhere close to writing these 'What If?' stories - 'What if your stocks fall 50 percent, will you still be OK?' "

The media's optimism may have been driven by a barrage of "buy" recommendations from brokerages and Wall Street analysts. Reports earlier this year revealed that some analysts were too beholden to the investment houses they represented, even carrying a financial stake in the stocks they touted.

Things are starting to look better, says John Curran, managing editor of Mutual Funds magazine. "The press is responding to the new environment in different ways, but I certainly think you see a more restrained approach to investing than was exhibited in the late '90s, and that's good,"

At Mr. Curran's magazine, stories have tried to emphasize that "there is real opportunity out there, so long as you approach the markets with smart ideas and a thorough understanding of your own financial situation," he says.

All optimism is not gone from the financial media, but there are more explanations about why people shouldn't expect double-digit returns from the next bull market. The public may also find more scrutiny of sources such as analysts and CEOs, say some industry observers, and more critical analysis on CNBC. "I always find it fascinating how people characterize our programming," says Mr. Griffeth. "It depends on their point of view at the time they are watching."

CNBC hasn't changed its editorial slant, he says. "We're covering this market with the same attitude we did when the market was going up."

But some people say the language the media uses has not changed nearly enough. Columnist Quinn takes issue with magazines that tout "best stocks" lists in order to sell copies. One of the great ironies, she says, is that business magazines are unable to give the best business advice because it would be too boring, as good money management often is. "They couldn't exist if they said every month: 'You'll do the best with an index fund.' "

What all this points to is that, after a year of down and downer, the public needs to be as savvy about the financial news it consumes as it is about other media.

CNBC's Griffeth says it's important to know who you are when you sit down to watch his network - know what your financial goals are - otherwise it might be confusing to figure out what information applies to you.

"I've always felt that a lot of people confused facts with knowledge," says Sheldon Jacobs, publisher of a mutual-fund newsletter. "I mean, you can watch CNBC and by the end of the day you're going to accumulate an awful lot of facts. How helpful this is to you is another matter completely."