Writing sensitively about tragedy in your investment commentary or blog

Tragedy strikes more often than you’d like. It could be an event like the initial Malaysian Airlines plane disappearance, the Boston Marathon bombings, or something that happened in your community. Discussing tragedies can bring us closer together. It can make stale topics timely. However, it can also offend and disturb your readers, as discussed in “‘Epicurious’ Enrages Followers With Boston Bombings Tweets” on the Mashable blog or “This Guy’s Replies to 9/11 Brand Tweets Sum Up Everything That’s Wrong With 9/11 Brand Tweets.” You need to tread carefully. I have some thoughts about how to manage this challenge.

writing sensitively about tragedy infographic

1. Acknowledge the tragedy

Before you dive into the bottom-line implications of the events, acknowledge that it’s a tragedy that affects human lives. You might write something like “We are all hoping for a happy ending in the disturbing case of…” or “We are deeply distressed by the…”

2. Consider your context

Context matters. Let’s consider three scenarios for writing about airline stocks the day after the March 8 disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

Scenario one: Airlines analyst for a buy-side investment management firm

When you’re a securities analyst, writing about events that move stock prices is an essential part of your job. You can’t avoid it. Plus, if you’re a buy-side analyst, what you write will stay within your firm (unless you speak with the press). This gives you more freedom than writers who communicate with the general public. Your audience needs to know what effect an airlines disaster will have on the stocks you follow. In fact, it would be irresponsible to ignore the potential impact.

Still, you don’t want to be seen as gloating over an investment opportunity created by a tragedy. That’s ghoulish.

Scenario two: Wealth manager writing a client newsletter

When you write a newsletter for clients, you’ll have a feel for their sensibilities. Also, you’ll know what they expect from you—whether it’s coldly objective analysis or a warmly personal take on news that affects their finances.

If your clients value objectivity and data above all, I believe you can discuss the bottom-line implications of the tragedy after a quick acknowledgment of the sad event’s effect on people’s lives. Still, there may be more sensitive folks among your readers. Think about whether you need to discuss the tragedy now. If your newsletter discussion would be just as relevant later, then consider waiting.

Scenario three: Writer of a blog for general consumption

You’re at the greatest risk when you publish your thoughts in a medium that anyone can find online, such as a blog or op-ed piece. Tread carefully. Consider how you would feel if you or your family experienced the tragedy in question. Acknowledge that this is a serious event that hurts people. Be especially careful if you’re publishing where you’re likely to be read by people directly affected by the tragedy.

3. Consider the timing

Writing about a tragedy as it unfolds is different from writing about it six months or even one week later. Feelings are most raw in the early days. You must balance these emotions against the fact that whatever you write—especially if you’re an analyst covering securities that are directly affected by the tragedy—may be most valuable in those early days.

4. Get a second opinion

Not sure how your piece will be perceived? Ask someone you trust and respect for feedback. You’ll get the most helpful feedback from someone in your target audience, especially if they’re candid.

Depending on their audience, you may decide that an event is too painful for them to read about at this point.

YOUR opinion?

How would YOU like financial authors to deal with tragic events in their writing? I’m eager to hear your thoughts and insights.

(By the way, I’d like to thank the participant in my presentation to the Baltimore CFA Society who asked the question that sparked this blog post.)


Photo Credit: mharrsch via Compfight cc

4 replies
  1. Mark Spector
    Mark Spector says:

    This reminds me of, perhaps, the most insensitive internal memo I ever saw. It came while the same morning that the crash of flight XXX was in the news…

    “Our courier has just confirmed that the overnight pouch to Paris was on Flight XXX. Any materials sent via pouch yesterday will have to be resent.”

    This came right after a downsizing at our company and it just left us all the more infuriated with management. Opening this memo with a simple… “We understand how insignificant this may seem in light of what happened, however our courier…

  2. Gretchen Lembach
    Gretchen Lembach says:

    I worked at a Web site that featured commentary from hedge fund managers, where my job was to edit and post pieces as quickly as possible. Sept. 11, 2001, saw some truly beautiful writing from our contributors… and one of the most maudlin, self-aggrandizing pieces of dreck I’ve ever had the misfortune to read. Sometimes financial writing *can* go too far in the other direction. If you want to become part of the conversation around a tragedy, you must hit that delicate balance of just enough acknowledgement while still offering enough relevant information to make sure that people understand that you do legitimately have a reason to command their attention about such a topic when every media channel is already stuffed with coverage. Otherwise, you risk saying something for the sake of folks knowing that you’ve said something, which is just noise, or worse, a useless distraction.

  3. Susan Weiner, CFA
    Susan Weiner, CFA says:


    As you say, it’s hard to hit the right balance. I wonder if the writer of that awful piece had shown it to colleagues before it was submitted to your site. That might have helped.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment.

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