Why two media sources ranking the world’s wealthiest people is a good thing

While Forbes had the corner on the market for years in compiling a ranking of the world’s richest people, there is now another option: this week Bloomberg released its Billionaires Index. One commentator thinks we don’t need both Forbes and Bloomberg examining this topic:

The Forbes list, available online today, is published every March. (Its companion, the “Forbes 400” list of richest Americans published in September.) It’s hard to not feel that Bloomberg’s outing takes some of the air out of Forbes usually-hyped cover story on who are the world’s richest people. This year’s edition proves unexciting not only because there were few shake-ups in the top spots from 2011’s list, but also because these rankings don’t appear all that different from Bloomberg’s.

Highlights from 2012’s version: With $69 billion, Mexico’s Carlos Slim Helu ranks No. 1 again for the third year in the row. (The magazine also profiled him.) Helu was followed by another 1,225 billionaires, starting with Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Bernard Arnault (of Louis Vuitton fame), who were also two through four last year. But beside no one being knocked off the top of this year’s Forbes list, it’s markedly similar to how rich Bloomberg News told us these folks were. Here’s a side-by-side comparison, with Forbes on the left and Bloomberg on the right.

So there are slight differences. Bloomberg has Arnault one spot lower and places fashion mogul Amancio Ortega down to seventh. Bloomberg puts the Koch brothers in the top 10, whereas Forbes had them both pegged at 12th. But isn’t this hair-splitting? If anything, the discrepancies show how hard it is to measure rich people’s riches.

What today’s Forbes list shows more than anything is that we don’t need two billionaires lists reminding us how wealthy the wealthy are. If we had to choose one, we’d go with Bloomberg’s, since it’s updated daily instead of once a year. But we doubt that will stop Forbes from producing its longstanding annual issue as long folks keep buying it.

I disagree. Here is why: I think that having two media sources looking at this topic will actually give readers better information. With two publications tackling the subject, I hope this improves their measurement of wealth for both publications. Perhaps we could average the rankings across the publications to get a more accurate assessment of what is going on. In the end, two sets of people looking at the data is better than one. Because Bloomberg is updating this list daily, perhaps this will push Forbes to update their lists more frequently and move away from a magazine era schedule to an Internet era schedule. The two lists do have some differences and this is not inconsequential. Lots of people are interested in this list and I’m sure some of the people at the top of the list have some interest in where they rank. Of course, these differences can indicate “how hard it is to measure rich people’s riches” but this doesn’t mean we should just throw up our hands and go with one list. Just because these people are really wealthy doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have more fine-grained analysis of their financial holdings. (This sometimes seems to happen quite a bit in sociology: we assume we know about the elites and so spend more time studying marginalized groups but we have fewer in-depth studies of the elites who do have a lot of influence in society.)

A second issue: Bloomberg obviously thinks there is a market for another list that is updated daily and so this is a market decision as well as a journalistic interest in updating this information more frequently. The Forbes list always gets a lot of attention and Bloomberg probably wants to draw away some of that market. I imagine there is enough room in the market for both lists to survive, particularly as the two could serve different markets. However, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the media responds to changes in the Bloomberg list: if someone moves up from #3 to #2 in the next few days, will there be news stories about it? Will journalists providing background information about the wealthy reference the Forbes or the Bloomberg list?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s