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Nov 25 / King Kaufman

CJR: Watch the media swallow the same press release as last year

Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review slaps around journalists who every year parrot a press-release from the American Farm Bureau Federation about the cost of Thanksgiving dinner.

A couple of years ago, I noticed the hard money types at The Wall Street Journal editorial page hyping the “runaway inflation” signaled by this single datapoint, which was refuted by the rest of the data (not to mention that there were turkey supply constraints—unmentioned by the WSJ, of course— that drove up the cost that year):

We keep hearing that inflation has not gotten out of control despite all the Federal Reserve’s money creation over the last few years, but there’s at least one place where you’re seeing pretty substantial inflation.

I thought that was about as concise an example of misleading with anecdotes as you could find, and then I read this 2011 headline from MoneyNews, also a right-wing outlet:

Higher Thanksgiving Prices Show True Inflation Rate

Chittum points out that media outlets tend toward more dramatic angles, writing, “Your chances of getting your byline noticed are higher with a story that reads ‘Turkey prices gobble up more of Thanksgiving bill’ than with ‘Thanksgiving bill flat.’” That’s why you get the former headline on a story saying that a typical Thanksgiving dinner for 10 costs 28 cents more than the previous year, before adjusting for inflation.

There’s also “plain old journalistic innumeracy,” both in the sense of journalists often being bad at math and not really understanding mathematical concepts:

Thanksgiving prices count a dozen foods out of the hundreds the Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys to come up with overall food costs. They’re such a statistically insignificant sample that they’re not very meaningful.

I used to have fun annually with a similar story, lampooning that idiotic “lost productivity” figure that a career consulting company issued a press release about every year before the NCAA basketball tournament.

The point both times: Think critically—always, but especially when you’re reading a press release.