We all have our annual Thanksgiving traditions, and for the news media it seems to be the annual reporting of the rising cost of the holiday meal. Brooke speaks with Columbia Journalism Review's Ryan Chittum about how these annual reports come about, and how they are misleading to consumers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And here is a local news report from 2011.
MAN: This year, the average Thanksgiving dinner will cost $49.20. That's almost six dollars more than last year.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And here’s another, from 2012.
WOMAN: Last year, a turkey dinner for ten people cost $49.20. This year, that price is climbing nearly 30 cents to $49.48.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And this year.
WOMAN: According to a recent survey, it will be just over $50 to feed a family of ten. That’s a roughly three-dollar increase over Thanksgiving of 2012.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We all have our Thanksgiving traditions, and for the news media, it seems to be the annual reporting on the rising cost of Thanksgiving dinner. And, according to the Columbia Journalism Review's Ryan Chittum, this is one tradition journalists traditionally screw up. Ryan, welcome to On the Media.
RYAN CHITTUM: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, reporters across the country aren’t actually going out on their own each year to investigate the costs of a Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, they all basically get the same press release, right?
RYAN CHITTUM: It’s true. The American Farm Bureau Federation puts out this release every year a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, where they go and average what a turkey costs across the country, and they look at cranberries and they look at stuffing and, you know, potatoes. They come up with a basket of about a dozen ingredients, add it all up and say, this is what it would take to feed ten people on Thanksgiving. And the press dutifully snaps it up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet, even though everyone is working off that same Farm Bureau press release, you say that different outlets use the information to different ends. How so?
RYAN CHITTUM: I guess it was a couple of years ago I noticed the Wall Street Journal editorial page doing a report that used this survey to hype, you know, runaway inflation. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, they have a hard money stance, so they're looking for signs of inflation everywhere, and they found it in a single data point from the Farm Bureau.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You also say that the information isn’t just sculpted by ideologues, that the mainstream press also distorts the Farm Bureau's findings, but for different reasons.
RYAN CHITTUM: The press is looking for conflict and it’s looking for tension. And reporters and editors, they want an angle that stimulates the reader and I’ve got to read this and outrages the reader. If you write, Thanksgiving bill is the same as last year or doesn't move much, that's not gonna grab attention.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, last year, when Thanksgiving dinner prices were up 28 cents, reporters still found a way to ratchet up that tension.
RYAN CHITTUM: Right. CNBC ran a story that said, turkey prices gobble up more of Thanksgiving bill. So that’s what I'm talking about when I say reporters looking for tension.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Whether you want to hype inflation or just hype the importance of your story, you’re distorting the findings for a reason, but sometimes it happens for no reason.
RYAN CHITTUM: Right, I mean, it’s kind of an old saw that journalists aren’t very good at math, and I’ve noticed a couple of just plain old math errors, CNBC saying the price of Thanksgiving dinner rose 3 percent, when it was really 0.6 percent.
And they didn't adjust for inflation, which they should have. And when you do that, you find out that the cost of Thanksgiving dinner fell 1.4 percent. And backing up a bit, just the idea that the Thanksgiving dinner is an important indicator of prices is fundamentally flawed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you use oil prices, you might have something that indicates something real.
RYAN CHITTUM: Right. Oil prices are one of the fundamental building blocks of the economy, but turkey prices aren’t, so –
The turkey price makes for a good headline, but as an indicator of the wider economy it’s a poor stand-in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I wonder how the media can handle it when the costs [LAUGHS] aren’t actually going up, like this year. I mean, should we expect a raft of stories that we’re in a big deflationary spiral?
RYAN CHITTUM: No.
And I think the press is biased towards seeing price increases. That’s just the psychological blind spot that most of us have. So I saw the Los Angeles Times say that Thanksgiving dinner costs falls from last year’s record to 49.04. They frame it as still being relatively high, at least, because last year was a record, when, in fact, if you look at the actual numbers and you adjust for inflation, which you have to, last year wasn’t a record at all. It was 12 dollars less than it was in 1986, in real terms.
When straight news gets it wrong, I think it’s just like, you know, [LAUGHS] this is an easy story, we’re gonna slap it together, sex it up a little bit. And we also don’t know how to do math [LAUGHS], so –
So, when you combine those things, you have a toxic stew.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Yuch! So that’s why you hate Thanksgiving.
RYAN CHITTUM: It’s my favorite holiday, I’ve got to say. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Ryan, thank you very much.
RYAN CHITTUM: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ryan Chittum reports on the business press for the Columbia Journalism Review.
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