Three ways the news supports consumer culture
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Three ways the news supports consumer culture

December 28, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

US holiday retail sales up 4.9 percent from 2016, MasterCard says

Mastercard SpendingPulse said Tuesday that retail sales increased an estimated 4.9 percent between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24 compared to the same period last year. It was the largest year-over-year increase in holiday retail sales since 2011.

Read the full Raw Data here.

Distortion Highlights

  • Increased consumer spending has clear benefits for retailers, investors, workers and economic growth.
  • Yet the coverage we analyzed assumed increased sales were positive without explaining why or exploring any potential downsides.  
  • We examine this slant, and outline three ways media coverage can reinforce consumer culture.

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion.)

Top Spin Words

  • Pockets of weakness

    Pockets of weakness remain, a reminder of the challenges facing traditional retailers as they grapple with consumers’ shift to e-commerce. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Yen

    But signs of success were present all along, including a yen for home goods and electronics. (Bloomberg)

  • Bona fides

    Americans displayed their buying bona fides in the final run-up to Christmas, turning out in force to produce what may be the best holiday shopping season in years. (Bloomberg)

  • Christmas Cheer

    Retailers Feel Shoppers’ Christmas Cheer (The Wall Street Journal)

    Retailers are enjoying some extra Christmas cheer. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Final flurry

    Despite thousands of store closings this year, Americans supplied a final flurry of spending to give retailers their best holiday season sales since 2011, figures released Tuesday show. (USA Today)

  • Newfound buoyancy

    That newfound buoyancy is a relief to retailers—from department-store giants like Macy’s Inc. to mall favorites like Gap Inc.—that struggled through a difficult year of store closures, declining foot traffic and bankruptcies by chains including the Sports Authority, Toys ‘R’ Us and Payless Shoes. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Battered

    Still, the ever-growing shift to online shopping has battered many traditional retailers. (CNN)

  • Loves to spend

    A nation that loves to spend has plenty to feel good about, with low unemployment and a robust stock market. (Bloomberg)

  • Nemesis

    Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has rallied 40% on the year and, like online nemesis Amazon.com Inc., is trading near all-time highs. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Brunt

    Despite taking the brunt of closings this past year, even specialty apparel and department stores experienced moderate sales gains. (USA Today)

Increased consumer spending clearly has benefits for economic growth, employment and investors. Yet the media coverage of Mastercard’s retail sales report only focused on the positives — which made it slanted — and it largely did so in vague terms. More importantly, it supported an assumption that increased spending is good in general, without drawing attention to the fact that this is an assumption, and exploring it.

Such an exploration might seem beyond the scope of a simple retail sales article. Yet if most or all retail and economy stories are written this way, it can reinforce consumer culture without further examination. People may then assume that it’s good to spend — believing that the higher the sales, the better — without exploring how and why this is the case, or understanding ways in which it may not be.

Let’s examine the slant:

1. Positive opinion-based language

Media outlets include spin words that portray Mastercard’s report as positive for retailers. It likely is, but the outlets tell us with subjective and dramatic descriptions rather than data that would help readers understand why. Below are some examples (spin marked in red):

Retailers are enjoying some extra Christmas cheer. (The Wall Street Journal)

[Spending increases are] good news for retailers that need to finish strong after a difficult year. (CNNMoney)

In another sign of the overall sector’s strength… (USA Today)

[The] newfound buoyancy is a relief to retailers (The Wall Street Journal)

The data from the report can speak for itself, without reporters interpreting it for us.

2. Good for whom?

This point is related to the first. The outlets call the holiday season the “best” in years, but don’t specify who it’s benefiting:

Americans… [are] turning out in force to produce what may be the best holiday shopping season in years. (Bloomberg)

Americans supplied a final flurry of spending to give retailers their best holiday season sales since 2011 (USA Today)

It’s likely positive for retailers, investors, workers seeking jobs and others. But by not making these distinctions, the outlets may support an assumption that increased spending is good in general, rather than for specific people for specific reasons.

3. What about possible downsides?

The outlets included little to no balancing information — that is, information that would support perspectives other than the main one described above. (Indeed, the articles were between 69 and 88 percent slanted according to our ratings.)

Bloomberg didn’t include any alternate perspectives. Other publications presented some, but don’t fully balance the main point of view. For example:

“In a cautionary sign, however, credit-card delinquency rates jumped 16% in the third quarter, indicating consumers may be spending above their means and could slow their purchasing next year” (The Wall Street Journal).

The Journal does introduce a potential negative consequence of higher spending (increased personal debt), but it also implies that slower purchasing next year would be negative. In other words, it still supports the assumption that increased consumer spending is the main objective. Neither the Journal nor any of the other outlets examine or question this assumption.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 53% Spun

  • 56% Spun

  • 63% Spun

  • 63% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

USA Today

“Despite thousands of store closings this year, Americans supplied a final flurry of spending to give retailers their best holiday season sales since 2011, figures released Tuesday show.”

Nearly 7,000 stores closed this year. Mastercard SpendingPulse reported that consumer spending during the holiday shopping season, from Nov. 1 to Dec. 24, increased 4.9 percent compared to the same period last year.

The Wall Street Journal

“Pockets of weakness remain, a reminder of the challenges facing traditional retailers as they grapple with consumers’ shift to e-commerce.”

“IHS Markit expects [online shopping] will account for nearly one-fifth of holiday sales this year.”

Bloomberg

“The timing of Christmas didn’t hurt, either, with a full weekend for procrastinators to redeem themselves.”

This year Christmas was on a Monday, which meant the last two days of shopping before the holiday fell on the weekend.

Headlines

An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

“Christmas Cheer” doesn’t inform readers the same way actual dollar figures would.

A “Santa Claus rally” may make for an entertaining headline, but it doesn’t really tell us how much retailers sold.

Was Christmas not “merry” before this year? How so?

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

View Technical Sheet >