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 bolded):
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.
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Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News