How to read an MSM business article

Facts are sacred to the main stream media. Don’t laugh, it’s true. Facts are sacred. But more so is context, because putting facts into ‘context’ gives you framing.

And with the right framing, you can fit any facts into whatever narrative you want or are paid to peddle.

Let’s follow some facts as Independent’s kid brother, the i, slots them into context throughout a business story. Business pieces are a great way to study framing because it seems to be a point of pride among business journalists to do it as blatantly as they can.

The over-arching narrative of the MSM is that endlessly-growing consumption is the natural state of things. Degrowth, in any degree, is to be ignored. If it they can’t ignore it they deny it. If they can’t deny it, they can always put it into context.

In this case, the article puts a bucket load of degrowth into the context of a cheery photo of two seaside sunbathers under the headline: “Late summer sun drives up food sales amid Brexit gloom.”

Factually, that is defensible enough. August ended on a sunny note. We’ll assume the body of the story will quantify a rise in food sales. And Brexit is giving people and the economy lots to be gloomy about.

The juxtaposition of ‘sun’ and ‘gloom’—the narrative function of the former usually being to dispel the latter—adds a serendipitous note of optimism.

And indeed, grocery sales are ‘blooming’ according to the opening sentence, hinting at luxuriant, bursting growth. Since 60-80 per cent of readers rarely read beyond the headlines, the article’s job is already done. Things are a bit slow on the swings but the economy is making up for it on the roundabouts.

In reality, the story reports that, while “the summer weather gave a small boost [0.5 per cent] to food sales, this was cancelled out by a drop in non-food sales.”

Down is up. Up is down

The article is making the phrase ‘cancelled out’ do a lot of work. It eventually reports that non-food sales over the period declined 3 per cent on like-for-like and total bases.

The article is half over before the meaningful comparisons arrive. Over the three months to August, food sales actually decreased (de-bloomed?) 0.3 per cent on a like-for-like basis. That’s a ratio of food up one, non-food down six.

The 0.5 per cent increase reported at the top of the article was on a total basis: which is not the metric preferred by investors and analysts.

You have to feel a bit sorry for business journalists who have to assemble these identikit articles. First, they know over half the audience won’t read past the headline and photo caption. The writers might as well copy and paste a few stanzas of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and leave the sub editor to add a flag-waving headline and jolly caption.

But because 10 per cent of us do read all the way to the end, hacks still have to make the effort to arrange those awkward facts so they appear to reinforce the ‘everything will be all right’ narrative. Fortunately, there are always spokespeople for industry bodies to fall back on for an optimistic (ish) quote. I particularly admired the one from the food and drink tradesperson, who blamed that, er, blooming decrease in like-for-like food sales on shoppers being slow to build up their Brexit survival stashes.

Whose facts are best?

For good measure, the article offers two contradictory facts about stockpiling. It reports the food and drink body saying only 3 per cent of shoppers have started to load up for Brexit. Then it reports a Barclaycard poll that found 20 per cent of ‘consumers’ are stockpiling. Neither piece of reporting is fake news. But both statements being reported cannot be true at the same time unless the samples were not at all comparable.

And as an aside, as I keep saying, calling people ‘consumers’ in news stories is lazy and rude. It is not incorrect—to the elites and the economists who wait at their table we proles only have value as units of consumption. But they could at least pretend their readers are humans. If they showed some sign of awareness about what they call us, maybe more people would pay for their content.

Finally, no matter how dire the facts, no matter how awful the prospect, every MSM business story is contractually obliged to finish on a hopeful note.

Thank the lord, then, for Barclaycard. One of their surveys found that ‘consumers’ spent 10 per cent more in pubs and 8.6 per cent more in restaurants compared to last August. Curiously though, this news is not given any context. Is it a like for like comparison? Haven’t travel companies been reporting lower take up of overseas holidays this year? That would affect the number of people eating out in the UK this summer.

And so to the upbeat closer:

”Spending in discount stores also bucked the more muted general trend, with growth in expenditure increasing by 8 per cent year-on-year in signs that many consumers are seeking better value for money.”

Translation: years of austerity and negative real wage growth have left more people skint and unable to afford even a cheap package holiday. They’re hitting the booze and fast food to numb the misery and shopping at Poundland.

And that, if you’re not one of the 5 per cent, is what passes for an upbeat ending to a news story these days.

(PS. I’d have included a link to the online version of this story but I couldn’t locate it on either *Indy* web site. Perhaps it really was only worth the paper it was printed on).

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