There are a number of great seasonal clichés in journalism: the Christmas shopping story, the back-to-school story, the “spring is here” story. And, of course, there is the Memorial Day story, usually some kind of speculation about how crowded the roads are going to be, where families will be vacationing or the cost of gasoline.
This year, however, the New York Times hit an oil slick.
With gas prices climbing above $3 per gallon, the paper assumed it would be much too expensive for the great, unwashed masses to be vacationing this year. And thus we got a schizophrenic story yesterday about what actually happened to last weekend, headlined, “Holiday Travelers Hit the Road, but Scrimped a Bit.”
The first half of the piece is filled with anecdotal evidence — Pam and Matt Keith’s cancellation of their planned trip to Maui, Jeremy Miller’s decision to camp closer to home — leading Times reporter Jeff Bailey to conclude that Americans were “cutting their spending and downsizing their plans for summer trips. They’re taking shorter, less expensive trips, as it sinks in that higher gasoline prices might be more than a temporary annoyance. Others are staying closer to home.”
If that seems a bit thin, the premise truly disintegrates when the piece starts quoting experts, who completely contradict the thesis of the article. Scott Hoyt at Moody’s says, “We start seeing $4 gas, instead of $3, then I worry.” Joel Naroff, an economic advisor, tells the Times, “You need the perception among households that this is long-term. It’s getting there, but I don’t think we’re there yet.”
Even stranger is that just a few days earlier, the Times ran another article with this headline: “Gas Prices Aren’t Deterring Summer Travelers.” In that story, the reporter managed to find anecdotal evidence that proved that the pricey pump was playing no factor at all in vacation planning. Listen to Whitney Radia, for example: “I find it painful to pay for gasoline, as I am sure everyone else does, but gas prices didn’t occur to me as I was planning a road trip for the weekend.”
And the Times isn’t the only paper trying to figure out how to deal with new wrinkle to one of the seasonal favorites. The Los Angeles Times headlined its story, “Travelers Going Ahead Despite High Fuel Costs,” while the Washington Post, opting for the crisis version went with, “On Holiday Weekend, Game Plans for Gas Prices; Drivers and Businesses Strategize to Save Cash, Attract Customers.”
What we have here is the convergence of two bad habits. The first is the inertia of the lame seasonal story, as if somehow the sky would fall if the “vacationers hit the road for Memorial Day” story were to be left unwritten this year.
The second bad habit is even worse: inferring a trend based on speculative sociology. Reporters and editors apparently assumed that because gas prices were higher, Americans would change their behavior. This type of inference gets journalists in trouble every time.
We’d suggest that it’s time reporters and editors reconsidered the reflexive seasonal story - after all, “Americans head out on the road” is the sort of dog-bites-man piece that pretty much defines what isn’t news.
There’s plenty of time to make the change before Labor Day rolls around.