WaPo’s Wrong Spin on Retail

Here’s an example of how not to write an economy story.

The Washington Post this weekend reported on retail sales numbers, which were better than expected, meaning non-cataclysmic.

But the Post spun the numbers with a headline that said “Holiday Shoppers Rally for Retailers.” The problem is the numbers it puts up top.

The Commerce Department yesterday said retail sales in November fell 1.8 percent compared with the previous month — the fifth consecutive monthly decline, but not as steep as October’s 2.9 percent drop. Excluding restaurants and auto dealers, November retail sales dropped 2 percent compared with the previous month.

So the numbers fell, but the drop wasn’t as steep a fall as the previous month’s, so the numbers are “a glimmer of hope”? That’s a stretch.

The Post buries more salient information, the year-over-year numbers in the tenth paragraph:

But when compared with November 2007, sales plummeted 4.7 percent — a sign that shoppers are closely watching their wallets.

Not only that, but it gets a fact error there: The number is actually 7.4 percent, which makes the WaPo’s story look even worse. A 7.4 percent drop is dramatic.

The Times’s story is a better example of how to report the retail numbers. Its headline was “Retail Spending Weak in November.”

Retail sales posted a monthly decline of 1.8 percent from October to November and a 7.4 percent decline between last month and November 2007, the Commerce Department reported on Friday.

The Times doesn’t downplay the better-than-Wall-Street-expected numbers—it just puts them in better context.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.