Media were real Christmas Grinch

Gloomy headlines told inaccurate story about the reality of holiday retail sales

by David Kopel

Jan. 5, 2003, Rocky Mountain News

The news media were full of terrible news about Christmas sales, including the Dec. 24 story in the News, "Grinch grabs Christmas cheer."

Despite the gloomy headlines and tone of these stories, the facts from the articles told another story: Christmas sales set an all-time record, up 1.5 percent from last year's best-ever sales. The increase in sales was the lowest in 30 years, but a small increase from a record high is still a new record high.

Since inflation was about 2 percent, the population is slightly larger and the number of post-Thanksgiving shopping days fewer in 2002 than in 2001, an accurate headline and article might have said "Christmas sales stable," instead of the overly gloomy picture painted by most of the media.

Kudos to News religion writer Jean Torkelson, whose multistory Christmas feature reported on the extensive persecution of Christians around the world - one of the stories most overlooked by the American media.

More so than any other state, Colorado's economy is dependent on skiing, and a huge fraction of the population is interested in skiing. For coverage of competitive skiing, the Post is the winner. In November, for example, it assigned John Meyer to cover the races in Park City, Utah, rather than rely on the Associated Press, as the News did.

But for personal skiing advice, the News comes out way ahead. Each paper has a snowboarding columnist, but only the News offers a regular column of ski instructions.

Craig McNeil's columns are even better this year, since they use large photographs to show proper and improper positioning. This is much easier than trying to figure out how to ski just by reading text - which is sort of like reading a text-only manual about how to drive with your elbows.

This winter the News has introduced a third ski columnist, "Extremely Wimpy," who offers advice for beginning skiers and families - such as how to avoid places where small children might be endangered by out-of-control speeding teenagers. It's full of practical ideas.

The daily ski reports that appear in both papers, though, are sometimes disappointingly unreliable. They're accurate about the number of lifts and amount of terrain that's open, but not about snow conditions.

Resorts sometimes use "packed powder" to describe ski conditions that would more accurately be described as "skied-off, miserable hard pack and ice, with isolated packed powder in a few spots."

The sports pages of the News and the Post helped themselves to some holiday mirth at the expense of gun owners - but made themselves look ignorant.

A short item on the front page of the Dec. 24 News sports section announced that handgun manufacturer Smith & Wesson is introducing logo-branded golf clubs. The News claimed that "Marketing analysts said the move may carry risks," and supported this claim with a quote from a single marketing consultant who compared the program to "Philip Morris putting its brand on cheese."

The News and its "analysts" were apparently unaware that Smith & Wesson has been making money on branded products for many years. A casual look at the company's Web site would have revealed dozens of logo items currently being sold, including watches, toy trucks, screwdriver sets and chili sauce.

The front page of the Post's Dec. 18 sports section featured Woody Paige using most of his column to chortle over the idea that somebody might give a firearm as a Christmas present.

Paige said his column was inspired by an advertisement for a pre-Christmas gun sale from The Firing-Line, an Aurora gun store. Paige described various gift scenarios, filling in firearms from the ad. Deciding about giving his mother "a rifle rather than a robe," he pondered the Springfield XD-40 4" model and the Leupold rifle scope that he'd get for her, too.

Very droll, except that the Springfield gun is a handgun, not a rifle.

As the name indicates, the gun has a 4-inch barrel, about a foot too short to be a rifle. If Paige couldn't be bothered to check Springfield's Web site or to ask a colleague who knows a little bit about guns, a copy editor should have caught it.

If you've got two different ways of winning something, and the odds against each one are 8:1, then your overall chance of winning is about 21 percent.

But the front page of the Post's Dec. 29 NFL Sunday section analyzed two playoff scenarios for the Broncos (each of which was given 8:1 odds by a Las Vegas expert) and said the team had an overall 12.5 percent chance.

The Post didn't understand that 8:1 odds means that the event has a one in nine chance of occurring (not a one in eight chance), and that two different 8:1 scenarios give you almost twice as much of a chance as a single such scenario.

Speaking of stupid mistakes, in my Dec. 8 column, I wrote that "Daisy" from The Great Gatsby was married to Jay Gatsby.

Although Daisy and Gatsby were lovers, Daisy was married to Tom Buchanan.

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