We all understand that our news media’s job is to keep us aware of and informed about not just dramatic events, but also the serious problems our society faces. We expect journalists in our modern democracies to exercise the civic duty of reporting significant events and providing a minimum of essential perspective on them.
Acknowledging this solemn responsibility doesn’t mean that the news must always be about dramatic events and civilizational crises. News is also entertainment. A lot of what we want to read about may be little more than social gossip. The media thus provides a very useful purpose: sharing with us a diversity of matter that may feed our chatter among family and friends.
Still, any responsible media should help its public to distinguish between the different types of stories it reports and the degree of urgency each one merits. Alas, not all media respect that discipline. There is a comprehensible reason for that. Media outlets expect every item their journalists produce will be optimally designed to attract their readership’s interest or curiosity. Unfortunately, this intent can lead to exaggerating the significance or even the nature of a reported event or fact.
An ABC News story with a decidedly dramatic title, “Italy’s government convenes talks amid skyrocketing pasta prices” offers an example of how such journalistic practices can get out of hand. We live in an age of high drama that has accustomed us to hear regularly about the risk of climate catastrophe, the next pandemic, a new Cold War and the impending threat of nuclear war. In such a context, the idea of an issue that requires “convening talks” at the highest level of government and that addresses an out-of-control (“skyrocketing”) trend will quite naturally justify the kind headline guaranteed to attract serious readers.
The first sentence in the article makes it clear that the issue merits the highest level of urgency. “Italy’s government is on full alert following a national problem: skyrocketing Pasta prices.”
Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:
The appropriate reaction of any government to an event that the worst practitioners in the media believe will attract the public’s attention.
Concerned that some readers may underestimate the gravity of a crisis affecting what everyone understands to be an inexpensive food commodity, ABC’s reporter, Emma Ogao, offers some startling figures that define the amplitude of the crisis. “The price of pasta rose for two consecutive months, by 17.5% in March followed by a 16.5% rise in April – when compared to the same periods a year earlier, according to the Italian National Institute of Statistics.”
The average reader will be forgiven for thinking that over a two-month period the price of pasta rose by a whopping 34% (17.5 + 16.5). The historically-minded might be tempted to relate this price explosion to the inflation crisis of Weimar Germany or 20th century Argentina that devastated the capacity to govern those countries. But the figures Ogao mentions, impressive as they are, cannot and should not be added up. They are comparisons with the monthly figures from the previous year. What these two figures really mean, when broken down, is that the average annual rate of inflation during those two months was 17%, twice the general rate of inflation in Italy, a point she did make earlier in the article. This rise in prices is unusual, especially compared to the falling price of durum wheat, from which pasta is made. But in itself the rise is not alarming, not even for Italians who are supposedly addicted to pasta.
Ogao provides no other figures to clarify the price rise, but she does provide a figure for the average annual consumption of pasta per citizen: 23 kilos. To understand the facts, a curious reader will have to consult a much more informative and less sensationalist article from CBS News that nevertheless bears the somewhat alarming title, “Italy calls a crisis meeting after pasta prices jump 20%.” We can only suppose that the editors rather than the journalist, Elizabeth Napolitano, composed the headline, because in the second paragraph we learn that the precise figure is 17.5%. The 20% in the title is probably rationalized by the editor by the need for rounding complex figures.
To cover what is, despite its exaggerated alarmism, an interesting story, if only because of the strong association Americans have between Italy and pasta, CBS News confided its reporting to a journalist focused on monetary questions, Elizabeth Napolitano. And if her surname is any indication, she has all the required qualifications to be thought of as an expert on pasta. Napoli (Naples) may be more closely associated with pizza, but pasta plays an important role in Neapolitan gastronomy.
Napolitano’s analysis appears in CBS’s rubric, “Moneywatch.” The statistics she provides are much more interesting than Agao’s, though her rhetoric is also occasionally over the top, as when she refers to Italy as “the pasta-crazed country.” We usefully learn, for example, that “roughly 60% of people eat pasta daily” allowing us to draw the conclusion that 40% of Italy’s population is not “crazed,” or at worst is only semi-crazed, because they eat pasta only two or three times a week.
But, contrary to the ABC article, Napolitano supplies us with some real statistical “food for thought” concerning the question of inflation. We learn, for example, that the current “cost of the staple has exceeded $2.20 per kilo.” This figure enables us to calculate the financial burden pasta inflation imposes annually on the average Italian. Multiplying $2.20 by 23 means that we are talking of a total annual expense of just over $50. The additional cost per person per year caused by 17.5% inflation thus comes to just under $9. That works out to nearly 2.5 cents per day. For a family of 2.28 (the average household size in Italy), that means the cost – if inflation continues at the same rate – will be a little more than a Jefferson nickel (5 cents) a day. Median household income (PPP) was $35,189 in 2021. The impact on cost of living is literally 0 % (0.000142 %). The kind of thing, in other words, that can easily justify a government’s going onto full alert.
Governments traditionally combated inflation by raising interest rates to reduce the pressure on the money supply, but that simple trick no longer works. Reacting to the global financial crisis in 2007-8, the US government allowed several major financial institutions, wildly over-exposed in speculative assets, to collapse. Others that should have followed the same logic survived thanks to government bailouts or through private initiatives, such as Warren Buffett’s injection of $5 billion into Goldman Sachs in September, 2008.
This began an extended period in which governments systematically kicked the can down the road with the practice of quantitative easing (QE). They brought interest rates to near 0% to maintain an economy that had become structurally unstable. But QE skewed the fundamentals of the global economy. Investors who had easy access to essentially interest-free cash tended to allocate capital based on distorted signals from inflated asset prices rather than aligning with the underlying fundamentals of productive investments. National economies became dependent on free cash. Any disturbance, for example to supply chains as happened with the Ukraine war, creates an insoluble crisis.
But monetary inflation is not the only problem societies are facing. As the ABC News article demonstrates, journalistic inflation has distorted the fundamental utility of news services just as QE has distorted the fundamentals of the economy. Any cultural meme – such as the popular association of Italy with pasta – can now justify writing irresponsible copy containing misleading statistics. This is news as entertainment.
The CBS News article provides some sanity by mentioning the impact of the Ukraine war on the supply of wheat and the cost of energy. But it still fails to avoid the temptation of applying the rhetoric associated with political and economic crises to a minor and temporary disturbance in a single economy.
Both articles fail to signal the real significance of the Italian “crisis.” Just as the “yellow vests” in France began their protests over a modest rise in the price of gas, their discontent covered a much larger range of issues. Could the pasta inflation crisis – if indeed it can be called a crisis — be similar? Serious journalism should be expected to dig deeper when using the rhetoric of political drama.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.
Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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