The “bacon shortage” story is journalism at its shoddiest

Blog, Steve Lafleur (historic), Uncategorized

Global bacon shortage ‘unavoidable.’ So read the headline on CBC’s website for one of the most poorly reported stories in recent memory. The actual story is that poor corn yields this year will push up feed prices, which will translate into higher costs for hog producers. This leaves the industry two options: produce less, or raise prices. While either scenario will lead to a decline in bacon consumption, neither will lead to a “shortage.” Either will lead to a price increase. There is a big difference between price increases and shortages. Slate economics and business correspondent Matt Yglesias illustrated this distinction in his recent article where he debunked the idea of a bacon shortage:

Shortages arise when price controls lead to a situation in which consumers want to buy more of something than actually exists, which can lead to government rationing. In our economy there will still be plenty of bacon on the shelves, just priced high enough to deter some people from eating as much of it as usual. 

This is why prices exist in the first place. They are an efficient mechanism for allocating and rationing  goods. This is something that can be learned from an introductory economics textbook. Yet several major media outlets couldn’t figure this out. This is troubling.

What made the CBC headline particularly problematic is that unlike networks like CBS and CNBC, they didn’t mention that this was merely the prognostication of an industry group. They implied that it is a settled fact. Given how many people view the headline without reading the article, they have no doubt planted the false notion of an impending bacon shortage into the minds of tens of thousands of Canadians (the story has 17,000 Facebook ‘likes.’ Assuming everyone who liked it has 10 friends who saw the headline without reading the story, there are 170,000 who have been mislead by the story). While they did mention the industry group in the article, they made no attempt to present a critical point of view (which could have been obtained by consulting virtually any economist or public policy analyst on earth). That is shoddy journalism. I wouldn’t expect a credible media outlet to write about a study from the Frontier Centre without providing a critical perspective from someone who disagrees with our findings — at least not outside of the opinion pages. News stories are supposed to include different perspectives on issues so that readers can weigh the facts and arguments to reach an informed decisions. An opinion from a single interest group is not sufficient.

It may seem silly to make a big deal out of a story as inconsequential as a media panic over bacon shortages. However, it is a perfect illustration of how lazy or uninformed journalists can distort public opinion through poor journalistic practices. Suppose that an organic food advocacy group issued a press release stating that non-organic food is poisonous. If CBC ran a headline such as “All non-organic food is poisonous,” there would be very good reason to chastise the network. The fact that the subject matter is less serious in this case doesn’t mean that they should be let off the hook. This should be a teaching moment for journalism students and journalists everywhere.