A case of relative importance: Iraq and shopping

Public Editor

December 03, 2006|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,Public Editor

On two consecutive days last month, The Sun published prominent articles on the front page about two very different subjects. The headline of each story dominated the page. One read: "At Least 152 Iraqis Dead In Bombings." The other read: "Holiday Shopping Starts With A Roar."

Each story was accompanied by a large photograph - one of a devastated Baghdad neighborhood and the other of early-morning shoppers lugging their purchases.

Was this just an unusual, holiday-week juxtaposition or do stories about shopping have value equivalent to major breaking news? Can readers take The Sun seriously when it gave the same dominant play to the start of the Christmas shopping season as it did to a devastating turn in the war in Iraq?

These two front pages, offered in succession, generated strong reaction from readers.

Ben Puttnam said: "I found it disconcerting that the paper gave the article about significant violence in Iraq and articles about Maryland's early retail shopping sales figures the same weight. I think this kind of coverage obscures what's really important and encourages our insatiable consumer culture."

From reader Jack Eisenberg: "After taking a look at The Sun's picture of happy pre-sunup shoppers, I also can't help but think of the thousands of our best young people who are paying the price in Iraq for God knows what purpose, or of the horrendous number of Iraqi fatalities caused by the devastation. ... Most of the dead, like the happy shopping revelers in the picture, are not to blame for what's going on around them."

Whether The Sun overplayed this particular holiday shopping story and photo is debatable, but the fact that holiday shopping is a big part of the U.S. economy is well documented.

American consumer spending accounts for 20 percent of the world's gross domestic product and holiday sales can account for as much as 40 percent of U.S. retailers' annual sales, reliable estimates show. And when The Sun and others reported last Monday that initial holiday shopping sales slowed after a fast start, Wall Street experienced its biggest one-day decline since July.

In this context, it's not surprising that The Sun has played eight holiday shopping stories on the front page during the last two weeks of November.

Sun reporter Andrea K. Walker, who covers retail business, offers this perspective: "The United States has become a huge shopping culture and retailers have created such a frenzy that the media sometimes gives it too much attention." She adds, however, that the increased coverage in recent years is based on legitimate developments.

"One is the Wal-Mart factor," Walker said. "They have grown to become the world's largest retailer and because their decisions and policies have such a big impact on the economy, it automatically raises the bar on retail coverage." (The Sun's Nov. 24 front page had a staff-written story about Wal-Mart's decision to return to using "Merry Christmas" as its seasonal marketing slogan instead of "Happy Holidays," and its effect on other retailers.)

The media are also infatuated with stories about shoppers waiting in long lines outside stores to able to buy highly publicized and "must have" toys." More than ever, the media continues to look for new examples of frenzied consumer buying to cover.

This year it was some shoppers' obsession with PlayStation 3, the newest Sony video game that went on sale Nov. 17. The Sun's front page described how some consumers waited in line for 48 hours at local stores to purchase a copy before they sold out. Additional articles documented fighting and robberies among shoppers in some parts of the country.

In my view, it is obvious that shopping can't compete with the war in Iraq as news of serious concern. Indeed, the outcome of the conflict in Iraq is likely to affect our lives for years to come.

But beyond the vital concerns of war and peace, The Sun and other newspapers have obligations to provide serious reporting on an array of issues that fundamentally affect readers lives. Consumer spending, retail strategies and retail sales - especially during the holiday season - constitute economic news that indeed affects readers' lives.

Yes, some readers are justifiably concerned about such heavy coverage of what they consider our national obsession with spending and material gratification. But breaking and in-depth retail news is important, even if it's not - usually - a matter of life and death.

Said reporter Walker: "I don't think we should cut back on our coverage of holiday shopping. There are some great stories to be told. But perhaps they can be better balanced with the stories about other important subjects at this time of year."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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