The Will Standard and Nominal Records
Columnist George Will, in his column that appears in the back pages of Newsweek, has articulated a useful journalistic ethics standard: “The news media “should not subtract from the public’s understanding.”
What a concept! Yet as he succinctly illustrates in the same column, the news media fails that standard on a regular basis.
Recently it has been shouting about how gas prices are at “record levels,” the record being described as a “nominal” one. What is a “nominal record,” you might well ask? Well, it’s a record that would have been set if there had never been any inflation. It’s kind of like saying that Ben Affleck’s last movie nominally surpassed the box office take of 1939’s “Gone With the Wind.” Of course, the former was a bomb (they all are) and the latter was one of the most successful films of all time. But “nominally” obscures that fact.
Maybe this is why they keep making Ben Affleck movies. But I digress.
Will points out that for headlines about “record” gasoline prices to be accurate, a gallon would have to cost $3.12. In the week of his column, the price reached $2.55–less, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than in March 1981, when the price in today’s dollars was $3.11. Rather than proclaiming that a new “nominal record” has been set, the media should explain exactly how current prices compare with the past. For example (also courtesy of Mr. Will), the real price of gas was higher in 1935. It doesn’t mean that the recent rise in price hasn’t been alarming, inconvenient, and worthy of concern. It does mean that no records are being set yet which means that the energy situation is not at its epic worst. Far from it. If the media wanted the public to understand the current energy crisis in context, it could point out that the cost of oil, also breaking “nominal” records according to the Financial Times, was still about 33% below its 1981 peak. The media could point out that total energy consumption per dollar of gross domestic product has been cut almost in half since 1973. What is it, exactly, that “the public has a right to know?”
I thought it was supposed to be the truth.
The term “nominal record” should be banned as journalistic dishonesty, and the Will standard for journalist ethics should be nailed to every editor’s wall, perhaps in this form:
“The news media should add to the reader’s understanding, not subtract from it.”
George Will easily met his own standard with the Newsweek column. The Ethics Scoreboard is betting that his colleagues will have a lot more trouble with it.