December 17, 2008

The XMAS Retail Story – Bah Humbug!

2008 2007
Shopping Business 45 23
Holiday Travel 18 41
Thanksgiving 18 19
Charities Giving 5 4
War on Christmas 3 2

45%—Percentage of holiday stories about shopping and business

The troubled economy—a major story since Lehman Bros. declared bankruptcy in mid-September—has now spilled over into holiday coverage. From Nov. 17-Dec. 14, 2008, almost half the stories about the Christmas season—45%—have focused on shopping and business, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index. That’s about twice as much coverage as that subject generated during the 2007 holiday season (23% from Nov. 12 – Dec. 17, 2007). And much of the narrative has been gloomy. A good portion of this year’s holiday coverage has focused on whether incentives offered by businesses will be enough to draw in shoppers and speculated about the implications of consumers cutting back on spending.

The troubled economy also had a significant impact on another category of holiday coverage—the seasonal travel story. This year, 18% of the holiday stories focused on travel, a huge drop from 2007 coverage of that storyline (41% of holiday stories). Why the difference? Last year, concerns about potential airport-related problems were a key element of the story. In 2008, much of the reporting was about the expected travel cutbacks due to the financial crisis.

Several other holiday topics received a comparable amount of coverage in 2008 and 2007. Thanksgiving stories made up 18% in 2008 compared with 19% a year earlier. The “war on Christmas”—stories that focus on the debate over Christmas symbols in the public square, a favorite subject of the Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly—was 3% in 2008 and 2% in 2007. One other topic affected by the fiscal meltdown was charitable giving, which accounted for 5% of the holiday season stories in 2008 compared with 4% in 2007. This year, however, a number of those stories were about how the economic downturn was affecting charity at a time when more people were in need of help.

Tricia Sartor and Dana Page of PEJ