SNAP reporting SNAFU at New York Times


This is the photo the New York Times used in its article about food stamp recipients and soft drinks. Looks pretty bad, right?

I was awakened at 1:51 a.m. by a chiming phone signaling an incoming message that began, “am I right to be infuriated about this? what is the New York Times doing?” Yeah, I thought, as I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. You’re right, but I’m still not going to reply until morning.

My friend’s message was about a front-page article in the New York Times that trumpeted biased – and inaccurate – criticism of food stamps (SNAP) and the people who use them. We already know that Facebook news is not necessarily real news, that fake news sites abound on the left and the right, and that anything emanating from Trump’s spokespersons should be fact-checked. But the New York Times?

Yes – mainstream media needs cautious reading, too.

The New York Times article has been thoroughly and eloquently critiqued by both Jacobin Magazine (Food Stamp Fables) and one of my favorite bloggers, Paul Thomas (Mainstream Media, Not Fake News, Spawned Trumplandia).

Writing in Jacobin, Joe Soss trenchantly observes:

“Let’s be clear here: this is nonsense. It’s a political hack job against a program that helps millions of Americans feed themselves, and we should all be outraged that the New York Times has disguised it as a piece of factual news reporting on its front page.

“There are two major problems here. First, O’Connor misrepresents the findings of the USDA report. Second, O’Connor’s article is a case study in the dark arts of making biased reporting appear even-handed. … O’Connor did not simply miss details buried in obscure tables. He misreported basic statistics, selectively chose to ignore the report’s major findings, and cherry-picked a few facts to build a misleading case.”

Paul Thomas cites a 2014 Onion article (satire) which puts forth the same argument as the 2017 NYT piece:

“What this satirizes, however, is incredibly important since it challenges the mostly misguided and nasty stereotypes that many if not most Americans believe about people who are poor: it is the fault of the poor, laziness, that they are impoverished, and thus, they do not deserve the same things hard working people do deserve (as in luxuries such as sweets).”

Thomas quotes an article from the Center for American Progress, explaining the danger of this stereotyping:

“Beyond the article’s inaccuracies, there is a broader problem with this kind of reporting. It reinforces an ‘us versus them’ narrative—as though ‘the poor’ are a stagnant class of Americans permanently dependent on aid programs. The New York Times’ own past reporting has shown that this simply isn’t the case. Research by Mark Rank, which the paper featured in 2013, shows that four in five Americans will face at least a year of significant economic insecurity during their working years.”

So – getting back to the facts, those pesky things, and to how we know that the NYT article got it wrong about food stamp recipients. The NYT article says it is based on a USDA study: Foods Typically Purchased by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Households. Here’s how the study and the article compare:

New York Times: “The findings show that the No. 1 purchases by SNAP households are soft drinks, which accounted for 5 percent of the dollars they spent on food.”

USDA Study (p. 23): “There were no major differences in the expenditure patterns of SNAP and non-SNAP households, no matter how the data were categorized.”

New York Times: “Among non-SNAP households, for example, soft drinks ranked second on the list of food purchases, behind milk.”

USDA Study (p. 29): “The top two subcommodities purchased by SNAP households, fluid milk/white only and carbonated soft drinks in 12-18 can packages, were the top subcommodities for non-SNAP households as well.”

New York Times: “Among non-SNAP households, for example, soft drinks ranked second on the list of food purchases, behind milk.”

USDA Study (p. 29): Table shows these categories:

  • Fluid milk/white only – 2.90 percent of purchases by SNAP households and 2.71 percent by non-SNAP households.
  • Soft drinks in cans – 2.50 percent of purchases by SNAP households and 1.91 percent by non-SNAP households.

So SNAP households actually spent a greater percentage of their grocery money on milk than non-SNAP households, as well as a greater percentage on soft drinks in cans. And soft drinks in cans rank lower than milk in both SNAP and non-SNAP households.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The lesson I take from this analysis is the importance of checking primary sources – in this case, the data in the report that the article purports to summarize.

A second lesson: watch for bias in any article. The NYT article quotes experts criticizing soft drinks and the influence of the soft drink industry. Agreeing with that critique should not lead me take the second step of believing the article’s biased picture of people who use food stamps.

x x x

Next up: I’m in the third week of a free on-line course on media literacy, offered through Coursera. I’ll write about it in an upcoming post. The course runs through February, so if you want to follow along, click here for more information. One note: the course is free but they will try to get you to pay. I ignored that, because I don’t care about a certificate of completion. Here’s the schedule:

Week 1: The power of information is now in the hands of consumers.

Week 2: What makes journalism different from other types of information?

Week 3: Where can we find trustworthy information?

Week 4: How to tell what’s fair and what’s biased.

Week 5: How to apply news literacy concepts in real life.

Week 6: Meeting the challenges of digital citizenship.


Filed under media, news

2 responses to “SNAP reporting SNAFU at New York Times

  1. Steve Brandt

    My Strib colleague Chris Serres found the data on the rise in use of the program by the elderly far more significant and built his article around that. When asked by the desk whether the Times story should run with his, he successfully argued it’s irrelevance.


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