A reader was going through some of my old posts and ran across something I’d written back in May when I’d run into an article over on AgWeb that claimed that there was a 70% chance that corn prices would be up in the $4.40 – $4.50 range by December. To be honest I’d completely forgotten about that item until Dustin reminded me when he left a comment reminding me of my skepticism about the claims back then. (See? I do read the comments!)
I was more than a bit irritated by the item at AgWeb at the time. The article presented absolutely no data to back this claim up. Just this “expert” from a brokerage firm trying to tell farmers corn was going to hit 4.40 – 4.50. And at the time that claim made no sense to me at all because I was seeing nothing in the markets or crop reports that indicated any kind of significant price increase. There was no decrease in the number of acres planted, there were no significant weather events going on, there was no increase in demand for product, and there was a huge amount of corn still in storage. What I was seeing was that corn prices were going to remain fairly flat, and quite possibly go through a serious drop as the 2017 harvest was completed
So, here it is, mid-November. What happened to corn prices? Well, corn, of course, never got above $4 of course. It briefly flirted with 3.80 – 3.90, but it didn’t stay there for long and quickly fell back to the 3.50 range, and as of this morning, it’s down to 3.43 after it hit a low of 3.40 when the WASDE report came out telling us that US corn stock was at it’s highest level since 1987. And heaven help any farmer who made any kind of financial plan based on the advice from that so-called expert.
Now if seeing advice this wildly wrong was a one time thing, it wouldn’t be so bad. Everyone makes mistakes. But I see this kind of thing over and over again in the ag press. Some “expert”, some pundit, some talking head, crawls out of the woodwork to make some wild and completely unsupported claim, and then disappears back into anonymity to never be heard from again. And the publication goes ahead and prints the item despite the fact there is no rational reason to believe anything the person says.
Over the last year or so I’ve seen articles in which “experts” made unsupported claims that milk would hit $19 (it’s around $16) by this time of the year, soybeans would hit $11 (about 9.80), and wheat would hit 7.50 (sitting at 4.31). And all those claims were presented by the publications without any facts or reasoning to back them up. Often some of these publications are printing material that completely contradicts what articles in the same publication are claiming.
The end result is that in many cases you don’t know who or what you can trust any more. You need to be very, very careful these days. Here’s a bit of advice.
First: Remember that these media companies are in business for one reason, and one reason only, to make money. Oh, they might have noble sounding statements appearing that claim they are out there to help you, etc., but, well, no. I’m sorry, but no, they aren’t there to help. The individual reporters, bloggers, etc. might feel that, but when it comes right down to it they are there to make a buck. Period. And that means they have to generate page hits to drive up advertising revenue. So almost all of these publications tend to lean towards click-bait headlines and stories to drive up page views as high as they can. Oh, they’ll deny that, but it’s true. A headline like “Corn Going Up 70%” is going to generate more hits than a headline that expresses what is actually in that story, like “Someone You Never Heard Of Makes Unsubstantiated Claims”, now doesn’t it?
Second: Remember that a lot of the “reporters” in these publication aren’t actually reporters. They are independent bloggers/writers who have no relationship to the publication itself except that they get paid some money if a piece of theirs is published. They aren’t employees of the publication. They’re freelancers who get paid by the piece. Even worse, often what they’re writing about is not something they’ve come up with on their own through their own work, it’s material they found somewhere else and re-wrote to avoid being charged with plagiarism. That sounds harsh, I know, but it’s also true.
The advent of the internet has resulted in a phenomena that a friend of mine rather crudely refers to as “circle-jerking”. Let me explain. One of these so-called reporters runs across an item that might make good clickbait. He does a quick and dirty rewrite to avoid plagiarism charges, and as his source, refers to the the original item he found. But if you go to that piece you find that it wasn’t the original. That writer too was a “circle jerker”, referring to yet another piece which, in turn, also wasn’t the original but another “jerker”. That site cites as it’s source yet another website which turns out to be another jerker, and…
Well, you get the idea.
Third: Once upon a time most magazines and newspapers had fact checkers. Almost every story, editorial, etc. was run through the fact checking department to make sure that what was in the item was actually true. Those days are long, long gone in most media companies. Some of the more reputable organizations still do it. Sort of. But the majority of them seem to have discarded fact checking as an unnecessary expense, it seems.
Fourth: Editors don’t actually edit anything any more. The job of an editor used to be making sure that the material that appeared in the publication adhered to basic standards of accuracy, that it was suitable for the intended audience, that it was not misleading, etc. And, alas, those days are long gone as well.
This kind of thing isn’t new, of course. It’s been going on for as long as we’ve had the printing press. It wasn’t invented by the internet. The term “yellow journalism”, which was coined to describe the kind of behavior I talk about here, goes back to the 1890s. Newspapers, especially those owned by Hearst and Pulitzer, are considered to have played a significant role in starting the Spanish-American war due to their irresponsible reporting. While their role in starting the war is exaggerated, there is no doubt that they helped to push public sentiment towards war.