Harebrained headlines II: How does oil demand rise and swoon at the same time? Ask Bloomberg…

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The energy world is hard to understand even if you live in it. If you’re trying to understand it better by educating yourself through mainstream media (and yes it is painful to use a phrase that is a cornerstone of Fox News’ jugular attack), you’re in for a rough ride. Even the most respected news organizations can’t resist occasional flights of real estate agent-quality distortions in order to get some attention.

In an Aug 4/15 article that does a good job of illustrating everything that’s wrong with news coverage, Bloomberg declares in a headline that “Oil’s drop below $50 may be just the start as demand swoons”. Everyone including the editors must know that most people only have time to digest headlines, and that the obvious message (which the article should flesh out) is that oil prices continue to fall and that the decline is likely to get far worse (“…may be just the start…”) because demand is swooning.

A quick scan of the article shows that it makes two points: the price of oil has fallen to a six month low, and that demand for gasoline typically falls after the summer driving season.

The two points in the article aren’t particularly revolting or controversial. Oil has indeed fallen to a six month low, that’s not too contentious. Gasoline demand does tend to decrease after the summer months, which seems both logical and verifiable.

It’s the headline that should make you hurt like you’ve eaten a week old seafood buffet. I understand headlines have to be attention grabbing, but can you really extrapolate an event such as “shark seen in waters off local beach” to “Fifteen deaths expected if shark lives up to expectations”?

The Bloomberg headline leaves the impression that demand has swooned (and let’s not lose track of how ill-conceived that descriptor is; when was the last time you had a demand for anything that “swooned”?) leading to declining oil prices that are likely to go much lower. First of all, demand has not swooned or declined or anything of the sort, it has been growing like crazy, which is the biggest fault with the headline. The second major flaw is linking the fall in prices to falling demand. If demand is rising, a fact that can be easily verified, is it acceptable to imply that falling prices have any relation? And does it even make sense to say that, since falling prices actually increase demand?

The headline should read “Oil price falls below $50, lower seasonal autumn usage may add further pressure to prices”. OK maybe that’s too boring, Bloomberg’s editor can jazz it up with mention of dragons or Taylor Swift or whatever they want to attract common folk, but the comments shouldn’t be straying much from that phrasing if the purpose of the headline is to describe the article.

But clearly it’s not. The purpose of the headline is to try to get you to read. Bloomberg apparently does not care at all if you come away with a totally incorrect impression by reading only the headline, which they no doubt must know is the most likely action when time-pressed people scan websites looking for news. So as usual, reading only the headlines will help you understand the world the same way listening to Donald Trump will help you to understand palliative care.

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