Media missed the mark with their gloomy Thanksgiving coverage

There was no shortage of turkeys, the predicted TSA staffing shortages didn’t happen, and Black Friday shopping increased 30% from last year

Several mainstream and local news outlets repeatedly predicted chaos during 2021’s Thanksgiving season: shortages of turkeys for dinner, shortages of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) staffers during the busy air travel week, and shortages of goods for Black Friday sales. These panicked reports were published as Republicans are hammering the Biden administration over the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic -- but as more recent reporting made clear, the holiday went much more smoothly than these fearmongering narratives predicted.

Turkeys were plentiful around Thanksgiving this year

Media outlets were incorrectly predicting turkey shortages as early as August. The New York Post published a story with the headline “Thanksgiving turkeys may be harder to come by this year.” The Wall Street Journal wrote, “Supply-chain crunch is about to hit another part of American life: Thanksgiving dinner.” The article added: “Turkeys are very low in stock.” A Fortune article warned its readers not to “count on being able to find a turkey at the last minute this Thanksgiving.” 

Some local TV news stations also joined in this fearmongering about turkey shortages: CBS Boston published a story headlined “‘It’s been crazy,’ turkey shortages, supply chain issues impacting Thanksgiving meals.” Fox-affiliate WFXR in Roanoke, Virginia, wrote: “Thanksgiving without the turkey? How national shortages are impacting your holidays.”

But as other media reporting showed, this narrative about turkey shortages did not reflect reality:

The Associated Press: “No turkey shortage for Thanksgiving, but higher prices expected.” 

North Carolina-based Butterball, which supplies around one-third of Thanksgiving turkeys, struggled to attract workers earlier this year, leading to processing delays. While turkeys waited, they grew bigger, adding to already skyrocketing costs for corn and soybean feed.

But [Butterball President and CEO Jay Jandrain] said labor shortages have lessened and the company was able to secure enough trucks to get its turkeys to grocery stores. So there will be about the same number of whole turkeys as last year, but fewer smaller birds. [The Associated Press, 11/22/21]

Vox: “There isn’t a mass turkey shortage.”

John Peterson, a third-generation turkey farmer, has had customers come to his Ferndale Market in Minnesota lately asking whether they’re going to run out of turkeys heading into Thanksgiving. Everything feels scarce right now, and people assume turkeys will be, too, even though from where Peterson’s sitting, that’s not really the case. “We don’t have any reason that we should run out of turkeys,” he says. “We’re growing the same number of turkeys that we did a year ago.” That translates, for his farm, to 150,000 turkeys annually.

Still, the concerned customers are on to something. There isn’t a mass turkey shortage, but the birds may not be as easy to get at the grocery store right now as they have been in years past. Or at least, not the turkeys meat eaters want. [Vox, 11/10/21]

Politico: The National Turkey Federation “expects an ample supply of turkeys in stores for the holiday.”

While some food shortages remain, a National Turkey Federation spokesperson told POLITICO the group expects an ample supply of turkeys in stores for the holiday. Walmart, the nation’s largest grocery chain, and Target now say their shelves will be fully stocked for the holidays. [Politico, 11/24/21]

NBC News: Butterball CEO said, “There is no turkey shortage.”

“There is no Turkey shortage,” said Jay Jandrain, the president and CEO of Butterball, which supplies the most turkeys consumed at Thanksgiving by a single company, about 14 million, or around 30 percent of the total.

“There are ample turkeys that are in stores for the holiday. The only difference is that there’s going to be fewer of the smaller turkeys this year,” Jandrain said. “So when people are looking for their turkey, they’re going to find a larger turkey.” [NBC News, 11/24/21]

Thanksgiving air travel broke pandemic records amid COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which worked

Some media outlets were predicting “chaos” during Thanksgiving air travel because of the vaccine mandate for the TSA employees. The New York Post wrote a story with the headline “Get ready for Thanksgiving travel chaos due to unvaxxed TSA workers.” The Los Angeles Times warned that “a potential shortage of airport screeners triggered by a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate could mean extra-long queues at airport security checkpoints during the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday travel week.” NBC-affiliate WCNC in Charlotte, North Carolina, “connect[ed] the dots” between fears of long airport lines and the then-upcoming vaccine deadline for TSA agents.

But media reporting showed that these concerns were highly exaggerated:

The New York Times: “Thanksgiving air travel rebounds, nearly hitting 2019 levels.”

Thanksgiving air travel did not reach the record highs of 2019, but it was close. About 2.3 million people passed through Transportation Safety Administration checkpoints on Wednesday, more travelers than on any other day during the pandemic.

This figure was more than twice as many travelers as the Wednesday before Thanksgiving last year. This year’s total was about 88 percent of the travelers that flew on that same Wednesday in 2019.

Social media was abuzz with nearly equal complaints about the longest airport lines people had experienced in years and surprise that lines were so short, reinforcing the idea pandemic unpredictability persists. [The New York Times, 11/25/21]

Reuters: TSA spokesperson “said the agency has hired 6,000 new officers this year and has enough staff to deal with the increase in passenger volumes.”

The TSA expects to screen about 20 million air passengers during the Thanksgiving travel period, the most since 2019 when nearly 26 million Americans were on the move at that time. On Tuesday, the agency screened about 2.21 million U.S. air passengers, the sixth consecutive day with checkpoint volume topping 2 million.

Lorie Dankers, a TSA spokeswoman, said the agency has hired 6,000 new officers this year and has enough staff to deal with the increase in passenger volumes.

“So staffing, while we are hiring, will not slow people down this holiday season," Dankers said. [Reuters, 11/25/21]

The Hill: “TSA reports 93 percent compliance with vaccine mandate ahead of the holidays.”

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says the federal employee vaccine mandate won't impact holiday travel, as more than 90 percent of employees have now been vaccinated against COVID-19. 

The agency reported that roughly 93 percent of its employees were vaccinated or qualified for an exemption by the Biden administration's Monday deadline, three days before the Thanksgiving holiday. 

“Approximately 93 percent of @TSA employees are in compliance with today's deadline for the federal employee vaccine mandate and exemption requirements," TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein tweeted Monday as the mandate went into effect.

“The employee vaccine mandate will not impact holiday travel. Happy Thanksgiving!" she added. [The Hill, 11/23/21]

Retail stores say they will be fully stocked for holiday shopping and Black Friday shopping rose about 30% this year

A few media outlets were expecting a “messy” holiday shopping season. Bloomberg published a piece titled “Christmas at risk as supply chain ‘disaster’ only gets worse.” MarketWatch warned of “a very messy version of the biggest discount day of the year.” And CNN anchor Kim Brunhuber said, “With supply chain bottlenecks and fears of inflation, shoppers will likely find … a few empty shelves.” Other media reporting put things in perspective: 

CBS News: “Despite concerns of shortages, major retailers such as Walmart and Target say they're well-stocked for the holidays.”

The supply chain may not be the Grinch that steals Christmas, after all. Despite concerns of shortages, major retailers such as Walmart and Target say they're well-stocked for the holidays, and consumers are definitely finding things to buy. 

The supply chain story here is not of empty shelves; it's of scarce parts and microchips leading to higher prices -- or, a shortage of deals, if you will. [CBS News, 11/24/21]

CNN Business: “Sales on Black Friday increased 29.8% from a year ago, according to estimates through 3 p.m. ET from Mastercard.”

Black Friday doesn't carry the significance it once did for many US shoppers — blame the rise of online shopping holiday “Cyber Monday" and then Covid-19's impact on retail.

But customers are still dishing out more money for clothing, electronics and other items this Black Friday as they return to visit stores in person and keep up their spending online.

Sales on Black Friday increased 29.8% from a year ago, according to estimates through 3 p.m. ET from Mastercard, which tracks payment data in stores and online, excluding car sales. E-commerce sales grew 10.6% from last year, while in-store sales increased 42.9%. [CNN Business, 11/26/21]

CNBC: In-store retail traffic “was up 47.5% compared with year-ago levels.”

Traffic was up 47.5% compared with year-ago levels, Sensormatic said. This time in 2020, many shoppers stayed at home due to fears around the coronavirus pandemic and as retailers operated on somewhat reduced hours. [CNBC, 11/27/21]

The New York Times: “Most major retailers have said they expect their shelves to be fully stocked during the holidays.”

While companies of all sizes continue to face shipping delays and elevated transportation costs, most major retailers have said they expect their shelves to be fully stocked during the holidays. Companies have gone to extraordinary measures to procure goods in time for the holidays, including chartering their own vessels and shipping products by air instead of by sea. [The New York Times, 11/29/21]