Networks Still Misinterpreting Foreclosure Data

Uh oh, it's that time of the month again.

Once a month, California-based RealtyTrac releases national foreclosure statistics and once a month, all three networks manage to overlook details in their reporting. But, this time, ABC's "World News with Charles Gibson" got it completely wrong.

From the November 14 broadcasts:

  • NBC: "Stockton, California - Ground zero in the nation's foreclosure crisis," CNBC real estate correspondent Diana Olick said on the "Nightly News." "One out of every 31 homes here is in foreclosure."
  • CBS: "[A]ccording to a new report today, Stockton, California had the highest rate of foreclosures in the third quarter this year - one in every 31 households," "CBS Evening News" anchor Katie Couric said. "That's a 465-percent increase from last year."
  • ABC: "It is hitting communities hard," said ABC correspondent Jeffrey Kofman on "World News with Charles Gibson." "Today in Stockton, California, 1 in 49 homes is in foreclosure."

So which is correct? Though it may seem surprising, all three are technically incorrect, although the ABC report was the most inaccurate.

The Associated Press, which was accurate, reported one foreclosure filing for every 31 households - which is not the same as saying "one in every 31 homes is in foreclosure," because foreclosure is a process.

There may be as many as three foreclosure filings for each individual home in the foreclosure process. Each stage of filing is counted as "foreclosure activity," so a single home could potentially be counted three times - a distinction the media often do not make.

"The fact is we do track all levels of foreclosure activity," explained RealtyTrac's vice president of marketing, Rick Sharga, to the Business & Media Institute on August 24 explaining the routine report the media give so much attention.

"This is the important consideration - foreclosures are a process, they're not an event, so it's an unfortunate happenstance that the word happens to be a noun, a verb, a pronoun, an adjective and probably a prepositional phrase in some instances," Sharga said.

But spikes in foreclosure activity are still hyped in the media, even if there are important mathematical considerations reporters tend to ignore.

"I spend an awful lot of my time dealing with people in the media," Sharga said. "Either they don't always get or they don't appreciate the nuance or they may have an agenda of their own."