Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Speculative reporting: Media fanning recession fears

On July 4, Jeanine Aversa of the Associated Press gave Americans an Independence Day gift: the news that “[t]he nation lost jobs for a sixth month in a row in June, a storm of pink slips drenching this year’s July Fourth holiday for more than 60,000 Americans and leaving thousands more worried about the future.”

She continued: “Weighed down by energy prices and the housing crisis, employers laid off workers in stores, factories and forsaken building sites. With more job cuts expected in coming months, there’s growing concern that many people will pull back on their spending later this year when the bracing effect of the tax rebates fades, dealing a dangerous setback to the shaky economy. These worries are rekindling recession fears.”

So what’s wrong with this story? Well, it is not objective or neutral; it is laced with opinion, bias and loaded words and phrases.

Consider the phrase “a storm of pink slips drenching this year’s July Fourth holiday,” which conveys the clear implication that the sky is falling, and the phrase ending that sentence, “leaving thousands more worried about the future,” might be true, or might not be. It isn’t substantiated, and beyond that is not necessary to telling us about job losses. This sentence could have been written this way: “The nation lost more than 60,000 jobs in June, the sixth month in a row of job losses.” That is factual, absent any opinion or other unnecessary language, and tells us what we need to know.

The story then speculates that “there’s growing concern that many people will pull back on their spending later this year,” and adds that “[t]hese worries are rekindling recession fears.” Really? How do you know that, Ms. Aversa; where’s the attribution? Whose fears are you referring to: your fears, the American people’s fears? It doesn’t matter that many readers believe her assertion is correct, what matters is whether her assertion actually is correct. She doesn’t backup the statement, and it therefore has no business in an objective news story.

The story also leaves important information that would put the jobs loss in perspective until later, after the writer has raised the reader’s concerns and biased his or her perspective. Eventually, we learn that despite the job losses “[t]he jobless rate held steady at 5.5 percent after jumping in May. Did the jobless rate not move up because 62,000 jobs wasn’t a big enough change to kick the rate up another tenth of a point? Or were there enough new jobs created to balance out the job losses? We really don’t know.

Ms. Aversa then adds that the jobless rate jumped “in May by the most in two decades,” and said that, furthermore, “June’s jobless rate was considerably higher than the 4.6 percent of a year ago.” She does not tell us that the 5.5 percent jobless rate is only a half point above the level that is considered full employment, or that the 4.6 percent rate she alluded to is a good jobless rate that has not been lower since the first half of 2001. She also neglected to tell us that in the months following 9-11 the jobless rate rose to around 6.3 percent, and that since then it fell steadily until early 2007. She also passed up the opportunity to tell readers that the Commerce Department reported in late June that after-tax disposable incomes jumped by 5.7 percent in May, the biggest one-month gain since May 1975, and that after removing the effects of higher gasoline and other products, inflation-adjusted spending rose by a solid 0.4 percent, the best performance since last August.

This is just one more in a long and undistinguished series of misreported economic stories. News items from as far back as last fall claimed the United States economy was in recession, which was demonstrably false. Recession has clearly defined parameters: negative growth for two consecutive quarters. The U.S. economy has undeniably slowed down, but despite all the doom and gloom from the mainstream media has not had even one quarter of negative growth, let alone two of them in succession. Neither a reporter’s proclamation nor opinion polls of Americans are sufficient to create a recession.

The news media shouldn’t tell fairy tales about how good things are when they aren’t very good, of course, but it also shouldn’t tell us that things are worse than they really are. However, sometimes journalistic propriety takes a back seat to making a story more interesting, or burnishing a reporter’s reputation. For example, Ms. Aversa’s opening sentence is certainly more interesting than my version, even if hers contains untruths, half-truths, and speculation.

News doesn’t have to be interesting; it only has to be accurate and objective. Much of what passes for news from the mainstream media is chock full of opinion and speculation. When the media broadly reports economic conditions as worse than they really are, or, as in the case of this story, reports news in a way that creates a false impression in the mind of the reader, there will certainly be a negative effect on how people think and act.

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