They report. I edit. You decide

by Russ Roberts on February 6, 2009

in Media

The January job numbers were released today and weren't very encouraging.I have cleaned up the first part of  the AP story in case you'd like to read it without the opinions and overwrought verbs of the reporter. Words in bold are mine:

Recession-battered employers eliminated 598,000 jobs in January, the
most since the end of 1974, and catapulted increasing the unemployment rate to 7.6
percent. The grim figures were further proof that the nation's job
climate is deteriorating at an alarming clip with no end in sight.

The
Labor Department's report, released Friday, showed the terrible toll
the drawn-out recession is having on workers and companies. It also
puts even more pressure on Congress and President Barack Obama's
administration to try to revive the economy through a stimulus package and a
revamped financial bailout plan, both of which are may be nearing completion.

The
latest net total of job losses was far worse than the 524,000 that
economists expected. Job reductions in November and December also were
deeper than previously reported.

With cost-cutting employers in
no mood to hire, the unemployment rate bolted increased to 7.6 percent in
January, the highest since September 1992. The increase in the jobless
rate from 7.2 percent in December also was worse than the 7.5 percent
rate economists expected though the tenth of a percentage point difference could be treated as negligible.

All told, the economy has lost a
staggering
3.6 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007.
About half of this decline occurred in the past three months.

"Companies
are in survival mode and are really cutting to the bone," said
economist Ken Mayland, president of ClearView Economics. "They are
cutting and cutting hard now out of fear of an uncertain future."

Factories
slashed cut 207,000 jobs in January, the largest one-month drop since
October 1982, partly reflecting heavy losses at plants making autos and
related parts. Construction companies got rid of 111,000 jobs.
Professional and business services chopped 121,000 positions. Retailers
eliminated 45,000 jobs. Leisure and hospitality axed 28,000 slots.

Those reductions swamped employment gains in education and health services, as well as in the government but I won't bother telling you the size of these increases.

To repeat what was said a few paragraphs earlier in a trivially different way: Just
in the 12 months ending January, an astonishing 3.5 million jobs have
vanished, the most on record going back to 1939, although the total
number of jobs has grown significantly since then which is just a confusing way of saying that as a percentage of the work force, it's nothing close to 1939.

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{ 44 comments }

SteveO February 6, 2009 at 10:33 am

Can we assume from some of your comments that there were jobs lost in the debit column, and some new jobs added in the credit column, but they only report the losses, therefore we don't know the net?

I.e. 100,000 jobs lost, (50,000 gained) should be reported as Net 50,000 loss, but instead they only tell us 100,000 lost?

I've seen this done with trade figures, and jobs "outsourced". Is there any way to know those numbers? I'm sure they exist. Can someone point to them?

Ike February 6, 2009 at 10:35 am

Russ, don't you just love the new "accountability journalism?"

For those that don't know, Accountability Journalism was the new editorial philosophy instituted by the Associated Press a couple of years ago, which encourages its reporters to "call things like they see it."

Instead of relying on tired, vanilla verbs and boring non-partisan facts, Accountability Journalism gives the writer free-reign to be expressive about the truth the way he or she sees it.

In one respect, this degree of transparency ought to make it easier to detect the biases of individual reporters.

In another respect, this may serve as the final blow to the AP, doing for its reputation what Fonzie's shark-jump did to Happy Days.

SteveO February 6, 2009 at 10:35 am

Also… If I made a 92.4% on a test or course grade, I'd be very happy, in comparison to European countries and others who are regularly "B-" students in the unemployment rate game.

Rob Dawg February 6, 2009 at 10:41 am

Seeing as editing for clarity and accuracy are the order of the day:
"it's nothing close to 1939."
Should read:
"it's nothing close to 1939 even using the then calculation most closely approximated by the modern U-6 and not the U-3 used but not identified in the rest of the release."

Russ Roberts February 6, 2009 at 10:50 am

SteveO,

No, the overall numbers are net. I just thought it was interesting that we weren't told the positive side in a quantitative way.

John Dewey February 6, 2009 at 11:11 am

Just read the The Other Unemployment Rate: 13.9% at the WSJ economics blog.

13.9% is a scary number because it's creeping up to the Depression-era levels of 20% to 25% unemployment. But I question whether comparisons of the two periods are valid.

In the 1930's, we didn't have the social safety net we have in place today which allows workers to half-heartedly look for work while remaining in depressed regions. Rather, in the 1930's, unemployed workers were "forced" to seek jobs far and wide. Many 1930's American workers temporarily left their families to gain employment elsewhere, just as many Mexican workers are doing today.

The safety net is a big reason why some Americans remain unemployed for years, IMO.

MnM February 6, 2009 at 11:33 am

Am I the only one that thought Russ's title was funny?

The Other Eric February 6, 2009 at 11:40 am

A long time ago when I taught news writing this article would have earned a D or C minus at best. You missed the lead-in: "Recession-battered employers" which is a purple anthropomorphism if there ever was one.

No one reads/knows about Clark Mollenhoff, Jeff Lyon, or Laurie Garrett anymore.

About half of economics seems to be the development of the subject. You learn about Smith, Mises, and even Keynes (although his story is cleaned up) while you learn about their ideas and methods.

Journalists just don't know where the field came from in the same way. Worshipful stories about Colonial censorship and Watergate coverage don't provide enough methodological and contextual information to what is increasingly a profession made up of sociology and English majors (who really want to write novels).

Bias is one thing, and it's real. But the much bigger problem is unprofessionalism and lack of depth.

Greg Ransom February 6, 2009 at 11:48 am

I canceled my local paper because it was full of these AP editorials.

With the internet, why subject yourself to such bad journalism?

Jonathan Bydlak February 6, 2009 at 11:58 am

Brilliant, Russ. Thanks for that — made my day.

Bored 3L February 6, 2009 at 12:13 pm

Is there any place to get non-editorial "hard" news any more?

Randy February 6, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Great job, Russ. I'm hoping that you enjoyed doing that because I'd like to see more of it.

Perry Eidelbus February 6, 2009 at 12:44 pm

The AP's "economics writers," the Wonder Twins of Martin Crutsinger and Jeannine Aversa, consistently write like this. Recently I found the AP's apparently new "economics writer" writing one article, only to have it rewritten an hour later to a pessimistic tone.

What, no soundbite from Mark Zandi, who has consistently predicted a recession since at least 1997, then pats himself on the back when one happens?

I personally would have edited this way:

It also puts even more increases pressure on Congress and President Barack Obama's administration to revive the economy through finalize a stimulus package and a revamped financial bailout plan, both of which are nearing completion although major questions remain about its sheer size, "pork" content, and even effectiveness. The Congressional Budget Office is now predicting that the proposed stimulus will help the economy in 2009 but hinder growth starting in 2010.

Mainstream media writing is so poor. A clumsy phrase like "puts even more" is something I'd expect from a high school girl who says "like" every third word.

"The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do." – Thomas Jefferson

But the recession has proven stubborn. Despite record low interest rates ordered by the Federal Reserve and a raft of radical programs, including a $700 billion financial bailout, there's still no evidence that government and central banking efforts are having any beneficial effect. It is popularly believed that consumers and businesses face high hurdles to borrow money as lenders, although Federal Reserve data show that lending has not dropped off.

Stretch February 6, 2009 at 1:13 pm

"The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do."

Should be:

"The most valuable talent is never using two words when one will do."

or perhaps:

"Keep it simple, stupid."

Jay February 6, 2009 at 1:36 pm

"Just in the 12 months ending January, an astonishing 3.5 million jobs have vanished"

I bet the reporter would crap his pants if you told him that is it more likely that 30 – 35 million jobs vanished in the last 12-months.

http://www.bls.gov/news.release/cewbd.nr0.htm

Tom of the Missouri February 6, 2009 at 2:12 pm

What is most surprising to me is they did not blame it on Bush, which is what the AP was doing even before it happened.

vikingvista February 6, 2009 at 4:10 pm

Great idea with the edits. You should make this a regular on your blog. Even better, start a new media watch blog with these edited posts. It reveals the bias of reporters and editors, bias they may not even see themselves.

Seth February 6, 2009 at 4:24 pm

Great edit. The first sentence could have started with the third word and leaving the first two out.

spencer February 6, 2009 at 4:47 pm

You just can not keep from putting words in people mouth can you.

Kevin February 6, 2009 at 6:22 pm

Russ left a lot of the "reporter's" (in quotes because of the article's high opinion to fact ratio) edititorializing unredacted. Our language is quite rich, and it is nearly impossible for most (all?) users of it to write without persuasion. This is before taking into account the bias in the selection for inclusion/omission. A truly awful piece by Ms Aversa.

Dr. T February 6, 2009 at 6:53 pm

"About half of this decline occurred in the past three months."

It's probably just a coincidence that the job reductions accelerated immediately after Paulson made his Chicken Little-like "The Economy is Falling" speech. And it's probably just a coincidence that stock prices declined rapidly at the same time.

Government officials must take care with what they say. Paulson didn't shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater, he sprayed gasoline on everyone and then lit his lighter. Now, some people are wondering why there are so many burn patients.

LowcountryJoe February 6, 2009 at 7:16 pm

I wonder when George finds the time to write stories for the Associated Press while he performs his pediatrician gig at Kaiser. I recognize that hyperbole in the first paragraph from prior posts of his — straight from the Duck's keyboard; I can see it from a mile away.

Maybe I'm wrong about that, though, he's probably a very good parrot but not much of a writer. A decent writer would know the difference between discrepancies and disparities. Come to think of it, so should an MD.

Ray G February 6, 2009 at 8:53 pm

Brilliant.

You need a widget or something that would allows us to turn on a little audio clip of applause with some little icon hands clapping.

That's the kind of post I can send around to people regardless of their education or interest level. Everybody can get that.

Greg Worrel February 6, 2009 at 11:57 pm

Now when following the link, the story has been edited. Now employers are cut a little slack and the blame is placed on all of us thoughtless bastards, "as a vicious cycle of cutbacks by consumers forced ever more layoffs by beleaguered employers."

The article is filled with dire predictions extending years into the future from people who doubtless had no idea six months ago where we would be now. The quote from Obama shows incredible precognition: "If we drag our feet and fail to act, this crisis will turn into a catastrophe. We'll continue to get devastating job reports like today's month after month, year after year."

It is amazing to me the way the media jumped on this "recession" from Paulson's first pronouncements of impending doom. Suddenly, signs of the recession were everywhere if you were to listen to most reports.

Perry Eidelbus February 7, 2009 at 12:36 pm

Well, Stretch, to paraphrase a line from "Down to Earth": "He's Thomas Jefferson, he can write however he wants!" I would say his use is appropriate, for its emphasis leaves no wonder about whether he forgot any talents. Now contrast the eloquence of his prose with the juvenile quality of most AP articles.

Greg, the tone has been increasingly pessimistic for over a few years, long before things actually got bad: good GDP growth would be reported as "less than expected," positive jobs reports would be downplayed, trade deficits would be trumped up. The economy was doing well in 2004, and the issue of Iraq was not enough for Kerry to win. The liberal media knew that, like in 1992, a Democratic candidate for president needs news of a bad economy that can be spun as the fault of the incumbent Republican president.

vidyohs February 7, 2009 at 6:41 pm

Prof Roberts,

While I agree with you in spirit and know well the artful use of the English language by "reporters and reporterettes" to twist facts, conceal data, distort truth, and finally to fully support the left-wing agenda; I have to point out that what you did was not an edit, it was a complete rewrite which included data not contained in the original.

Franklin Harris February 8, 2009 at 12:36 am

"Instead of relying on tired, vanilla verbs and boring non-partisan facts, Accountability Journalism gives the writer free-reign to be expressive about the truth the way he or she sees it."

What's worse is non-AP reporters see this and pick up these bad habits. Then I have to edit out the hyperbole.

Brian Schwartz February 8, 2009 at 1:21 am

Nice work, Russ. Yet, the post's link to the AP story on Yahoo is to an article that's different from the one you edited. I found yours here and on other sites.

Deborah Friedman February 8, 2009 at 12:04 pm

So your criticism is that this things aren't as bad as 1939? That sounds like telling someone who is about to lose his foot that he's better off than someone who is has to have both legs amputated at the hip.

Jennifer Lakin February 8, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Hmm, I have to admit that even without the editorializing, I don't find this reassuring in any way.

As to the comment about people "half-heartedly" looking for work since they are subsidized to be lazy… Have you heard about the problems with mortgages and home prices? The emphasis on shady lending in the last less-than-a-decade and the number of people using their (inflated) house prices as lottery winnings has led to people being tied to their unsellable homes, with underwater mortgages. Makes it a lot harder to up and move — unless of course, they just walk away from them. Many are doing that, leading to, of course, more problems.

Pat O'Neill February 8, 2009 at 12:37 pm

"The increase in the jobless rate from 7.2 percent in December also was worse than the 7.5 percent rate economists expected though the tenth of a percentage point difference could be treated as negligible."

No…not when that tenth of a percentage point is 13% of the increase. 13% isn't negligible.

Eric Garland February 8, 2009 at 1:21 pm

What a great post. As a professional consumer of information, I am SICK TO DEATH of being told what to feel by reporters. Major media calls this part of "rich mix" journalism, where emotional punches to the medulla oblongata are combined haphazardly with actual numbers. It would be fun if, just for a little while, they just put out the facts and let the public decide for themselves. Maybe add a dash of expert analysis. I can dream.

Frankie February 8, 2009 at 2:05 pm

One question. Is there anything you edited or redacted that is actually disputable?

"The grim figures were further proof that the nation's job climate is deteriorating at an alarming clip with no end in sight."

Do you dispute this? Seriously?

stratdouglas February 8, 2009 at 7:48 pm

Thanks for the link to Hayek's lecture. It strikes a useful note of humility that some of our colleagues (including Krugman, yes, but also including many on the right) might do well to emulate. More usefully, it reminds us to guard carefully against the use of the current emergency to permanently expand central planning or other forms of tyranny. But, Hayek's followers (and detractors too, eg Paul Samuelson) often put words in his mouth that he never put on the page. He does not claim that we should ignore the statistics that we have, or that government should do nothing in all circumstances; he just cautions against pretending that we know more than we do, and against expecting too much precision or too fine an outcome. His criticism of specific policies of the day is vague and its relevance to the current (much worse and quite different) situation is unclear.

Perry Eidelbus February 8, 2009 at 8:01 pm

That's not the point, Frankie. Even perma-bears won't deny that job prospects are grim at the moment. However, it's irresponsible for serious news to invoke such language.

Frankie February 8, 2009 at 8:27 pm

But that is the point. If it's not really disputable, then it's fact, is it not? And you all have a problem with the reporting of facts…..how, exactly?

If the score is 53-7, would anybody question it if the write up stated "The Giants routed the Seahawks 53-7 on Sunday."? Of course not, even though according to this post, the only acceptable way to phrase it would only be to say "The Giants defeated the Seahawks 53-7 on Sunday".

If the author of the article would have went on to make a disputable point, such as "further proving the failures of the conservative economic policies", you all might have a point. But nothing like that was done so frankly, this post is nitpicking and silly.

Greg Worrel February 8, 2009 at 9:14 pm

Frankie,

"'The grim figures were further proof that the nation's job climate is deteriorating at an alarming clip with no end in sight.'

Do you dispute this? Seriously?"

Yes I would dispute it. The unemployment numbers may be fact but your quote is sheer hyperbole and negative sensationalizing. Who gets to define what "grim" is? Five percent unemployment is doing great but 7.5% is "grim?"

"…the nations's job climate is deteriorating…" Not for business owners. As a small business owner myself, higher unemployment means less chance of losing valuable employees. It means it is easier to find good people to hire who might not be looking when things are booming.

It also means businesses are shedding marginal employees and making changes that can lead to improved profits and growth. Even laid off employees may be better off as they discover new opportunities and some may even start businesses that never would have come about otherwise.

"…with no end in sight." I love this one. Whose crystal ball are they using? The same one used a year ago when they predicted this coming? If the end is ever in sight it is only a mirage or a delusion because no one can predict the future.

How about this for a re-write of your quote:

"The latest unemployment figures tell us that the nation's businesses are well on their way to making the changes needed to adapt to shifting consumer demand, at the same time freeing many thousands of workers to find and create new opportunities for themselves in the many burgeoning fields of the twenty first century."

Mike February 8, 2009 at 11:36 pm

Even better:

"Unfortunately, many workers remain in jobs which may not be optimal for them. Happily, this will be true of fewer and fewer in the upcoming year."

Garrett Schmitt February 9, 2009 at 11:42 am

The tone of the media is all the more shocking when compared to the tone of the original government press release announcing the figures.

I speak from first-hand–albeit limited–experience when I note the conscious effort of some parts of the government to make these press releases as neutral as possible.

zen February 9, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Gregg Worrel wrote:
"Yes I would dispute it. The unemployment numbers may be fact but your quote is sheer hyperbole and negative sensationalizing. Who gets to define what "grim" is? Five percent unemployment is doing great but 7.5% is "grim?""

Yes, it's grim. If the unemplyment rate had been at 7.5% for years and continued being so, we could characterize it as stable. The scope and speed of job losses is truely 'grim'. Any other characterization is delusional.

""…the nations's job climate is deteriorating…" Not for business owners. "

sometimes it takes very little to reveal a persons character. In this case, you've made it quite clear you're willing prey on the misfortune of others. The rest of your comments in this and the subsequent paragraph only underscore that sentiment. Perhaps the only thing that could have made your point more succinct would have been to add the phrase "and pay them dogshit" to "It means it is easier to find good people to hire".

The 'Job climate' is not characterized from the employers perspective, it's characterized from the employees perspective. There's a reason for that – our economy is consumer based. When the unemployment rate shoots up the way it has, it means we aren't buying things. We can't spend our way to prosperity when people have no income, and on that tangent, who exactly is hiring to get 'better people'? If business are shedding jobs, where are people going to go, even the best of the best, to find work? Really greg, could you make yourself sound any more like a 19th century industrialist with children chained to your to your machines?

Michael E Sullivan February 9, 2009 at 6:57 pm

"'…the nations's job climate is deteriorating…' Not for business owners. As a small business owner myself, higher unemployment means less chance of losing valuable employees."

Oddly, when things were booming, I never had any problems with turnover. I pay well and people like working for me, and that's served my business well.

Delighting in the idea that people without lots of savings now may feel forced to keep working for me no matter what the conditions of employment are, and taking any more advantage of that than is necessary to ensure the survival of the business seems positively evil.

"It means it is easier to find good people to hire who might not be looking when things are booming."

In a sharp downturn, very few businesses need to hire, many more of us are asking ourselves who to let go than are looking to hire more people. And tbh, it's not really easier to hire in a downturn. I had to hire people in both the 1990 and 2000 recessions, and we were flooded with unqualified applicants to sort through.

"It also means businesses are shedding marginal employees and making changes that can lead to improved profits and growth."

I've already shed my marginal employees. If we have to let anybody else go, it'll be a core contributor to our past success. Even for the marginal folks, I don't take a huge amount of comfort in the fact that somebody's lack of paycheck goes directly to my bottom line. It keeps me out of the bread lines myself, to be sure, and I don't owe people a living, but it never feels good to let people go.

Have you ever had to fire someone? It's not even easy to fire someone who is ripping you off. Doing it because they can't quite meet production goals, or laying off perfectly good employees just because you don't have the work, hurts. It's the absolute hardest thing I ever have to do as a business owner to look somebody in the eye and tell them you are letting them go.

"Even laid off employees may be better off as they discover new opportunities and some may even start businesses that never would have come about otherwise."

In a normal economy, with close to full employment, if it's just my business that's suffering, that would probably be true. In the middle of a deep recession, I'm pretty sure I'd prefer the paycheck to the glorious opportunity to start my own bootstrap business from scratch.

Greg Worrel February 9, 2009 at 8:32 pm

Zen,

Wow. I say I am a business owner and that higher unemployment can have some positive aspects and in your eyes I become a cross between a robber baron and medieval sweat shop owner.

Yes, like all businesses I prey on the misfortune of the unemployed by sometimes hiring them. Perhaps it takes someone with your unique insight to look at it that way.

Your mis-characterization is offensive. You know nothing about me. I pay market wages or better. I have employees who have been with me for many years.

I have been in business for over 30 years. I am not rich. I have had more than my share of ups and downs. I bend over backwards to offer products and services at prices my customers are willing to pay. If I don't they usually feel free to take their business elsewhere. Funny how that works.

I am in the Detroit area but I have seen no drop in business. I have not had to lay anyone off. Maybe I am just lucky. I have a brother out of work from the auto industry but he is taking a class for a possible career change and is doing fine.

No one is starving. "Grim" to me implies near-death and extreme hardship. That is hyperbole.

As has been pointed out here at CafeHayek, the job numbers are the net. Something like 7 million new jobs were created while 7.5 million were lost. That says there is always churn in the marketplace that displaces people. To over-dramatize the effects of it only leads to over correction and bad decisions by all the parties involved, especially the government.

I agree with Dr T above that a significant part of the problem is the commentary by government officials and the major media in hyping this for their own ends.

Zen, this is looked at from the employee's perspective because their numbers dwarf those of business owners. Just as falling home prices are seen as a catastrophe because the number of home owner's with dropping equity dwarf the number of actively looking new home buyers. From the consumer's perspective, falling home prices are a plus.

I understand that rising unemployment rates is not a good thing, but for the vast majority of people it is not a catastrophe either.

Greg Worrel February 9, 2009 at 8:59 pm

Michael,

How do you get from "higher unemployment means less chance of losing valuable employees" to "Delighting in the idea that people without lots of savings now may feel forced to keep working for me no matter what the conditions of employment are, and taking any more advantage of that than is necessary to ensure the survival of the business seems positively evil."

Give me a break. Did you really get from one to the other or are you jumping off of Zen's imaginary business ogre?

If you have never had anyone quit to go elsewhere then either you are extremely lucky, have only been in business a short time, have a very small business with very few employees, or you are Ghandi in a business suit. Or maybe I am just an ogre.

Maybe I am not paying close enough attention but the only businesses that seem to have been hit with a sharp downturn are the auto companies. In Detroit we are accustomed to it. It is a cyclical industry. Every time it happens the people in Lansing say we need to attract more diverse businesses but then they maintain the same anti-business policies year after year.

I don't relish letting anyone go. If the business is run lean then it is not usually necessary even in a recession. I have always believed that our own decisions and actions have more of an impact than an overall downturn in the economy.

Look at McDonalds. Their revenue and profits are up. Maybe it is because of the recession, more likely it is despite the recession. They made some good decisions.

I have certainly had to fire people and I don't relish it, but I rarely agonize over it either. A more common mistake is to keep the wrong person too long. It is easy to do and neither party is better off for it.

Ben February 14, 2009 at 8:16 pm

Very nice.

Seems the AP story you link to has changed or is pointing to the wrong story.

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