Networks Do a Poor Job with Unemployment Coverage

     Ford and now DaimlerChrysler are the latest companies to take the layoff route to try and save their corporate skins. We watch our TVs day after day as the numbers add up 7,000, 20,000, 30,000 600,000 jobs lost. If you pay attention to the news, you might believe American business is creating a giant soup line stretching from Wall Street to Wal-Marts headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.

     Only that story is a fairy tale. Certainly, there have been job losses. Autoworkers have been particularly hard hit, as have residents of the Gulf areas savaged by Hurricane Katrina. But the real story of American employment in 2005 wasnt a depression, it was good news news often ignored or disregarded by the very media supposed to report it.

     Two million new jobs were created in 2005. More than 4.6 million have been added since May 2003 31 straight months of positive job growth. Unemployment dropped down to 4.9 percent, lower than the average of all three recent decades.

     That wasnt the way the jobs engine was described on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening news shows in 2005. The broadcast networks downplayed strong growth and, instead, emphasized things like corporate layoffs and outsourcing in slightly more than half of the employment stories.

     As Trish Regan of CBS Evening News phrased it in the July 20 broadcast, Twenty-five thousand layoffs and more on the way. Im Trish Regan with why the jobs picture is looking very pink these days. Her comments ignored the fact that less than two weeks earlier the government had reported an increase of 146,000 jobs. And that number already took into account the jobs that had been lost.

     But perception is a powerful thing. Imagine what ordinary workers think when they see that half of the evening news stories on jobs were about job losses government cutbacks, outsourcing, downsizing, you name it. By comparison, only a bit more than a third were stories about jobs being added.

     Those good news stories werent as good as they should have been, either, because the evening news ignored the monthly revisions in the employment report. In 2005, most of the monthly changes added jobs 283,000 in all. So network news skipped more than a quarter million jobs except those few times that they mentioned cumulative totals. This was especially important because Septembers initial post-Katrina job numbers were negative and thats how they were reported. When the Labor Department revised them upward later, none of the three networks mentioned it.

     These findings come from an analysis by the Media Research Centers Business & Media Institute, which studied 151 employment stories on the 2005 evening news shows from all three broadcast networks ABC, CBS and NBC.

     They were incredibly consistent. Pick a major issue related to jobs, and the shows tried to find a downside. Take the auto industry as one example. Toyota and Honda arent hurting, but that barely gets noticed. In a June 5 report, CBSs Mika Brzezinski delivered a typical network good news/bad news story about the auto industry. She mentioned two car plants one opening and one closing. The new facility was mentioned just once, but the one closing down was the focus of the rest of the lengthy report.

     Then there was the massive devastation of Katrina. Experts first predicted a loss of 500,000 jobs and a huge hit to the economy. The results were staggering in a different way. The economy barely missed a beat and most of those who had lost jobs in the Gulf soon found work elsewhere.

     The evening news shows didnt seem to notice and spewed more than their fair share of Katrina job loss stories. A Jan. 23, 2006, article from The Birmingham News showed what the networks had ignored many of that citys new residents had found jobs and decided to stay.

     Underlying this reporting is the false belief that 150,000 is the magic number of new jobs needed each month. Any month that didnt reach that mark was declared a failure. However, according to a paper by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, the actual number is about 98,000 jobs per month, almost 70,000 fewer than the economy averaged in 2005.

     President Bushs State of the Union address on January 31 will place those economic results under fresh scrutiny. It is essential to separate the success from the network spin what Heritage Foundation economist Tim Kane labeled unfulfilled promises of doom.

     If the media want to keep up that image of doom, even depression, then its up to us to demand a new deal instead of the raw one weve been getting from network news.

Dan Gainor is a career journalist and The Boone Pickens Free Market Fellow. He is also director of the Media Research Centers Business & Media Institute