Positive Job Growth Continues Will News Coverage Improve?

Positive Job Growth Continues Will News Coverage Improve?
Two straight years of positive employment numbers and more than 3 million new jobs but those facts havent stopped the media from finding negativity in the strangest places.

By Amy Menefee
May 6, 2005

     The latest employment report marks 24 straight months of positive job creation in the U.S. economy more than 3 million jobs worth of good news. Yet, during that period network news has found plenty of negatives and has downplayed net employment gains on President Bushs watch, even comparing job growth to the Great Depression.

     According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics May 6, 2005, report, about 3.3 million jobs have been created in the past two years. The latest numbers showed 274,000 new jobs were created in April and the report also added 93,000 jobs to previous totals. Unemployment also held steady at the low figure of 5.2 percent. But the media have dismissed and ignored job growth and even found ways to portray it as a sign of a bad economy.

     Coming up on the presidential election, Dan Rather jumped the gun with a highly inaccurate prediction. On Oct. 8, 2004, the September jobs numbers showed positive growth, and Bushs first term had more than three months left. Despite those facts, Rather declared on the CBS Evening News, Its the first net job loss on a presidents watch since Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression of the 1930s. He neglected to mention the devastating economic effects of the 9/11 attacks, which reporters seldom acknowledge. Of course, Rathers prediction also was wrong, as Bush ended his term with a net job gain which Rather mentioned in a 77-word report on the Feb. 4, 2005, broadcast.

     Thats not the only time journalists have found negativity in positive numbers. For example, on the Dec. 5, 2004, NBC Nightly News, reporter Maria Bartiromo lamented positive job growth: Certainly job creation has not improved all that much, she said. One hundred and twelve thousand (112,000) jobs created in the month of November was below what economists were expecting; 200,000 new jobs was what they were expecting, so this economy has changed. Two months later, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics did its normal revision, the November Employment Situation picked up more than 200,000 additional jobs. Such revisions are common, but reporting on the revisions isnt. NBC Nightly News did not mention the improvement.

     Reporters frequently compared new numbers to expectations, saying that economists predicted higher job growth than occurred. Rather slipped this into his Feb. 4, 2005, broadcast: The economy created fewer jobs than economists had predicted but enough for President Bush to end his first term with a net job gain. Rather didnt revisit his earlier declaration that Bush would end the term with net losses.

     Comparing the job totals to predictions as Rather did is one way reporters cast positive numbers in a negative light. Brian Williams, on the Dec. 3, 2004, NBC Nightly News, said, Employers added just 112,000 new jobs last month. Thats the weakest gain in five months, only about half of what economists had forecast.

     But it turns out that those conventional-wisdom predictions are almost always incorrect, according to a Goldman-Sachs study cited by The Dallas Morning News on August 30, 2004. The study found that job creation forecasts have consistently come in higher than actual jobs numbers since 1999. Also, later revisions to job numbers can have a significant impact on monthly totals.

     Good news sometimes merited only a sentence or two from news anchors. On Jan. 7, 2005, Brian Williams gave the bare facts on NBC Nightly News. He said, Employers added 157,000 workers to their payrolls last month. The unemployment rate, by the way, held steady at 5.4 percent. Decembers payroll additions bring the total number of jobs added for a year now to 2.2 million. Thats the best showing in five years. President Bush called this all a very positive set of numbers.

     Likewise, on the March 4, 2005, CBS Evening News, Dan Rather simply said, The jobs picture continues to improve, citing the creation of 262,000 jobs in February. His story included no elaboration on the numbers or examples of businesses prospering.

     This poor coverage of employment is part of an ongoing problem for the media. A Business & Media Institute analysis of network news coverage during the past six months showed how the media focus more on negative economic news than positive. For example, the three major networks devoted twice as much coverage to the spike in gas prices as to employment news. Overall, there were 21 stories about employment and 40 covering gas prices. ABC had the most pronounced difference, covering gas prices more than five times as often as employment.

     The Business & Media Institute examined the evening news programs on all three broadcast networks ABC, NBC and CBS between Nov. 1, 2004, and April 30, 2005. This time period picked up where the previous BMI jobs study left off. All stories that focused on nationwide employment statistics were included. Stories that examined the impact of rising gasoline prices were also analyzed. Stories about oil price hikes were only included if they also focused on the impact that would have on gas prices. No other oil stories were included.

     For more on coverage of jobs, please see the October 2004 Business & Media Institute study  titled One Economy, Two Spins. That study found inaccurate reporting on jobs numbers as well as overwhelming negativity when the incumbent president was Republican.