The media misleads the public about good job news

This column has been updated.

The unemployment rate is at an encouraging level. Less than 4% of the labor force is actively looking for a job. And the Labor Department’s latest monthly report showed another healthy spike in the number of new jobs — they’ve been rising steadily for many months in a row.

But if you ask ordinary Americans about the job climate, a surprising number of them seem to think the opposite is true.

This lack of knowledge is significant. Political fortunes rise and fall partly on the health of the job market. As 1992 Clinton campaign staff kept reminding themselves when evaluating how to communicate with voters: “It’s the economy, you idiot.”

So who is to blame ? Are these people who don’t care to pay attention to information, let alone the world around them?

Writer Alex Pareene postulated that a paradoxically robust labor market feels as something negative to “secure Americans”, including bosses and managers. Low unemployment is leading to ‘deteriorating service at restaurants, shortages of school bus drivers and longer lines almost everywhere’ – and, lately, union campaigns among warehouse workers and cafe baristas.

Or have they fallen for partisan Republicans who want to deny any good news emerging from the Biden era — like Rep. Lisa C. McClain (R-Mich.), who recently claimed at a Donald Trump rally in the Detroit area that unemployment was at its highest level in 40 years? That’s actually close to a 52-year low. (McClain also ridiculously claimed that Trump, not Barack Obama, was the president who caught Osama bin Laden.)

Or does the blame fall squarely on the news media for not delivering the news in a way that everyone can easily absorb?

In his final post before his tragic death last week, media critic Eric Boehlert argued that journalists deliberately put President Biden’s achievements, including job growth, in a negative light; he claimed the press is “actually rooting against Biden.”

I am less convinced that the press is deliberately trying to catch Biden. On the one hand, it would require more foresight and coordination than the mainstream media is capable of. Media coverage of Biden has been quite negative, but that has more to do with the media’s reliance on conflict and the endless desire for a cohesive narrative. (“Democrats in disarray” is a favorite trope.)

But the public’s ignorance of the trades should sound the alarm for journalists.

If we release information, honestly and in real time, and people don’t get it, a lot of the blame lies with us.

“That should be a wake-up call,” said Tom Rosenstiel, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Journalism and former executive director of the American Press Institute. The lack of understanding, he told me, “isn’t entirely the media’s fault, but it should be their concern.”

I am okay. I have often taught college and graduate students, and I would be quite concerned about my methods if a large number of students left believing the opposite of what I was trying to convey. I would have to conclude that there was a problem with the way I conveyed the information.

So what should journalists do in the face of this disconnect? I will offer three suggestions as a starting point.

First, find some balance in the current economic coverage, which has repeatedly hammered home soaring inflation but only mentioned job growth or wage increases in passing. Certainly, inflation is a major and legitimate concern, especially because of the high cost of food on the table and gasoline in the car or truck.

But high costs are also a particularly easy story for newscasts. The visuals – gas station price signs, for example – are there for the taking. The employment story may be less immediate and compelling, but it’s equally important.

Second, examine the knee-jerk media narrative, which goes like this: Biden’s approval numbers are down, and that’s because the economy is doing badly. This framing has been relentless and it is self-fulfilling. It’s all part of the horse racing coverage journalists are addicted to, but it doesn’t serve the public.

And third, to cover all aspects of the new world of work with greater rigor and creativity. In many news outlets, the traditional pace of work was dismantled years ago. It is set to be brought back in a reimagined form with attention paid to the gig economy, working from home, the burgeoning union organizing movement and more.

It’s a deep, fascinating, and close-to-home subject with great story potential – including the potential to give citizens a much better understanding of what’s really going on.

READ MORE by Margaret Sullivan:

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