March 03, 2004


Ryan Pitts writes:

Just a response to your post on CNN coverage of unemployment figures between 1996 and 2001. I think you are mistaken. Here's why:

Looking at the stories you linked in that post, it is true that the writer described the rate differently in 2001 than the writer did in 1996. However, so did economic analysts, the Fed and the White House itself. In 1996, the 5.6% rate was resoundly received as good news. Five years later, these groups did not see the rate in the same light. In fact, in the 2001 story you linked, the Bush White House says "Today's numbers are not good news."

It may be that people are looking at things irrationally, but it's much more likely that unemployment rates are always viewed in the context of the previous few years. By everyone, not just the media. (Just look at the difference in the actions the Fed considered taking in 1996 vs. 2001. They're in the stories you linked, as well.) So ultimately, I can't figure out how it's media bias when all these sources reacted differently to the similar unemployment rates, five years apart. To this end, I've compiled a comparison here.

Take a look.

Posted by Tim Blair at March 3, 2004 10:52 AM

That's interesting, but it's still a pity that a wider context couldn't be given by the media no matter how the White House is looking at the unemployment figure. Either way, thanks to Mr Pitts for the extra info.

Posted by: Sortelli at March 3, 2004 at 11:33 AM

Nice post. I think you're right that the reporting isn't due to bias: rather a lack of understanding. The ignorance of clear inferences which should be taken from your [Ryan's] graph are disconcerting though.(The numbers clearly bottom out between '99 and '01 and then climb sharply, suggesting an effect of unsustainable high employment. The rise in unemployement clearly happens before 9/11. There also seems to be about [I'm guessing] a two year lag between policy and longer term trend. There is a big fall in unemployment just before Clinton took office. The trend is pretty constant for two years then slows [probably a good thing]. The fall in unemployment now looks like it is a trend. The slight rise is cause for concern, but is probably just variance.)

Just to show how unrepresentative unemployment numbers can be to the current state, here's an anecdote: I graduated from undergrad in Dec. 2000 and couldn't get a job. I never found a job in my field; however, I wasn't counted as unemployed because I hadn't been employed yet. After two years of under-the-table, part-time, manual labor, and service jobs, I took a job in low paying, poorly-run industry which I hated. I was laid off recently and am only now considered unemployed, but my prospects for finding a good job in a viable industry are much, much better than back in 2000.

But hey, maybe those companies stopped hiring in 2000 because they expected Bush to be elected. Yeah that's it.

Posted by: aaron at March 3, 2004 at 01:54 PM

Apparently the Australian $ dropped two cents on the US$ today because the markets expect jobs growth in the US soon...hopefully in time for the elecion.

Posted by: Art Vandelay at March 3, 2004 at 08:21 PM

preview is your friend: last post should have read "election" not "elecion"

I should be thankful it wasn't 'erection' I guess.

Posted by: Art Vandelay at March 3, 2004 at 08:24 PM

That would have been the best typo EVER

Posted by: Sortelli at March 3, 2004 at 09:42 PM

Good job linking this Tim. Interesting graph to be sure. Seems as though unemployment may be similar to the economy in that it's largely based on external factors. I think the best way to look at it in terms of the President (in the US) is to note what actions he takes to curb a rising unemployment rate and stimulate the economy.

Also, to me it appears that the graph jumps up on 9/11, which makes sense of course. I'm betting the graphs of most countries worldwide look similar.

Posted by: Dash at March 3, 2004 at 11:27 PM

Given that the current unemployment numbers are used, by the media, as a club to bash Bush policies, I am inclined to see bias--despite Bush administration feelings on the matter.

The media knows that we are not suffering fron horrific unemployment--we have an employment rate in excess of 94%. How many other countries can say the same?

In addition, the movement that are being made in our employment rate are measured in tenths of a percent. That graph looks like there's been huge shifts, when, in reality, employment levels have averaged around 95% for over a decade. A decade. Realistically the subject should be the amazing stability of the employment rate--particularly in light of the crises it's weathered.

But we don't get that at all. THAT would contribute to consumer confidence. That would show people that we have a surprisingly strong and resilient economy.

The 'bias' could simply be pushed off as the media's fondness for bad news, but it's amazing how often that fondness for bad news coincides happily with Republicans actions.

Posted by: jack at March 4, 2004 at 02:15 AM