Saturday, June 6, 2009

Don't Read The Headlines!

Journalists discovered ages ago that most people only read the headlines in a newspaper before heading to the comics, lifestyle, or sports section. The next most frequently read portions are photo captions and opening paragraphs. Some will read the final paragraph, but few will read the entire article no matter how important the story is. Radio and television news, because of time contraints, usually consist of mere headlines and leads (opening paragraphs).

Today's journalists carefully craft their headlines, captions, and leads to promote the message they want the public to remember. The Media Rule (I think we're up to four now) for today is: Always be suspicious of headlines and leads in this era of unbridled bias in major media outlets.

For example, throughout the Bush administration, most economic reports were couched in negative terms. Even a tiny rise in unemployment was often accompanied by a story about a newly homeless person or a family facing foreclosure because of job loss. Little attention was paid to the times when unemployment rates were well below what had been considered normal (6%). The R word for recession was bandied about until most people thought we were in the middle of one two years before it actually began.

Now that Obama is in office, the unemployment stories feature people who gladly use the opportunity to vacation, do volunteer work, or garden instead of those in dire financial straits. They even coined a new word, "funemployment" instead of unemployment, to describe the situation.

Friday's unemployment news stories were classic examples of "lying though headlines." By today practically everyone knows that the rate of new applications for unemployment slowed for the first time since September. Most quickly concluded that the recession will soon be over.

Hardly anyone knows that although the rate slowed, the percentage (9.4%) is now the highest in 27 years. Buried in the middle of an AP story is this sentence:
If laid-off workers who have given up looking for new jobs or have settled for part-time work are included, the unemployment rate would have been 16.4 percent in May, the highest on records dating to 1994.*

*Although the sentence above is technically correct, it hardly gives an accurate portrayal of the facts. The highest recorded unemployment rate since 1948 is 10.8% in November and December of 1982. The unemployment rate in 1994 ranged between 5.5% and 6.6%. Go to this Department of Labor statistics page to see the official tabulations. And don't forget that 16.4% is higher than any year listed in the table.

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