Friday’s jobs report provided a highly effective Rorschach test for our major newsrooms. What did they see in it? And what did that reveal about them?
News organizations have personalities and politics, whether they admit it or not. (They don’t.)
It’s in coverage like this that their natural impulses are easiest to divine. Faced with a combination of positive and negative indicators, what do they reflexively focus on?
What the evidence below suggests is that newsrooms that tend to see everything as a political story – like the New York Times and the Washington Post — were more likely to focus on the negative elements of the jobs report. The addition of 199,000 jobs in December was disappointing, they concluded.
Those newsrooms consistently link President Biden’s re-election hopes to the health of the economy, so one could argue that stressing negative news about the economy reflects either a need to put a negative spin on everything — or some sort of latent anti-Biden bias.
Biden himself said on Friday that the report marked a “historic day for our economic recovery,” and credited it in part to his American Rescue Plan and widespread distribution of the Covid vaccines. “This is the kind of recovery I promised and hoped for for the American people,” he said.
And many other newsrooms saw the report, with its record low unemployment numbers, as hugely positive. Newsrooms serving the business community in particular saw it as signifying a booming recovery.
Let’s take a look:
The headline and the lead both focused on the negative. Eli Rosenberg described the report as “capping the year off with two straight months of disappointing levels of growth.”
The story was “updated” in the afternoon, to recast the report as containing “confusing signals” – but that only makes my point stronger: That the initial urge was to be negative.
The later version also included a pretty ironic quote from Augustine Faucher, chief economist at the PNC Financial Services Group, who said “We have a weak headline number but the details were much better.”
The earlier version concluded with this paragraph:
Polls continue to show that voters disapprove of President Biden’s handling of the economy, as concerns about inflation and labor shortages overshadow other achievements. Inflation has been rising by its fastest pace in 40 years.
New York Times
The article by Sydney Ember and Jeanna Smialek started out with a graphic titled “Another month of slow job gains.”
And the lead sounded pretty dire:
Hiring slowed significantly at the end of last year, a stark indication that employers are struggling to fill positions even as the United States remains millions of jobs short of prepandemic levels.
But after the first two paragraphs, Ember and Smialek basically stopped to explain that it’s not really dire at all: Slower hiring numbers like these ordinarily reflect decreased demand — which would be a sign of legitimate concern — but in light of the low unemployment numbers and strong wage growth, they more likely reflect a shortage in the labor supply, which is not a bad thing at all (especially if you’re part of the labor supply).
So why emphasize the negative in the headline and lead? My answer: newsroom personality disorder. I think that also explains the following paragraph. (I’m not sure exactly what it means, but I think it’s suggestive of bad optics for Biden if numbers like these continue.)
And they could prompt a split-screen on the state of the economy heading into a midterm election year that will determine the fate of President Biden’s agenda, as well as control of pivotal state governorships and legislatures.
So here’s a totally different take, which I would argue is both a truer reading of the data and a much more edifying story for the readers. Christopher Rugaber wrote:
The nation’s unemployment rate fell in December to a healthy 3.9% — a pandemic low — even as employers added a modest 199,000 jobs, evidence that they are struggling to fill jobs with many Americans reluctant to return to the workforce.
The drop in the jobless rate, from 4.2% in November, indicated that many more people found work last month. Indeed, despite the slight hiring gain reported by businesses, 651,000 more workers said they were employed in December compared with November.
Rugaber noted the possible disruptions ahead on account of the spike in Covid cases.
But then he added a story about a real person: Patrick Freeman, a custodian at a furniture factory in North Carolina, who in late November got a permanent job and a 33 percent pay increase after having spent two years as a temp.
Apparently, more employers are shifting employees from temporary to permanent status, in order to keep them. That sounds like good news.
Wall Street Journal
Sarah Chaney Cambon’s article in the Journal was shockingly optimistic:
U.S. hiring moderated in December to close out a record year for job gains ahead of disruptions from the Omicron variant, with declining unemployment and robust wage growth suggesting the economy will grow solidly this year.
Employers added 199,000 jobs in December, below average monthly job growth of 537,000 in 2021, the Labor Department said Friday. Slower job growth in recent months largely reflects companies’ inability to find workers as labor supply remains tight, some economists said.
She also wrote:
The labor market, while still recovering from the pandemic, is entering the year on much better footing than it did at the start of 2021. In recent months, job openings surged to historically high levels and workers quit their jobs at record rates.
“I think 2022 will still be a very strong year for the labor market and the economy after this Omicron disruption at the start of the year,” said Julia Pollak, economist at jobs website ZipRecruiter.
Lucia Mutikani looked at the big picture and saw progress toward something previously considered almost unattainable:
U.S. employment rose far less than expected in December amid worker shortages, and job gains could remain moderate in the near term as spiraling COVID-19 cases disrupt economic activity.
But the Labor Department’s closely watched employment report on Friday suggested the jobs market was at or near maximum employment. The unemployment rate tumbled to a 22-month low of 3.9% from 4.2% in November. The second straight big monthly decline occurred even as more people entered the labor force. Wages increased solidly, underscoring labor market tightness.
NPR’s Scott Horsley focused mostly on the bad news. “We are seeing a pretty significant downshift in the pace of hiring,” he reported.
NPR’s twitter feed once again jumped to emphasize the worst:
U.S. employers added just 199,000 workers to payrolls in December, a disappointing number.
Now, with a spike in new coronavirus infections tied to the omicron variant this could further weigh on job gains in the weeks to come.https://t.co/KxEDA1aBs5
— NPR (@NPR) January 7, 2022
But that wasn’t nearly as bad as last month’s tweet:
JUST IN: November hiring was a bust, with only 210,000 jobs created — and those numbers came in even before omicron was identified.https://t.co/LCmE0qb9lP
— NPR (@NPR) December 3, 2021
Pressrun author Eric Boehlert cited that December tweet as evidence that the “press remains committed to running down Biden economy.” Boehlert has repeatedly pointed out that many news outlets “stress discouraging news regarding the Biden economy, while often ignoring or downplaying the cascading positive developments.”
It was all business at the FT – with no handwringing about job numbers and expectations:
The US unemployment rate dropped significantly in December, prompting investors to increase their bets on the Federal Reserve moving quickly to raise interest rates and withdraw the stimulus it put in place to support the economy at the start of the pandemic.
CNN morning anchor John Berman telegraphed the day’s coverage when he summed up the jobs report as “some ‘wow’ and some ‘huh’.”
Update (a few minutes later)
Reed Richardson, a super-sharp editor with the Global Investigative Journalism Network, reminds me of an important point: These initial monthly job reports have been so far off recently that they really aren’t worth hyping.
By now, I'd argue it's poor news judgment to hype/focus on the figures in the initial monthly #jobsreport. So far in 2021, revisions have added 1.117 *million* extra jobs (with two more rounds still to go!). These low-ball first takes really misrepresent the state of the economy. pic.twitter.com/spmuH7KHOU
— Reed F. Richardson (@reedfrich) January 7, 2022
That was particularly true on Friday, when these stories pushed coverage of Biden’s important speech about democracy off the top of homepages everywhere. That was not a responsible move.