Jobless: Links on the Language of Employment Statistics

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Jobless: Links on the Language of Employment Statistics

Although I didn’t realize it at the time I wrote it, my take on today’s employment reports, which showed both a decrease in the unemployment rate and a loss of jobs, may be among the most pessimistic. When our Canright Calendar email comes out on Monday, today’s report will be referred to as a “job-loss report,” in contrast to most-often used tag of “jobless report.”

But then the figures have shown losses for so long, it appears that my brain sees it as a report of losses and not of data. A review of today’s headlines shows that I’m not the only one. In a search for meaning in the data, major media reported today’s seemingly contradictory figures mostly as a mixture of optimism tempered with the frustration of this recession’s long-declining employment data.

My tag may simply have been influenced by the first report I saw,’s article “The big jobs hole.”

MSNBC put a little more positive spin on the figures in “A ray of hope clouded by 8.4 million jobless: Mixed January employment data show how far the jobs market needs to go.”

The business media put the most positive spin on the news. “US jobless rate lowest for five months,” reported the Financial Times. “The US unemployment rate fell to a five-month low of 9.7 percent in January, even as the economy shed 20,000 jobs. . .

The Wall Street Journal followed suit in “Signs of Hope as Jobless Rate Dips.” The report, however, noted the “employers continued cutting jobs in January as businesses remained insecure about the economic outlook.” Indeed, though we hope to add to our staff soon.

President Obama tempered his optimism, according to the Journal, by saying that the report is “encouraging” and a “cause for hope but not celebration.”

Taking the just-the-numbers approach was National Public Radio and the Chicago Tribune; both reported “Jobless Rate Drops To 9.7 Percent,” though NPR inserted the word “unexpectedly” in its headline while the Tribune left that information for its article’s lead. The New York Times led in the same way but with the sunny headline “Labor Market Shows Signs of Rebirth in New Data.”

As usual, NPR’s excellent Planet Money team made the most of the situation to explain how reports can show a fall in the unemployment rate with a loss of 20,000 jobs in “Yay!(?) Jobless Rate Under 10 Percent.” The ever skeptical Agora Financial’s 5 Min. Forecast simply tagged it all “Jobs Insanity.”

Finally, my favorite, The Economist, which always seems to provide so much interpretation in its headline decks of so few words:

American jobs figures
Falling flat
More evidence that America is experiencing a jobless recovery

The lead paragraph rounds out the situation with economic context:

A WEEK ago, Americans were told that their economy had expanded for a second consecutive quarter, and rapidly at that: output grew at an annual rate of 5.7%. This week, they are reminded that a return to growth has yet to benefit the jobless. The economy lost 20,000 jobs in January, a decline driven by the loss of 75,000 jobs in the construction sector. Economists had forecast an increase in employment of around 15,000. The unemployment rate, based on household rather than establishment data, showed a slight improvement, dropping from 10% to 9.7%, but nearly 15m Americans remain unemployed. As Larry Summers put it in Davos last week, the American economy is experiencing “a statistical recovery and a human recession”.

For his nice turn of phase, which gives the most accurate and concise summation of the jobs report and economic situation, my business language prize goes to Larry Summers, director of the National Economic Council.