Thursday, July 31, 2008

How the media make you believe things are worse than they are

Today, the government reported that the economy, as measured by Gross Domestic Product or GDP, grew by an annual rate of 1.9 percent. Nothing to write home about, but not bad either.

A caveat in the news business is that good news does not sell. My exposure to this was during the time I worked both in PR, working with the media, and as a newspaper reporter and editor. Bad news sells, good news does not, especially for the front page. And the front page, especially above the fold, which readers supposedly see first, is the Holy Grail of bad news.

The way people digest news these days is changing, but the dinosaur main-stream media has not changed quickly enough, which is why so many are struggling financially.

But the media will make good news look bad, because of this "golden rule" of news editors. They use the English language, choosing their words carefully, precisely. Reporters and editors spend a great deal of time doing this, and their choice of words are seldom by accident.

The AP reported this morning that "economic growth picked up" in the second quarter. Key here is "picked up." As in only. Of course, the reason is that the tax rebate "energized" consumers. This was the first sentence of the story, so you left with a kind of ho-hum feeling.

Next sentence, in the first paragraph (which is called the lead, or lede), reads: "The rebound followed a treacherous patch where the economy jolted into reverse at the end of 2007. The italics are mine to point out the change of emotion from the first sentence to the second.

Second paragraph provides actual figures for the lead (emphasis mine):

The Commerce Department reported Thursday that gross domestic product, or GDP, increased at an annual rate of 1.9 percent in the April-to-June period. That marked an improvement over the feeble 0.9 percent growth logged in the first quarter of this year and an outright contraction in the economy during the final quarter of last year.

Let's look at some other superlatives used in the article.

"The rebound, while welcome, isn't likely to be seen as a signal that the fragile economy is out of the woods. There are fears that as the bracing tonic of the tax rebates fades, the economy could be in for another rough patch later this year."

One of my favorite passages in the article is this one: "...employers have cut jobs for six months in a row, bringing total losses this year close to a staggering half-million — 438,000."

First of all, 438,000 is closer to 400,000 than a half-million, or 500,000. So if you are rounding to the nearest hundred thousand, it should have read "a whopping 400,000." Get it?

Secondly, there are more than 146 million people working in this country. Cutting 438,000 jobs is only .2 percent of the total. While we all hate to see 438,000 jobs cut, that doesn't really mean that 438,000 more people are out of work. As the AP reports, "The Labor Department reported Thursday that the number of applications for jobless benefits soared to 448,000, an increase of 44,000 from the previous week." A less-than-10-percent increase is not soaring. If there are 10,000 more people unemployed over the number of job cuts, so it must be that many of those people in jobs that were cut have found new employment. Now that would NOT be bad news.

The fact is that the economy grew in the second quarter and the jobless rate remains historically low.

But why paint a rosy picture when you can spin it as bad news?

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