July 5, 2013
Fireworks. (ANTONOVMLADEN ANTONOV/Agence France Press/Getty Images)
(MLADEN ANTONOVMLADEN ANTONOV/Agence France Press/Getty Images

Here’s one for Fourth of July week — a little context reminder for those of us who follow the news carefully.

Today’s employment report was fairly good — not only close to 200,000 jobs were added in June, but revisions to previous reports meant that the (almost) 200K streak is at three months now.

But I’d bet that most Americans don’t perceive a full recovery, and rightly so; the Obama slow recovery hasn’t come close yet to fully replacing all the jobs lost in the Bush recession.

All of which reminds me that Mitt Romney promised 12 million new jobs if he had been elected president. Well, Romney wasn’t elected, and presumably the economic policies followed since the election are far from what Romney would have wanted. And yet, six months into the year, and the Obama second term is on pace for a little better than 9.5 million jobs. Certainly worse than Romney’s promised pace, but not all that much worse. Which is no surprise; analysts at the time noted that Romney’s promise was underwhelming.

Now, I could use this as an opportunity to bash Romney, but no one cares about that any more. Instead, I’ll make a very different point: yes, it’s obvious, but the United States is a very, very large nation. And, as consumers of the news, we find it extremely hard to cope with that. For example, 12 million new jobs in 4 years — is that a lot, or a little, or normal? Without some additional cues, only business and macroeconomic experts could really answer that question. It certainly sounds like a lot of jobs, but with a population of more than 300 million, there’s no easy way to figure that out by oneself.

Moving beyond jobs: In a nation of that size, and with technology allowing local stories to instantly go national — there’s never going to be a shortage of crime stories, for example. In fact, there’s never going to be a shortage of any kind of stories you want. And that’s a danger for news consumers (and for honest reporters). Pick a potential trend, and a good reporter will always be able to find a few confirming anecdotes.

So, for example, when the Affordable Care Act exchanges kick in later this year, it won’t be hard at all for anyone determined to “prove” that they’re a disaster to find examples of people who couldn’t handle the computer interface, or young healthies who feel threatened by the individual mandate, or businesses that shut down their company-provided insurance and tossed people onto the exchanges. Nor will it be hard to find examples showing that everything is working perfectly!

Not that good reporters shouldn’t use specific examples; they certainly should. But everyone involved needs to be on guard, remembering that those examples can only give us a very limited, and by themselves very possibly misleading, view.

The only way to get around the problem is for us to keep the context — a very, very, large nation — firmly in mind. And to remember that individual examples may help us understand but say nothing about a big picture, and that we all are dependent on experts to help us deal with that context, telling us how many jobs per month or new insurance sign-ups or whatever else you want to know about is “too little” and how much is “a lot.”