The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The media is failing the public on the good news about jobs

The job market is great right now. If people think it’s the opposite, some part of the blame falls on us.

An oil-change shop in Brockton, Mass., seeks applicants in January. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
5 min

This column has been updated.

The unemployment rate is at an encouragingly low point. Less than 4 percent of the labor force is actively seeking work. And the latest monthly Labor Department report showed another healthy spike in the number of new jobs — they’ve been steadily on the rise for many months in a row.

But if you ask regular Americans about the jobs climate, a surprising number of them seem to think the opposite is true.

This lack of knowledge matters. Political fortunes rise and fall in part on the health of the job market. As the Clinton 1992 campaign staff kept reminding themselves when gauging how to communicate with voters: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

So whose fault is it? Is it people who can’t be bothered to pay attention to the news, let alone the world around them?

The writer Alex Pareene posited that a robust job market paradoxically feels like something negative to “secure Americans,” including bosses and managers. Low unemployment leads to “worse service at restaurants, school bus driver shortages, and longer checkout lines nearly everywhere” — and, lately, union campaigns within the ranks of warehouse workers and coffee-shop baristas.

Or have they fallen for the spiel of partisan Republicans who want to deny any good news emerging from the Biden era — such as Rep. Lisa C. McClain (R-Mich.), who recently claimed at a Detroit-area Donald Trump rally that unemployment was at a 40-year high? It’s actually close to a 52-year low. (McClain also ludicrously claimed that Trump, not Barack Obama, was the president who caught Osama bin Laden.)

Or does the blame fall squarely on the news media for not delivering the news in a way that everyone can easily absorb?

In his last post before his tragic death last week, the media critic Eric Boehlert argued that journalists are purposely putting President Biden’s accomplishments, including job growth, in a negative light; he asserted that the press is actually “rooting against Biden.”

I’m less convinced that the press purposely is out to get Biden. For one thing, that would require more forethought and coordination than the mainstream media is capable of. Biden’s press coverage has been pretty negative, but that has more to do with the media’s addiction to conflict and the unending desire for a cohesive narrative. (“Democrats in disarray” is a favorite trope.)

But the public’s lack of knowledge on jobs ought to sound an alarm bell for journalists.

If we’re putting information out there, truthfully and in real time, and people aren’t getting it, some significant share of the blame falls on us.

“It should be a wake-up call,” said Tom Rosenstiel, a professor at the University of Maryland’s journalism school and formerly the executive director of the American Press Institute. The lack of understanding, he told me, “is not entirely the media’s fault, but it should be their concern.”

I agree. I’ve often taught college and graduate students, and I’d be pretty worried about my methods if vast numbers of students came away believing the opposite of what I was trying to get across. I’d have to conclude that there was some problem with the way I was transmitting information.

So what should journalists do about this disconnect? I’ll offer three suggestions as a starting point.

First, find some balance in the current economic coverage, which has pounded away relentlessly at soaring inflation but mentioned job growth or wage increases only in passing. To be sure, inflation is a major and legitimate concern, particularly because of the high cost of putting food on the table and gas in the car or truck.

But high costs also are a particularly easy story for TV news to do. The visuals — gas station price signs, for example — are there for the taking. The jobs story may be less immediate and compelling, but it is also important.

Second, examine the knee-jerk media narrative, which goes like this: Biden’s approval numbers are down, and that’s because the economy is bad. That framing has been relentless, and it is self-fulfilling. It’s all part of the horse-race coverage that journalists are addicted to, but that doesn’t serve the public.

And third, cover all aspects of the new world of work more rigorously and more creatively. At many news organizations, the traditional labor beat was dismantled years ago. It should be brought back in reinvented form with attention paid to the gig economy, working from home, the burgeoning unionization movement and more.

It’s a deep, fascinating, close-to-home topic with great story potential — including the potential to give citizens a far better understanding of what’s really going on.

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