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What’s In A Headline?


This morning’s news that the U.S economy added 431,000 jobs in May should be seen as a positive. Let’s face it, if the announcement was the opposite – U.S economy loses 431,000 jobs in one month – there would be those who blame President Obama and there would be those who blame President Bush. Such is life in America these days.

However, take a look at the headlines (from the Web – not sure if print has same headlines) and introductory paragraphs from two influential publications – the center-left New York Times and the center-right Wall Street Journal (some of you may be thinking that each publication has no centrist perspective and is, instead, a symbol of ideology. I suggest you flip through The Weekly Standard or The Nation to see ideological publications).

New York Times:

U.S. Added 431,000 Jobs in May, Mostly From Census

Employers added 431,000 nonfarm jobs nationwide in May, the biggest increase in a single month since the recession, the Labor Department said Friday. But the bulk of the growth was in government jobs, driven by hiring for the Census, and private-sector job growth was weak. The unemployment rate fell to 9.7 percent nationwide, from 9.9 percent in April, the department said.

The Gray Lady uses positive descriptors like “added” “biggest” “increase” but balances the optimism with explanation: most were government jobs (implication: government creates jobs, private sector doesn’t?) So it’s a pretty neutral/positive headline and intro paragraph mixed with caution. It takes 5 paragraphs before they mention:

Altogether, 411,000 of the jobs added were for Census workers whose positions will disappear after the summer. (emphasis mine)

The net gain in government jobs was 390,000, while the private sector added only 41,000.

Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s:

Jobs Growth Slows In Private Sector 

The U.S. economy added jobs in May at the fastest pace in a decade but the gains were inflated by temporary government hiring for the 2010 Census and weren’t enough to bring unemployment down much. The U.S. Labor Department said nonfarm payrolls rose by 431,000 last month, the largest gain since March 2000. That followed an unrevised 290,000 increase in April.

At Murdoch’s beloved, the words bounce off each other: “growth” and “slows” in the headline; “added” “fastest pace” “inflated” “temporary government hiring” – this tone suggests a more neutral/negative perspective implying these numbers are nice, but not something we should be hanging our hats on, as they’ll most likely be gone when the Census is completed at the end of the summer. Notice how this is reflected in the first sentence of the first paragraph, as opposed to the NYT, where as mentioned above, took five paragraphs to get there.

The article continues to play both sides of the coin – economy is picking up month-to-month (jobs-wise), but looking at May, it’s all about temporary government work and not the private sector:

Taking into account revisions to prior months, the U.S. economy added an average of nearly 200,000 jobs a month in the January-May period, a positive sign for the job market as it recover from the worst recession since the 1930s.

However, the May figure was boosted by the hiring of 411,000 temporary workers for the decennial count of the U.S. population. Only 41,000 private-sector jobs were added.

Taken separately, each article gives the facts of the story – jobs created and why they were created. But each article has a nuanced way of telling the story. Taken in totality of each newspaper, as well as daily readings, we can look deeper at how the presentation of facts and of stories can determine how the public thinks and reacts.

It’s more important than ever before for us to be informed, but also to be media literate. With a troubled, fragmented media landscape it’s becoming increasingly easier to get lost in a sea of information. As the nonpartisan Center for Media Literacy explains:

We need to “help citizens, especially the young, develop critical thinking and media production skills needed to live fully in the 21st century media culture. The ultimate goal is to make wise choices possible.”

About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.


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