Sunday, March 20, 2005

 

When reporters try to comment on statistics, polls and spin . . .

. . . accurate information is often left behind.

Take for example, Alison Grant of the Plain Dealer, who takes a perfectly simple "writes itself" kind of story about Ohio's new jobs/unemployment report, and then mucks the whole thing up with this:
Ohio's unemployment rate rose to 6.4 percent in February from 5.9 percent in January as more people jumped into the job market in expectation that the outlook is improving. [emphasis added]
We assume Grant was basing this on comments from head of the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services:
"The increase in the unemployment rate was due in part to more people looking for work in anticipation of improvements in the economy, rather than significant change in the labor market" said ODJFS Director Barbara Riley.
There are two parts to what Riley is asserting. First, since there was a net loss of over 4,000 jobs during the month, some of the rise in unemployment is probably due to sheer job loss. Second, she is asserting a commonly-held view that a rise in unemployment that is not attributable to job loss is a good thing because it supposedly indicates that more people are optimistic about their chances of getting a job.

There can be some truth to that point of view and it paints a conveniently optimistic picture of how Republicans locally and nationally are doing with the economy. But, it takes quite a bit more research to determine if that fully describes what's going on.

For example, Riley doesn't really know at this point if the 6.4% figure is accurate. Typically, ODJFS has to revise that number the following month and with an initial report of a .5% jump some significant downward revision wouldn't be unusual. There is also the potential for volatility in population data sets as well as regional and job-sector factors to have caused the unemployment number to skew upwards. In other words, a more-optimistic workforce is only one possible explanation.

At best, Riley's comments should be taken as extremely optimistic spin. Why call it spin? One of the first ways we test for spin is to ask, would the person have applied the same logic if the news was politically bad. If we go back to the January 2005 ODJFS jobs/unemployment report - where unemployment dropped from 6.1% to 5.9% - there is nary a comment from Riley about the decrease being caused by workers dropping out of the workforce because of discouragement about the economy.

And, if we go back one more month to the December 2004 report, where another drop in unemployment occurred, Riley blamed "the volatility of Current Population Survey data."

Riley is a Republican loyalist who knows what side her bread is buttered on, so her efforts are no surprise. But this is marked shift from her predecessor, Tom Hayes. Although a Democrat, Hayes's quotes on the jobs and unemployment were always factual, if not stating the obvious.

So, Grant is guilty of the reporter's sin of wholesale buying into Riley and the Republican's spin. But, Grant compounds her errors by tossing in this:
Non-government polling also has captured rising anticipation of a better job market. Twenty-six percent of adult workers in Ohio believe that more jobs are available, compared to 24 percent in January, according to a survey by the staffing firm Spherion Corp. and Harris Interactive.
Leaving aside the obvious skepticism that Grant should have for a self-serving poll, she acts as if the increase from 24% to 26% was significant. But it wasn't - statistically (and factually) speaking that is. The survey's methodology indicates that result have a margin of error of +/- 3%. In other words, Spherion/Harris knows with a 95% certainty that the results are between 23% and 29%. Period. No rising optimism. No thoughts of better job opportunities.

Alison (and your editor) - surely you can do better than this.

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