Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Recovery narrative

Via Dr. Helen Smith (truly the better half of libertarian Glenn Harlan Reynolds), CNBC reports:

A large number of men who are still in their prime working years find themselves without jobs for extended periods, despite an improving economy, according to a piece in the Wall Street Journal.

What improving economy? We lost 8.6 million jobs in a 23-month span. As the chart above shows, job growth has resumed its pre-Great Recession course, keeping abreast of population growth. There was no subsequent hiring spike to cancel out the firing spike that took place in 2008 and 2009. There was no jobs recovery.

Why are data that consistently reflect no recovery reported in the context of a recovery? The answer lies in the stories reporters want to tell. When truth is relative, the narrative becomes paramount. As CNBC’s Jeff Cox said last week when January’s pitiful jobs numbers were released, “I think the narrative is still that things are improving.” Oh, joy!

Those 8.6 million jobs are gone, lost to machinization and outsourcing. Joining them in extinction soon will be financial reporters, if this shoddiness is what news organizations have come to expect. No wonder “machines are already turning ... financial data into good-enough news stories,” as reported by The Economist. There is little advantage in hiring actual reporters.

Curiously, there is no byline on this CNBC article. Would we be able to tell the difference if it was authored by a computer? A computer is only as good as its programmer.

Let’s look at two financial news templates that a news organization might use. We’ll focus on the first graf since that’s all the media want you to read anyway.

First, the bad news template: [Bad news in 15 words or less], despite an improving economy, according to [news organization/financial expert].

Now, the good news template: [Good news], signalling the booming economy hasn’t lost momentum, according to [news organization/financial expert].

Of course, both these models would be used only if liberals were in charge of economic policy. If, however, the news organization wants to switch narratives and tell the news in the context of conservatives directing economic policy, it would use the following templates:

[Bad news], worse than economists projected, signalling negative market reaction to [Republican/conservative policy].

[Good news], calling into question the need for further [Republican/conservative policy].

For the time being, investigative reporters are avoiding competition from machines, because that job requires an inquiring, imaginative mind—more inquiring and imaginative than most reporters’ minds. The Financial Times reported in 2006:

Thomson Financial, the business information group, has been using computers to generate some stories since March and is so pleased with the results that it plans to expand the practice.

The computers work so fast that an earnings story can be released within 0.3 seconds of the company making results public.

How’s that narrative looking now, Jeff?

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