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Looking for the worst in job losses

January 16, 2009 |  2:44 pm

"Job losses highest since 1945," was the headline on Saturday's lead story, which started out by saying that jobs were "disappearing in numbers not seen since the end of World War II." A few sentences later, the story reported, "The nation's unemployment rate rose to an eye-popping 7.2% in December and brought the total jobs lost for the year to the largest number since 1945, the Labor Department said."

The monthly jobs report from the Labor Department often earns a place on the front page of the L.A. Times, but in this case, reader William Girvetz of Ojai questioned the comparisons: "Without denying that there appear to be disturbing upheavals taking place and that loss of jobs, particularly recently, is one symptom, I do not find any support in your article for concluding that the situation is comparable to that which existed in 1945 at the end of World War II.... Although there may be a lot to be concerned about, I see [your analysis] along with the headline as somewhat more dramatic than is called for."

The Washington Post and the New York Times each played the story on their Business fronts. The Post headline was, "Jobless Rate Jumps to 7.2%; Firms Cut Jobs as Well as Hours." The (other) Times said, "Broad job losses as companies face sharp downturn." Neither painted the picture as bright -- the Post story quoted someone as saying the economy is in a free-fall and the New York Times said "economists fell over themselves in describing the dire nature of the jobs report."

But was the comparison to 1945 the most accurate way to portray today's situation?

The L.A. Times story reported on raw numbers of unemployed Americans ("More than 11 million American workers -- roughly 1 out of 14 -- are unemployed and actively looking for new jobs"); it also reported what percentage of the population was unemployed (7.2%). However, a paragraph that Girvetz saw as key in providing better context was lower down. It said: "The last time the unemployment rate topped 7% was in 1993. In nominal terms, the economy has lost more jobs this year than in any year since 1945, although the population has grown significantly."

Girvetz homed in on those last six words, saying he thought readers would have been given a more realistic impression of how this compares historically had The Times focused on job losses as a percentage of total jobs. Because the total number of jobs in the economy more than quadrupled in the last 60-plus years, 2008's job loss -- 1.9% -- was the steepest only since a 2.3% drop in 1982. It was only the fifth-worst since WWII. The sixth-worst was 1.3% in 2001.

Sometimes the most dramatic numbers aren't necessarily the most helpful in giving readers that picture. Business Editor Sallie Hofmeister acknowledged: "I think it is fair to say that more context would have helped the reader and that the story, while not inaccurate, could have included the perspective [the reader] mentions, adding a sentence saying employment is much higher today than in 1945."

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