“Still” is the new “on the other hand”

Many times, when I post one of these rants about the way reporters write about statistics (especially statistics about the economy), I refer (negatively) to the “on-the-other-hand” crutch nearly all business-related stories now include. History buffs will recognize this as a reference to a Harry Truman quote: “Give me a one-handed economist! All my economists say, On the one hand on the other.” Here’s today’s mini-rant:

This morning, the NYTimes.com is reporting on unemployment (or is it employment?) numbers that came out this morning. Here are the first three paragraphs:

The nation’s employers eliminated 51,000 jobs in July, the seventh consecutive contraction in the labor market, as the unemployment rate reached a four-year high, signs that the pressure on business owners and consumers is likely to continue.

Still, the decline in the job market has softened since the spring. The number of layoffs was less than the 75,000 that economists had expected, and the government said that businesses cut fewer jobs in June and May than previously reported.

Still, the nation’s unemployment rate has steadily moved higher. In July, it rose to 5.7 percent from 5.5 percent in June, its highest level since March 2004.

I’m a reader and I would like the New York Times to help me understand what those unemployment numbers mean. The article says unemployment has reached a four-year high — that sounds bad. But that’s not as bad a economists predicted — that sounds good. The nation’s unemployment rate has steadily grown — that sounds bad. But the government says that the previous two months were not as bad as they had earlier reported — that sounds good.

The only thing for certain is this: If you’re unemployed, it’s bad.

Still, I’m confused.

  • Rex, to me, stats are often pretty clear, but I can say the reason statistics are often reported that way is, as you might guess, there are always two different sides arguing over what they mean – even when it’s obvious to most people. Reporters often voice both of those arguements by telling you what they really mean and then throw in what it means (on the other hand) to those the stats have pissed off somehow.

  • On the other hand, business reporting has sunk to the point where everything has to have two-sides — or with this story, four or five sides. It’s such a formula, that it’s become a joke. That’s why bloggers (academics, columnists, analysts) help fill the gap as interpreters. They have a point of view. Fortunately, the New York Times has a great economics blog (Freakonomics) where people who actually understand statistics and economics and have points-of-view blow-past this mushy reporting with something that makes sense — or at least give me something to react to.

  • Rex, I think this is journalism that attempts to report, but not inform. It provides raw material, and except for a few boiler-plate quotes, leaves the analysis to us.
    I don’t like that kind of journalism, though I’ve certainly produced my fair share of it over the years. But I have a deeper problem: I have no interest in reporting on markets. It’s axiomatic that the price in a market, whether it’s stocks, oil or the dollar, reflects the consensus of the markets, all of the “on one hand, on the other hand” facts reflected in the stories. It factors in perceived risk. So writing on the markets attempts to convince us that the market has it wrong, and that the people participating are focusing too much on one hand or the other. I think 99% of it is a waste of time and energy.

  • Steve, let the record show that you are one of my favorite business writers in the universe. And that you’ve written a Business Week cover story on the topic of math. And that you have a book coming out on the subject soon. And that anything you say, I agree with instantly.