Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics … and Fox News
We’ve all heard the phrase (apparently popularized by Mark Twain) “lies, damn lies, and statistics”. Well, I propose a slight reformulation: “Lies, damned lies, statistics, and Fox News”.
What am I talking about? Let me offer a concrete example (hat tip to Media Matters for posting an article about this earlier today).
The Bureau of Labor Statistics measures employment (and unemployment) in several different ways (and each of these can be “seasonably adjusted” or not):
- U-1 Persons unemployed 15 weeks or longer, as a percent of the civilian labor force
- U-2 Job losers and persons who completed temporary jobs, as a percent of the civilian labor force
- U-3 Total unemployed, as a percent of the civilian labor force (official unemployment rate)
- U-4 Total unemployed plus discouraged workers, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus discouraged workers
- U-5 Total unemployed, plus discouraged workers, plus all other persons marginally attached to the labor force, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force
- U-6 Total unemployed, plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force
The “official employment rate” is the U-3 rate referenced above, which measures the “total unemployed, as a percent of the civilian labor force.” However, the U-6 measure is also looked at by many analysts as it is more encompassing than the official unemployment rate. It is sometimes referred to as the “real unemployment rate”. Now, with that in mind, look at this screen capture from Fox News (I believe that it was from this morning, but I can’t be positive):
Notice anything? Look at that middle statistic carefully: Real unemployment rate 2009 vs now: 7.8% vs 14.7%. Wow! That’s a pretty damning statistic, isn’t it. Real unemployment nearly doubled since President Obama was inaugurated! Gee, that’s probably a good reason to vote him out of office and elect a Republican!
Um, wait a minute. I thought I heard on the news a few days ago that unemployment fell to 8.1% You don’t suppose that Fox News manipulated the statistics to make President Obama look bad, do you? Well, yes. Yes they did.
You see, Fox News picked and chose which numbers to display and how to label them. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and check out the statistics that are available on the website of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Choose the U-3 and U-6 rates (seasonally adjusted) and see what you get. Or, you can take my word for it (since I’ve given you the means to check my numbers). The number that Fox News sites as the “real unemployment rate” of 7.8% in 2009 is the U-3 official unemployment rate for January 2009. If Fox News was honest, had integrity, or was actually “fair and balanced” then the number used for the “now” comparison would have been the U-3 official unemployment rate for August 2012, an “apples to apples comparison”. But if you look for that number you’ll discover that it’s 8.1% not 14.7%! In other words, the U-3 rate has increased from 7.8% to 8.1% (just 0.3%); it hasn’t increased from 7.8% to 14.7%. So was Fox News just making up that 14.7% number? Nope. If you check the U-6 unemployment figures, you’ll find that the number for August 2012 is, indeed, 14.7%. But the corresponding U-6 unemployment rate for January 2009 was 14.2%.
In other words, Fox News used one measurement which, by definition, will have a lower rate to calculate the unemployment rate at the beginning of President Obama’s term and a different measurement, guaranteed to have a higher rate to measure the current rate of unemployment. It would be a bit like comparing gasoline prices using the price for standard as one measure and the price for premium as the other measure.
And, in an almost unbelievable example of irony, after seeing the misleading chart on screen, Fox News analyst contributor Laura Ingraham said: “Other than Fox News, where are you really seeing those statistics?” Where indeed?
Lies, damn lies, statistics, and Fox News.
Is it any wonder that so many people are so poorly informed? Fox News tells its viewers that it is “fair and balanced”. It has previously told viewers that it has “zero tolerance” for onscreen errors of this sort. So shouldn’t a viewer be able to presume that the information presented is accurate. Well, they should… But that would be a mistake.
It’s also worth noting what Fox News doesn’t show its viewers when discussing the unemployment rate. Here is the chart of the U-3 official unemployment rate (also generated from that same Bureau of Labor Statistics website) for the period from 2006 through 2012:
Notice anything? Like, say, the enormous increase in the unemployment rate in the year leading up to President Obama’s inauguration? Or the slow but noticeable decline from the peak several months after President Obama was inaugurated but before any of his policies could actually have an impact?
No, Fox News didn’t show those charts did they?
“Ah,” I hear you say, “that was just a mistake, an aberration.” Perhaps. Or, given Fox News’ history of doing the same thing … perhaps not (again, hat tip to Media Matters for noting other examples). I’ll highlight one further example. In December 2011, Fox News displayed this graphic:
Look carefully for a moment to see if you see anything odd about how the data is presented. OK. Now take a look at the annotated version of the same chart prepared by Media Matters:
See it now? Just look at those yellow and pink lines that have been added. Hmm. Somehow, the number 8.6 is on the same line as 9.0, instead of being lower than 8.8. But if Fox News had put the 8.6% below that yellow line where it belongs, then there would be a marked decrease in the unemployment rate, wouldn’t there? And that wouldn’t advance the Fox News/GOP talking point now would it? Media Matters also provided this chart generated from the Bureau of Labor Statistics data for the same period shown in the Fox News chart:
Now maybe it’s just me, but the chart created directly from Bureau of Labor Statistics data looks vastly different from Fox News’ chart, doesn’t it? Hmm. I wonder why Fox News didn’t want to show unemployment decreasing? I mean, Fox News is fair and balanced, right?
Over the last few years, I’ve seen (and often saved) links to many other similar misleading Fox News charts. And I suppose I could take the time to try to dig them up and show them here. But it isn’t really worth the effort. I think that the two examples that I’ve provided do a decent job of highlighting the dishonesty that calls itself Fox News. And with an electorate that has been trained to believe what Fox News shows them and tells them, why should they question the accuracy or veracity of the information? Or, for that matter, why should they question the accuracy or veracity of Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan, both of whom have shown their own willingness to follow along the Fox News playbook.
I’ll say it again. We can debate policies and ideas. But we can’t have that debate when the facts upon which the policy discussion is based are not facts at all. The marketplace of ideas upon which our system is premised relies upon facts … not lies.
But people who uncritically watch Fox News see this information. They internalize what they see as “fact” and “truth”. Then they use that information when they make decisions. And that isn’t healthy for our democracy.
Update (September 12, 2012):
Besides Media Matters and this post, the dishonest Fox News graphic was the subject of many, many other articles and tweets. Anyway, Fox News is (I guess) to be commended for airing a correction on today’s program. But query whether this correction would have been made had it not been repeated across Twitter, Facebook, and the Internet over and over and over yesterday. Moreover, watch the video correction and decide for yourself whether this really makes up for the dishonest graphic aired the previous day. Note, for example, that Fox News does not show the misleading graphic that had been aired in order to provide full context for viewers. Nor does Fox News explain to viewers that the “real unemployment” figure that they are using is not the “official unemployment rate”. So does this clarification really fix the problem? You decide.