Thursday, November 25, 2010

Misrepresentation & Disingenuous Reporting

Bringing poverty to the attention of the masses doesn't go over well with privileged media members and other apologists. Bruce Murphy, the Journal Sentinel, and John Pawasarat of UWM's Employment & Training Institute are all up in arms over Marc Levine's use of "joblessness" rather than "unemployment." The basic gist of the argument is that joblessness is bigger; which makes the number of people without jobs sound really, really scary. This opposition wants us to just stick with the U-3 unemployment number - because that's what they're used to and it's not as frightening as the joblessness number.

This isn't an issue (as it should be) because too many are unemployed, discouraged, or underemployed. The dissenters are upset because Dr. Levine uses a metric that better illuminates the gravity of the situation - joblessness. Those who interchange unemployment and joblessness are to be blamed for not reading the caveats of the research. Joblessness is a different measure. But simply being different does not make it incorrect nor misleading.

This is a problem of sloppy reporters, not bad research. The research clearly defines "joblessness" and finds 53 percent of black Milwaukee males fall under this category. Journalists claiming this as 53 percent unemployed are merely practicing shoddy reporting. For the Journal Sentinel's PolitiFact to make an issue of Marvin Pratt confusing joblessness and unemployment (he misstated 52 percent "unemployment") and then claiming his comments as completely false, is another example of careless and deluded reporting. 53 percent are not unemployed, but black males in Milwaukee are facing a daunting job market. To call this false would imply that black Milwaukee males were performing better than other black males in other metro areas. They are not.

Bruce Murphy, himself, states, "Levine responded via email to say he does not use the word unemployment but “joblessness” in his study. True. But that routinely gets turned into the word unemployment by the media, film producers, etc. I think in his zeal to dramatize black unemployment, Levine ends up misleading people." So, the media incorrectly substitute unemployed for jobless, and this is Levine's fault? How is this his zeal to dramatize something? This is a case of sloppy reporters blaming someone else for their hasty comprehension.

And, for Bruce Murphy to be calling Levine's research on the subject "exaggerated" and "questionable" is baffling. What is questionable about it? What is exaggerated? Yes, unemployment and joblessness are not the same thing, but that doesn't mean the conclusions of the joblessness study are unimportant or questionable. It's a sad disservice when those untrained in the social sciences and proper research comment and mislead on that which they do not understand. Plus, Murphy feels vindicated and correct because the PolitiFact article made many of the same (erroneous) claims he initially made. Yes, for Murphy, two wrongs make a right. As Dr. Marc Levine comments on Bruce Murphy's Milwaukee Magazine page, "For any reader who takes seriously Bruce Murphy's comments on my research, I encourage a look at my analysis: 'Mismeasuring Joblessness.' On virtually every point, Murphy is simply wrong and either deliberately distorts or does not understand the issues."

Dr. Levine's rejoinder to the grumblers highlights the explanation of joblessness in the original research; so that even they might be able to wrap their heads around the concept. It is the fault of those reporting on such research whom are to blame for confusing the two measurements. They seem to imply Levine means unemployed when he uses jobless and is, therefore, misleading us. This is not the case; the concept is clearly operationalized in the research. Maybe they should actually read the entire report(s) before (improperly) commenting on the conclusions and/or concepts.

The other, and perhaps saddest, concern of this dust-up is that the objectors have focused this - unemployment and poverty issue - on the semantics of reporters (and their misunderstanding) rather than on the actual problem - many people can't find work! They're upset that Dr. Levine is reminding us of all of the citizens in our society that go without, struggle, and are hurting on a daily basis. Whether it's 25 - 35 - or 50 percent, it's too much, and we should be talking and doing something about it. Doing something other than obfuscating the harsh reality many face by bickering over which metric we want to focus our attention. Either one you choose, the numbers are not good. For the jobless, the underemployed, the part-timers seeking full-time, for these workers, however you define it, they're still suffering.

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