May jobs report turned out to be an enormous disappointment, when
the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported only 69,000 jobs gained on the
payroll survey and the unemployment rate ticked up to 8.2 percent. The
report also showed 49,000 downward revisions for the previous two
The truth is far worse. The rate of people participating in the labor force (actually working) is “near historic” lows, according to Investor’s Business Daily. Major news outlets from IBD, to CNN Money to The Washington Post have noticed this worrying trend. But the three broadcast networks have ignored this troubling news in 82 percent of stories that mentioned jobs. The same networks that spun good employment news negatively  over and over again during President George W. Bush’s presidency.
Although the networks have taken little notice, other national news outlets have voiced concern. The Post explained how horrible the situation is in its Wonkblog May 4 saying, “If the same percentage of adults were in the workforce today as when Barack Obama took office, the unemployment rate would be 11.1 percent. If the percentage was where it was when George W. Bush took office, the unemployment rate would be 13.1 percent.” 
The civilian labor force participation rate dropped to 63.6 percent in April -- the lowest since 1981.  In the latest report it moved up a little, to 63.8 percent, but that still means there are still millions of people not working. On May 4, CNN Money wrote about the “86 million invisible unemployed,” invisible because people who haven’t looked for work in the past four weeks are not counted as unemployed. A “worrisome trend,” according to CNN Money, which estimated that as many as 36 million of those are of working age : over 25 and below 65.
“At this point, the labor market is worse than people realize because people are discouraged. Certainly, a large number of workers have given up on the job market,” Keith Hall, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center and former commissioner of the BLS told CNN.
In 82 percent (114 of 139) of stories about jobs on ABC, CBS and NBC news shows failed to say anything about the declining size of the labor force or even something generic about people giving up looking for work.
Networks Say Little About Workforce Dropouts, But Find ‘Positive Sign’ When People Return
People dropping out of the workforce wasn’t a major concern for the networks, but when people re-entered it in February that was deemed “a really positive sign.”
CBS “Evening News” anchor Scott Pelley spoke of “new evidence that hiring is real and picking up speed,” on CBS “This Morning” March 10. Speaking of the same February jobs report, “This Morning” co-anchor Rebecca Jarvis affirmed Pelley’s statement saying “The trends are solid.”
ABC also touted the February report. Speaking of the jobs “jolt,” ABC’s correspondent and anchor Dan Harris said on “World News” March 9 that “what is changing though, according to today’s report, people back on their feet half-a-million Americans who had given up altogether looking for a job, now back in the hunt. To you, it’s a really positive sign that people are coming off the sidelines?” Economist Diane Swonk answered that question “Absolutely!”
The network was still holding on to that optimism during the April 5 “World News” broadcast, when correspondent David Muir shared predictions of what the March jobs report would show the next morning. He said economists were estimating roughly 200,000 jobs and that they expected the unemployment rate to stay about the same “as more people now enter this force with hope.”
ABC reported the disappointing jobs report on April 6 and 7, but made no mention of the drop in participation. As it turned out, workers left the labor force in March as CNN Money reported on April 6; the unemployment rate fell because 164,000 workers left the job market. One NBC story and one CBS story about that BLS report did mention briefly that “fewer people were looking for work.”
Still, CBS “This Morning” managed to find an expert who wasn’t concerned by the March report. Anthony Mason pointed out on April 7 that “The economy has added more than eight hundred and fifty thousand jobs over the past four months, the best showing in two years. But after three straight months of adding two hundred thousand plus, March growth slowed sharply to just a hundred and twenty thousand.”
He then turned to Michael Darda, an economist with MKM Partners and asked, “This doesn’t ring alarm bells for you?” Darda replied, “It doesn’t because the other barometers of the labor market still look relatively healthy.”
Since Jan. 1, the networks have found lots of reasons to talk about jobs and employment. There were positive stories about people pursuing non-traditional career options, starting their own businesses, and about job fairs and job placement programs. There were also downbeat stories about how difficult it has been for some people to find work (especially veterans), but there was very little reporting about the “near historic low” rates of participation and how much that might have to do with the economic situation.
Demographics or Economic Distress?
While it makes sense that the labor force would begin to decline as baby boomers are nearing retirement, many economic experts and some media outlets are concerned that a significant part of that decline “reflects” the weak labor conditions.
The Cleveland Fed wrote on May 8 that “Some of the decline in labor force participation has been expected, as the baby-boomer generation moves into the retirement. However, the recent magnitude of the decline is surprising and reflects in part the weak state of the current labor market. 
If you look at people who should be working, people between 25 and 54, the decline shouldn’t be as severe. But the Cleveland Fed looked at this “less sensitive” age range and still found “steady declines in participation rates not only during the recession, but also during the recovery.”
Investor’s Business Daily also expressed concern about those “prime” workers on June 4. David Hogberg wrote that “From mid-1987 until the Great Recession, the employment-to-population ratio of 25-to- 54-year-olds usually ranged from 78.5% to 80%. It never fell below 78.2% even during the 1990-91 and 2001 slumps.” 
Long after the recession ended, “that ratio stands at just 75.7%,” Hogberg said. Why? He thinks many have give up, some has stayed in school because of “poor job prospects” and others have gone on disability.
Many people have fallen out of the labor force in recent years and straight onto the disability rolls. A contributor to Forbes.com pointed out that they have grown by 1.5 million under Obama’s term for several reasons including relaxed standards of reporting and greater incentive due to the difficult economy. Concerned about the high growth, the author, Paul Roderick Gregory, asked “Have Americans suddenly become less health or more accident prone?” Rather than rising at the rate of population growth (4 percent), the number of people collecting disability has grown 20 percent in four years. 
Many economists have been trying to determine how much of the labor force participation decline is demographic and how much is due to labor market conditions. Some Federal Reserve economists have estimated it is roughly half and half. Willem Van Zandweghe  recently wrote in the Kansas City Fed Economic Review that roughly half of the decline in participation between 2007 and 2011 was due to cyclical (economic) factors. A paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago has also argued that half the decline is demographic , according to The Wall Street Journal.
In the news media, even the Washington Post admitted “part of the story is clearly that the labor force is shrinking because the bad economy is driving workers out …”
Regardless, the lack of network coverage is typical of coverage of bad economic news under Obama. Given the double standard for economic coverage (Bush vs. Obama or Obama vs. Reagan) it is is difficult to imagine the networks ignoring this story if a Republican was in the White House now instead of Obama.
The Business and Media Institute examined all Nexis transcripts mentioning “job” or “employment” from Jan. 1, 2012, to June 4, 2012. Casual mentions of jobs as well as political stories that happened to mention jobs or unemployment were not included in this analysis.