Accuracy in Media

The mainstream media reported Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s recent comments on a potential effect of the COVID-19 coronavirus: a 20% unemployment rate.

Mnuchin clarified his reported remarks, which were made behind closed doors to U.S. senators, but the media’s reports highlighted Mnuchin’s warning.

According to Bloomberg, Mnuchin told senators that unless they voted for a coronavirus relief stimulus bill, American unemployment could rise to as high as 20%. Mnuchin said that it was a mathematical calculation, not a prediction.

Bloomberg’s headline read, “Mnuchin Warns Virus Could Yield 20% Jobless Rate Without Action,” while Reuters wrote, “Mnuchin warns senators of 20% US unemployment without coronavirus rescue, source says.” Forbes added, “Secretary Mnuchin Warns Of 20% Unemployment Due To Coronavirus—Could It Happen?”

Bloomberg reported, “Mnuchin discussed the scenario with the lawmakers on Tuesday as he proposed an economic stimulus of $1 trillion or more.” The news outlet said, “He told the senators that he believes the economic fallout from the coronavirus is potentially worse than the 2008 financial crisis.” It added, “Extraordinarily high unemployment, he said, is a possibility if lawmakers don’t swiftly provide financial assistance to wage workers and small- and medium-sized businesses.”

Treasury Department spokeswoman Monica Crowley responded to the media’s reports and said, “During the meeting with Senate Republicans today, Secretary Mnuchin used several mathematical examples for illustrative purposes, but he never implied this would be the case.”

Mnuchin may not have predicted 20% unemployment rate, but his comments were a warning to senators. The media’s reporting was accurate because Mnuchin warned senators that if the proposed coronavirus relief stimulus bill failed, unemployment could rise to levels not seen since the Great Depression. For context, the Great Recession’s highest unemployment rate was 10% while the Great Depression had unemployment rates in the 20% range. The media’s headlines accurately reflected his remarks.

Mnuchin’s claim that he did not issue a prediction was flimsy because his mathematical exercise was a type of prediction, coupled with a warning to vote for the coronavirus relief stimulus bill. The media performed well in reporting Mnuchin’s remarks with appropriate context, though Mnuchin and the Treasury Department disagreed on the semantics and implications of his remarks.

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