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U.S. government cuts off early look at economic data for news media

U.S. unemployment rate jumps to 14.7%
U.S. unemployment rate jumps to 14.7% 03:37

The U.S. Labor Department is ending its long-standing system of allowing news reporters to review government economic data, including high-profile reports on unemployment, retail sales and inflation, before the data is publicly released.

The department for decades has given news organizations an advance look at such data to give them time to assess the numbers and prepare news reports to be distributed once the data is officially released. News organizations had long valued the 30 minutes to an hour the Labor Department had given them in what are known as "lock-up rooms" to review the data, question government officials about it and ensure that their articles were accurate and complete when the information was released.

But William Beach, commissioner of the department's Bureau of Labor Statistics, said in announcing the decision last week that the past two months, when all such media lockups had been suspended over the coronavirus pandemic, had shown that the absence of the lockups did not cause much of a time delay or a decline in the accuracy of news reports.

"The recent COVID-19 experience demonstrates that DOL can eliminate the overhead and risk of lock-up rooms altogether without degrading the quality or timeliness of media coverage," Beach said in a letter.

The Labor lockup room had been used to give reporters not only economic data that the department itself produced but also highly watched reports from the Commerce Department, including quarterly estimates of the nation's gross domestic product.

Early this year, even before the coronavirus forced the suspension of the lockups, the department had announced its intention to remove computers from the secure room in which reporters had been given an early look at economic reports. The department said it would still allow reporters to have time to study the reports before they were released via the government's website, but they would have to do so without the benefit of electronic devices.

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The Associated Press and several other news organizations protested that that decision would make the economic data releases less secure and less useful to the public. The news organizations also asserted that the department's new policy would fail to meet its stated objective of leveling the playing field between high-speed investment firms, which trade off the data in mere seconds, and the general public. Since then, the two sides had been engaged in negotiations toward a potential compromise.

But in his letter Tuesday, Beach said the performance of the government's website over the past few months demonstrated that the lockups were not needed at all — whether or not the coronavirus remains an ongoing threat for people who work in close proximity.

"The BLS website can serve all interested users in the seconds after release time with little or no degradation in response time and a negligible error rate," Beach said.

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