We rarely see those who labor
Media: Newspapers and broadcasters favor corporate
views, ignoring those of people who do America's work.
By Matt Witt
AS THE LABOR DAY weekend approaches, the news media will be filled with advertisements for back-to-school sales, reports on holiday traffic deaths and recipes
for backyard barbecues.
What we don't see much is reporting on the lives of people who labor in the nation's offices, factories and service industries. There isn't much coverage of how jobs are changing in America, or of the growing gap in wealth between those who do the work and those who profit from it.
Issues of work and class are largely invisible in the American media, not just on Labor Day but year-round. Rarely do we see stories exploring important questions
facing working families. For example:
Why is the average entry-level wage at least one-fifth lower than it was 20 years ago, with starting pay declining even for new college graduates?
What corporate strategies are leading to the shift to "contingent" labor -- the part-time, temporary or subcontracted jobs that make up 30 percent of the work force?
What has forced the average married couple to work 326 more hours per year than 20 years ago to maintain its buying power?
With polls showing that at least 30 million American workers who don't have a union would like to form one, what keeps them from doing so? Could it be anti-union
pressure from supervisors? Such pressure occurs in 91 percent of cases in which employees try to form a union, according to a Cornell University study.
Nurses facing staffing cuts that don't leave them enough time for patient care, teachers who are left out of education-reform decisions, service workers who are
paid poverty wages without health benefits -- all rarely appear in media coverage.
A study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a liberal media-watchdog group, found that the evening news programs of CBS, ABC and NBC recently devoted only 2 percent of their total air time to workers' issues, including child care, the minimum wage, and workplace safety and health.
During a full year, the broadcasts reportedly spent a total of 13 minutes on job safety and health, while an average of more than 16 workers die daily from work-related injuries, and more than 650,000 annually suffer back, wrist or other injuries from poorly designed work stations and repetitive motion.
Though local television news shows are full of "how-to" consumer stories -- how to find good eyeglasses, how to choose a baby sitter, how to stay fit -- they rarely
give advice on problems at work. There are few reports on how to get your employer to provide adequate staffing or equipment, or what to do if your boss wants to contract your work to an outside firm, force you to pay more for health insurance or put you on part-time duty.
Not only are work-related topics missing in the media, but so are workers. Studies of ABC's "Nightline" and PBS' "News Hour" found that almost all the guests were
corporate or government officials, politicians or professors, while fewer than 1 percent were non-elite workers or their representatives. An examination of four months of news reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post found that not one of 201 sources mentioned in reporting on the North American Free Trade
Agreement (NAFTA) was a worker or union representative.
Succinct responses sought
ABC reporter Sam Donaldson was candid in a magazine interview about the media's practice of turning mainly to the corporate and political elite instead of working
people for on-camera comment. "We know [the elite] provide a succinct response," he said. "You can't come to me and say, 'Sam, I know you're on deadline, you need a comment on such and such, go out and take a chance on Mr. X.' No, I'm sorry, folks, I don't have time to take a chance on Mr. X."
Working people are also nearly invisible in television entertainment programming. Heads of households were working-class characters in only 11 percent of prime-time network family series from 1946 to 1990, according to a study by Rider University professor Richard Butsch.
When working-class characters are shown, they often are portrayed as "dumb, immature, irresponsible or lacking in common sense," Butsch noted, referring to shows such as "The Honeymooners," "The Flintstones," "All in the Family" and "The Simpsons."
Public television doesn't do much better, according to a study of two years of PBS prime-time programming by City University of New York's Committee for Cultural
Studies. Only about one hour per month dealt with the lives and concerns of workers, while nearly 10 times that much focused on the upper classes.
In the few cases in which work and class are featured in the media, the role of corporate decision-making in workers' lives is rarely included. A recent feature in
the New York Times on how families with an income of about $50,000 per year are coping with economic uncertainty and decreased buying power filled more than
a full page in the paper without probing the forces that are putting the squeeze on middle-class workers. Layoffs, cuts in benefits and other attacks on workers'
standard of living are reported by most of the media as if these corporate actions are like the weather -- they just happen, without anyone being responsible.
Workers joining together to seek solutions seems to be a taboo subject as well. A weekly "On The Job" question-and-answer column that the Washington Post started a year ago has never suggested that the solution to a workplace problem might be the formation of a union.
A recent column that addressed how to persuade an employer to provide health insurance and other benefits advised that "the best strategy is to start with low-cost suggestions." Readers were never told that, on average, America's 13 million unionized workers have negotiated 44 percent more in employer contributions
for health insurance than nonunion employers provide.
When unions are mentioned in the media, it usually is in a negative light. Elected labor leaders often are called "bosses," while corporate officials who actually
boss other people are called "business leaders" or "executives."
Management is described as making "offers" in contract negotiations, while workers make "demands." Disagreements are called "labor problems" or "labor disputes," even if it is management that is insisting on cutbacks, refusing to invest in new equipment or threatening to move to another state or country if it doesn't get its way. Workers' wage rates are usually mentioned, but not executive pay or stockholder wealth.
Factors of media bias
A number of factors contribute to media bias on issues of work and class.
One is that the news media are owned by big corporations, with strong interests and opinions. NBC, for example, which might be expected to inform working people about international trade agreements that make it easier for U.S. corporations to exploit foreign workers in cheap-labor havens such as Mexico, is owned by General Electric -- one of the companies practicing such exploitation.
A second factor is the influence of advertisers, who insist on a "positive environment" for their ads -- meaning one free of controversial issues or opinions
that clash with their corporate agendas.
A third is the class background of editors, producers and others who make decisions about media coverage. Many live like corporate officials and have little contact with working people. A Los Angeles Times survey found that 54 percent of newspaper editors said they generally took business' side in disputes with workers, while only 7 percent generally sided with employees -- a contrast to polls that show that most Americans generally side with workers.
A fourth consideration is that working people usually do not have the time, money or training to compete with corporate media-relations operations. Union workers have greater resources, but many labor organizations have only recently begun to use modern communications practices.
While these factors generally combine to produce media coverage that either ignores or is biased on work and class issues, some reporters have managed to overcome
the obstacles. In recent months, the Los Angeles Times has published various articles that explore the causes of problems working people face.
One Times story looked at the shift to temporary work -- what it means to workers, why employers are doing it, and how unions and other organizations are responding. Another article discussed the irony that some Catholic hospitals do not follow church teachings requiring respect for workers' freedom to unionize. A third story painted a vivid human portrait of how working families benefit from "living wage" laws that
require companies receiving local government contracts to provide health benefits and pay levels above the minimum wage.
Imagine how public debate in this country would change if topics such as these were given the same intense media attention that is given to crime (coverage of which has gone up in the 1990s, even as crime rates have dropped) or the Dow Jones stock average (which is given as the daily measure of economic well-being, though a broad majority of the population owns little or no stock).
Imagine if the news media gave priority to the daily concerns of working Americans -- on Labor Day and every day.
Copyright (c) 1999 by The Baltimore Sun, a Times Mirror Newspaper.