Nov 1 1994

‘Workplace’ Coverage No Substitute for Real Labor Reporting

Labor Media Watch

As corporate concentration of media ownership has increased, the labor beat has all but disappeared in the U.S. press. Very few media outlets have a reporter dedicated to regularly covering workers’ issues, unions and the labor movement.

When working people do find their way into mainstream news, it’s often in the form of “workplace” coverage — a brand of soft, nonpolitical reporting that describes the problems workers face as lifestyle issues, not as economic disputes.

Many people, grateful to see workers mentioned at all, think workplace stories are better than nothing. But this style of coverage has serious drawbacks.

Take, for example, a recent front-page New York Times story (8/16/94).Headlined “Moonlighting Plus: 3-Job Families on the Rise,” the article by Louis Uchitelle profiles a number of families that have found that one job per wage-earner just isn’t enough.

The portrayals are sympathetic; the Times presents the families as hardworking and ambitious, frustrated by the barriers they face in simply surviving economically, much less getting ahead. But the piece is strangely silent about the forces that consign families to such a struggle, beyond the reporter’s offhand claim that U.S. wages haven’t risen because”economic growth has been insufficient to make that happen.”

That’s exactly the trouble with workplace stories: Economic realities like stagnant wages and rising prices are presented as natural phenomena, almost like the weather — instead of conscious choices made by business owners,bankers and politicians. The idea that owners and investors may benefit from keeping workers low-paid and job-hungry is utterly absent in these reports, which rarely question corporate motives. Individual workers may be heralded for “weathering the storm” (getting off welfare, putting kids through college), but the unequal balance of power between workers and those who create the economic “climate” is not discussed.

With its frequent focus on individuals, the workplace style of coverage implies that the solutions for general economic crises are the responsibility of the individual. Notions of social reform to address economic hardships are frowned upon as too costly or dismissed as outdated”social engineering.”

This individual-responsibility angle shaped a September 13 segment on NBC‘s Today show, which focused on Working Mother magazine’s annual survey of”the best companies for women.” The survey grades companies on such things as child and elder care policy, schedule flexibility and family leave.Valuable information, certainly, but the framing of the segment was striking: The point evidently was not to criticize (or encourage) any particular policy, but simply to list which companies women should, as host Katie Couric put it, “steer away from.” No one pointed out that few job-seekers have the luxury of picking and choosing among potentialemployers.

While workplace coverage generally lacks a critical perspective, some is hardly news at all, but soft-focused stories on trends or styles. The Wall Street Journal‘s misnamed “Labor Letter” is a model of fluff reporting: The weekly column (with the subheading “A Special News Report on People and their Jobs in Offices, Fields and Factories”) has featured such hard-hitting “labor” items as “bathrooms make fertile job-hunting grounds”(9/13/94) and “temperature wars: employees grouse over where to set the thermostat” (8/16/94).

A notable feature of most workplace coverage is the lack of recognition of unions and their role in improving conditions for all workers. The New York Times piece on three-paycheck families, for example, notes that “no other industrial nation approaches the United States in multiple jobholders,” and the “clear implication” that “in other countries, wages from one job are sufficient.” No mention, however, of the strength of European unions, which assuredly accounts in good part for this difference.

In an essay in The New Labor Press (ILR Press, 1992), former New York Times labor reporter Bill Serrin warns that some papers use workplace coverage as an excuse not to cover organized labor. Serrin tells of a unionr epresentative whose story suggestion was rejected by a reporter for amajor paper — not because it wasn’t newsworthy, but because the reporter in question “covered the workplace, not labor.”

But as disappointingly misdirected as much workplace coverage is, the main problem is still that stories about work and workers don’t appear frequently or prominently enough. The lack of such stories tells readers that they’re unimportant, and also makes labor an unattractive topic for reporters looking for front-page bylines. The result: Readers miss out on the interesting, vital stories to be found in the daily lives of working people.

Labor Media Watch is a joint project of FAIR and the Labor Resource Center at Queens College, CUNY.