Jun 1 2013

Working Poor Shorted in Minimum Wage Coverage

Those most affected by debate weren't part of it

It’s hard to imagine news coverage of military regulations that excludes Pentagon officials, or a discussion of derivatives trading that leaves out Wall Street executives—those directly affected by policy outcomes. But that’s how corporate media cover the minimum wage story, according to a new study by Extra! that finds low-wage workers are largely excluded from the debate.

The study surveyed nearly three months of coverage (1/1/13–3/24/13) in eight major U.S. media outlets, during a period when Democratic President Barack Obama was proposing an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour. Obama made his most prominent appeal for the wage hike in his 2013 State of the Union address (2/12/13), where he declared that “no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.”

Extra! looked at the print editions of the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, L.A. Times and Wall Street Journal, and the network news shows CBS Evening News, ABC World News and NBC Nightly News. Using the Nexis news database (and the Wall Street Journal website), the study documented who got to speak in news stories and commentary discussing the minimum wage.


Extra! found 32 stories in the period substantively discussing the minimum wage, featuring a total of 87 people used as sources. (Sources quoted multiple times were counted once per story.) Just three of these sources (3 percent) were low-wage workers who might be directly affected by minimum-wage laws. Only one source represented a labor group.

Business owners and management provided 17 sources, with business associations accounting for another four. Ten of these business sources opposed a wage increase, while eight supported it and three expressed no opinion. Businesspeople and their advocates outnumbered workers and their advocates by more than 5 to 1 (21 to 4).

Thirty-one government officials made up the largest group of sources, including 25 elected officials and six government economists. Academics accounted for another 23 sources. Though women are overrepresented among low-wage earners, they were outnumbered 77 to 10 by male sources.

Out of the 87 sources, 47 favored the increase and 27 opposed it; 13 voiced no opinion. Barack Obama appeared 11 times in the study, accounting for 13 percent of all sources, and 22 percent of sources who favored the wage hike.

Among only those expressing an opinion, 64 percent were in favor and 36 percent against—which is slightly less of a pro–wage hike slant than in the general public. In the most recent Gallup poll (3/6/13), for example, 71 percent of people favored raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour, with just 27 percent of respondents opposed. The Wall Street Journal was alone in having a majority of its sources who expressed opinions—60 percent—opposing an increase in the minimum wage.


Each of the network news shows carried just one report on the minimum wage. All three stories quoted Obama’s SOTU proposal followed by House Speaker John Boehner’s rebuttal. ABC World News (2/13/13) did, however, interview one dishwasher who lamented that he could not earn a living on minimum wage—one of only three low-wage workers quoted in the study sample.

The other two low-wage earners were a couple featured in a Washington Post piece (2/24/13) about the Maryland minimum wage. The couple discussed the difficulty of raising their child on their income. Their experience was “balanced” in the story by the woman’s boss, a small-business owner who explained that she cannot afford to pay every worker $9 an hour. The choice, this juxtaposition suggested, is between making the current minimum wage and losing your job (though the story did mention a UC/Berkeley study that “found higher minimum wages did not prompt job cuts”).

Each of the three business owners quoted in the study stated unequivocally that they would either have to close down immediately or fire many workers if the minimum wage were to rise. “You can’t stay in business if you don’t,” a restaurant owner told the L.A. Times (2/14/13).


The media’s pro-increase tilt may reflect the marked popularity of the “left” position on this particular issue, and/or the moderation of the proposed increase. But the study shows the trouble with measuring bias only in such simple terms.

Fair representation of low-wage earners and their advocates would likely widen the parameters of the debate, bringing in some of the many people arguing for a far larger increase. If worker advocates were better represented in the coverage, we might hear that Obama’s proposal would still leave many families in poverty. By 2015 (when the proposed wage hike would go into effect), someone working full-time at $9 an hour would still find themselves below the projected poverty line (CEPR, 2/14/13)—so the new wage would not lift low-wage earners out of poverty, as Obama called for in his SOTU message.

President Obama gives his State of the Union Address in 2013. (Photo credit: White House)

President Obama gives his State of the Union Address in 2013. (Photo credit: White House)

If pro-worker voices were heard more loudly in the debate, we might also hear that Obama himself has become more stingy on the subject: During the 2008 campaign, he pledged to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011, and to tie the wage floor to inflation.

Indeed, if the minimum wage had kept up with inflation since 1968 (the year the minimum wage’s purchasing power peaked), today it would be $10.52 an hour (CEPR, 3/12). The liberal Economic Policy Institute has proposed an increase to $10.10 per hour that has gained political support, including many leading members of Congress (Hill, 2/28/13). But a broader debate would point out that minimum wage hikes that merely track the rate of inflation inevitably give low-wage earners a smaller share of a growing economy, leading to steadily increasing inequality.

If the minimum wage had instead kept up with productivity growth—which, CEPR’s Dean Baker (Truthout, 2/18/13) points out, is quite common in white-collar professions—today it would be at least $16.54 and possibly as high as $21.72 per hour (CEPR, 2/12/13).

Unfortunately, one could not assess how many sources would have favored a larger wage hike than $9 per hour, because the debate was tightly framed between those who either favored or opposed the modest increase proposed by Obama.


The scarcity of low-wage workers in the minimum wage debate fits into a larger pattern that finds corporate media favoring those who speak for the powerful and the status quo and slighting relatively less powerful voices. FAIR studies (Extra!,  5–6/04, 11/10) have repeatedly documented that workers and their advocates are routinely outnumbered by management sources and corporate officials.

FAIR’s 2012 study (Extra!, 9/12) of poverty and the election campaign, conducted while poverty rates were higher than they had been in two decades, found the poor were almost invisible. Even after the Katrina catastrophe, when prominent television journalists pledged increased attention to the poor, FAIR (Extra!, 8/06) found the actual increase in coverage was minuscule.

Corporate media’s trepidation around increasing the power of the powerless was manifest in a New York Times news report (2/13/13) that described Obama’s minimum wage proposal as “sure to be politically divisive.” “Divisive” is a corporate media term frequently applied to ideas frowned upon by the powerful, regardless of how popular they are with the public.


Sidebar: Think Tank Balance

FAIR’s study of coverage of Obama’s minimum wage proposal found eight think tank representatives as sources, six of whom supported the wage hike. Four of these supporters came from progressive economic think tanks, including the National Employment Law Project and the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Two other supporters were from business-oriented think tanks (the Conference Board and the Center for European Reform) who commented on how low the U.S. minimum wage was compared to other wealthy nations. The conservative American Enterprise Institute provided both think tank opponents of the increase.

The relatively progressive range of think tank sources—four left-leaning, two corporate centrist and two conservative—contrasts with FAIR’s studies of general think tank citations (e.g., Extra!, 6/12), which have found right-leaning and centrist institutions well-represented while their left-leaning counterparts are underrepresented.