Sep 1 1990

FAIR Issues New Study On Media Coverage of Workers and Unions

FAIR’s new study– “Lost in the Margins: Labor and the Media”– surveys coverage of U.S. workers and their unions in 1989. Based on various methods of analysis– including a minute-count of nightly network news shows and a questionnaire circulated among the country’s leading dailies– the study concludes that “the lives of 100 million working people are being routinely ignored, marginalized or inaccurately portrayed in the media.”

The study was conducted by Jonathan Tasini, a journalist who covers labor issues fulltime for various publications, including Business Week and the New York Times. Among the findings:

  • Nightly news programs in 1989 devoted about 2.3 percent of their coverage to workers’ issues– including child care, minimum wage, workplace safety. Only 1.2 percent of network time was devoted to U.S. unions; if not for the Eastern Airline strike, coverage of U.S. unions would have been “undetectable.”
  • While workers appear in the news as part of ‘person-in-the-street’ interviews, they are rarely interviewed as experts: “They are more likely to be asked for their opinion about Leona Helmsley’s tax-fraud conviction or Donald Trump’s love affairs than about their work.”
  • Shrinking TV coverage of workers is accompanied by a boom in corporate-oriented programs, such as public TV’s three regular shows (Nightly Business Report, Adam Smith’s Money World and Wall $treet Week), and Moneyline and “business desk” updates, on CNN. Neither PBS or CNN offers a labor show.
  • The labor beat is disappearing at many dailies, being replaced by the “workplace” beat under the purview of business editors. As a result, coverage suffers. The Wall Street Journal assigned a reporter to cover the United Mine Workers who had never heard of tha union’s legendary leader, John L. Lewis.
  • There is a growing gap between the experience of working people and those reporting on them. Journalists covering workers’ issues are essentially white, upper-middle class males. In the workplace, meanwhile, “real wages are dropping, the female workforce is growing, and people of color are dominating tghe lowest-paid, dirtiest jobs.”

Case studies analyze how the media covered six of 1989’s biggest issues involving working people or unions:

1) NOT ALL MINERS ARE CREATED EQUAL: Nine months of a dramatic coal strike against the Pittstonm Company in Virginia (23 network minute) received far less coverage than eight days of a coal strike in the Soviet Union (37 minutes). The takeover of a coal processing plant by the Pittston strikers– the first major plant takeover since the Flint (Michigan) sitdown strike of 1937– was ignored by all three networks and the New York Times.

2) “LORENZO’S AIRLINE”: The Eastern strike captured 72% of all network coverage of unions; machinists, flight attendants, and pilots, some of whom had worked at Eastern for decades, were told repeatedly by the media that was “Lorenzo’s airline”– referring to the man who’d bought the airline to strip it apart.

3) TEAMSTERS– NO WORKERS, JUST MOBSTERS: The national press devoted almost all its Teamsters coverage to the crime links of the union’s leaders and almost none to its 1.7 million members, their struggles or conditions. While some media (such as the Washington Post) focused all of their Teamster stories on corruption, at least they acknowledged the union’s existence; ABC‘s World News Tonight never once mentioned the union in 1989.

4) THE SILENT EPIDEMIC IN THE WORKPLACE: More than at anytime since the sweatshop era, U.S. workers are being injured and killed on the job– thousands by carcinogens that did not exist before World War II. Yet no major newspapers assigns a full-time reporter to occupational health and safety. In 1989, the subject warranted little more than 13 minutes of evening network news, only 40 seconds on NBC. While the media give daily coverage to the “war on drugs,” deaths caused by illegal drugs are miniscule compared to deaths caused by one’s job.

5)THE UNEMPLOYMENT NUMBERS RACKET: Every month, usually on the same day, the media dutifully report the unemployment rate handed out by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). According to former New York Times labor reporter William Serrin, this figure distorts the true unemployment rate by ignoring workers so discouraged they’ve given up looking for work and those involuntarily working part-time (even one hour per week). A more accurate unemployment figure (“U-7”) is available from the Bureau, but the media consistently report just the lower figure.

6) THE MINIMUM WAGE NUMBERS RACKET: The media played the minimum wage story in 1989 as a legislative drama: would Bush veto the Democrats’ proposal to raise it to $4.55 an hour? The D.C. drama obscured the real story– that someone working full-time at $4.55 an hour would earn $9,300 an year, usually without benefits. A deal was struck to raise it only to $4.25; few reported that in real terms the minimum wage has fallen 20% since the 1970s.

“Lost in the Margins: Labor and the Media” also contains interviews with veteran labor reporters, “ten labor stories the media should cover” and a list of media stereotypes about unions.