When Mainstream Media Tells Labor Stories

Organized labor isn’t organized crime, but how would we know?

Jeff Epton

About one in three In These Times readers are members of union households, according to our own 2003 survey. Those readers rarely see unions and union members depicted in a favorable light in news reports — but they understand some fundamental truths about the importance of organized labor that may escape notice by the rest of us.

Unions, as the bumper sticker says, “brought us the weekend.” The eight-hour day, too. A minimum wage. Social Security. Employer pension plans beyond the executive suite. And more.

But those achievements do little to shape the perceptions of labor that dominate our cultural life. For many of the rest of us, organized labor is associated with corruption, high wages for a privileged few and job security for the unmotivated and undeserving.

The disparity in our perceptions of unions is directly connected to the image of labor that is promoted by mainstream news coverage, union officials say.

Discouraged by media attitudes toward unions, many labor leaders don’t even return calls from reporters, says a communication specialist for a Chicago-based union local. And unions rarely consider using the media to tell their stories. Labor’s attitude toward news reporters shouldn’t come as a surprise, she observes.

“When I pick up the phone and call a journalist and say I’m calling from organized labor, it sometimes feels like I might just as well have said, ‘Hi, I’m calling from an organized crime syndicate.’ So many reporters seem to react with suspicion,” she says.

Years ago, major media outlets, especially daily newspapers in big cities, had reporters assigned to labor beats. Those reporters developed personal relationships with union sources in exactly the same way that business and police reporters develop relationships with their sources. In the process, beat reporters develop sympathy for the perspectives of their sources. But the days of media sympathy to labor perspectives are long gone. And a study of labor reporting in the Chicago Tribune, conducted by the University of Illinois’ Chicago Labor Education Program, provides statistical support for the suspicions of union leaders and members.

Out of 386 labor-related Tribune stories, published between 1991 and 2001, researchers found that 77 percent of the “descriptors “ used to signify labor were negative. In the same stories researchers counted only 113 positive adjectives. The study, Evidence of “Class Anxiety” in the Chicago Tribune Coverage of Organized Labor, also found that stories about labor disputes were on the average nearly twice as long as stories about labor agreements. Stories in the sports section about player unions were by far the most frequent type of labor coverage in the paper during the period and 79 percent of those stories depicted labor in a negative light, the study’s authors wrote.

Given that the mainstream media pretends that “objective” journalism is characterized by a balancing of comments from competing sources, the study’s discovery that the news stories routinely favored non-labor sources suggests that the Tribune failed to meet professional journalists’ generally self-serving definition of objectivity.

For the two out of three subscribers to In These Times who are not members of union households, the lesson of the study is not novel: The mainstream media is not a trustworthy source on matters that count. But knowing that to be generally true is not enough. Peace activists know that reporting on war and military matters is not reliable and they compensate by seeking other sources. Justice activists know the same thing in regard to mainstream treatment of race and crime and other domestic issues and also compensate accordingly.

But for progressives with no real connection to unions and the labor movement, it is harder to know that our vision of labor is distorted and problematic. The only progressive movement that has a chance of making real social change in the United States is one the unifies labor with the rest of us. We know we can’t trust the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune, not to mention Fox or CNN, but it’s time we recognized that the people we can trust are the ones who brought us the weekend.


For more about the study contact the Chicago Labor Education Program at 312 413-2997.

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Jeff Epton is the former publisher of In These Times.
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