When labor is in the news media, it reveals – perhaps more than any other subject – the economic, political, and professional conflicts between the practice of journalism and the business of media. The problem of the news media’s coverage of organized labor is that the news media are both the social institutions designated to practice democratic communication, and capitalist entities designed to generate profits for their corporate executives and stockholders. As the literature reveals, all too often the news media fail to act as independent storytellers about labor, and instead align their journalism with the generally anti-labor interests of multinational corporations, which often include the news media themselves and their advertisers.
But news media organizations that serve their own corporate interest risk undermining their greatest asset: people’s trust. Kovach and Rosenstiel (2001) argue normatively that the first loyalty of journalism is to citizens, not media owners. Because of the significant stakes for corporations, labor, and citizens, news organizations’ coverage of labor has long invited criticism of the media’s credibility and institutional loyalties.
Corporate Media And Labor
The corporate news media’s posture toward labor unions is often evident in their own labor practices. For example, in the US many of the most highly regarded multinational news media corporations – including the News Corporation, Time Warner Inc., Disney, Gannett, the Tribune Company, the Washington Post Company, and the New York Times Company – have a long record of anti-labor activities, including efforts to break their labor unions and prevent new ones from forming (Martin 2004). Moreover, media workers are increasingly treated like disposable entities, subject to the same kinds of outsourcing and instabilities as other workers in the global economy.
In the logic of capitalism, it follows that news businesses would not report – or would avoid reporting favorably – on issues such as labor that might damage their bottom line. Not only do the mass media work to help themselves in this manner, but they also serve to express and reinforce the dominant cultural, political, and economic system (Miliband 1969). Thus, the pro-capitalist function of the mass media necessarily involves anti-labor sentiment because organized labor infringes on the decision-making power of capital and may inhibit capital’s profit margins. Herman and Chomsky (1988) see the mass media as a system of propaganda, but one that is disguised by a free market configuration of private ownership and periodic exposure of corporate and government malfeasance in the name of free speech and citizen interest. Of course, labor is sometimes covered, even in favorable terms, by the news media. The capitalist mass media require some level of credibility to draw their audience, gain the professional commitment of journalists, and maintain public support for a free press (Curran 1991).
News Media And Labor Bias
Some studies argue that the news media are biased against business, although none conversely concludes that the news media are biased in favor of labor. More common are complaints in the US from the political right that the news media represent the views of a liberal elite. In the view of Lichter et al. (1986), an elite, liberal, east-coast media strongly influences the general tone of America’s national news coverage. This elite group is generally in favor of liberal social positions, which are out of step with business leaders’ opinions. The authors therefore conclude the media are biased against business. But the authors’ conclusion of an anti-business bias is problematic, particularly in the case of labor, because they also find that the media elite are broadly in favor of policies and ideas that support the US capitalist system. Large majorities of the elite news workers responded that they believed “people with more ability should earn more,” “private enterprise is fair to workers,” and “less regulation of business is good for the U.S.” (Lichter et al. 1986, 29). Thus, the elite media workers’ liberalism does not seem to extend to the concerns of labor.
The news watchdog organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) came to a similar conclusion in 1998 when it found that on a wide variety of economic issues – including the expansion of NAFTA, taxing the wealthy, concern over corporate concentration of power, and government-guaranteed medical care – the press was to the right of the public’s views (Croteau 1998). Media critic Eric Alterman’s (2003) extensive study of bias in the news also found a clear slant against labor coverage, even on America’s presumably left-leaning, nonprofit, government-supported National Public Radio, which offers a number of programs and features focusing on business and finance.
A large area of emphasis in the study of labor in the media is representation. Observers of the US labor movement have been critical of news media coverage of strikes and labor activities for more than a century.
Anti-labor sentiment in the US press can be traced back at least as far as the 1870s, when English-language dailies in Chicago were generally hostile to picketing, strikes, and class-based movements (Bekken 1993). Accurate reports on labor and strikes were difficult to find; most press reports from this era marked unionists as violent radicals, regardless of any factual evidence. Most notably, Chicago’s English-language daily newspapers hailed the execution of the alleged Haymarket conspirators, four working-class radicals who were convicted on questionable evidence of bombing a Haymarket Square rally in 1886.
In his 1920 book The brass check, Progressive Era muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair identified several decades of dishonest newspaper stories designed to discredit labor unionists and paint them as anarchists and terrorists. Sinclair reserved particular ire for the Associated Press (AP) wire service, which was a dominant force in the US press (and is now the largest news organization in the world). He observed that if strikers are violent, “Capitalist Journalism” puts the story on the wire services, and if they are not violent, the strike gets no wire coverage.
Stereotypical portrayals of striking laborers as violent thugs still persist, but as labor battles have become more legalistic, the language of media representation has adapted. For example, three major studies by the Glasgow University Media Group (1976, 1980, 1982) on British television’s coverage of industrial news demonstrated poor coverage of labor issues. The Media Group found that events reflecting negatively on management, such as industrial accidents, were consistently underreported, whereas labor’s reasons for striking were reported irregularly or not at all. The British studies also showed that the credibility of labor’s position was always in question, compared to management, in the news discourse of industrial conflicts. The news characterized management’s statements positively as offers, and conversely portrayed labor’s statements negatively as demands. Parenti (1986) catalogued similar representations of labor in the media. Puette (1992) also found negative representations of labor in the news media, as well as in films, entertainment television, and newspaper cartoons.
More recent research has focused on the ways in which news organizations seek to maintain credibility while working within the political and economic confines of the corporate mass media. First, journalists can avoid appearing biased in favor of labor or management positions by framing reports on labor relations from a consumer perspective. For example, stories about transit strikes typically focus on the problems of the people who are stranded, and dismiss labor–management concerns as secondary to the quick resumption of service to customers. This consumer point of view on labor stories functions as an “objective” position in that it appears to be dispassionate about labor and management positions, but it ultimately has the effect of helping capital, as it submerges issues of citizenship, political activity, and class relations and elevates issues of consumption and a mythology of class-free social relations (Martin 2004).
Second, news organizations can minimize labor news by simply excluding the labor beat from reporter assignments. Because beat assignments help the news-gathering bureaucracy define what becomes news, not staffing certain beats diminishes regular coverage of that topic. For example, in the United States and Canada, national commercial broadcast and cable news networks have no regular labor beats. In the print media, the labor beat has almost disappeared in recent decades as editors have cut labor reporting while increasing business coverage. Labor reporters, who generally cover unions and worker associations, the labor movement, and issues like job equity and discrimination, have been replaced in the US and Canada by workplace reporters and columnists, whose assignment focuses more on lifestyle issues – such as getting along with bosses, telecommuting, or the ethics of workplace romances.
The decline in the labor beat is connected to newspapers’ general shift away from working-class news readers to a more affluent readership since the 1980s. This is a shift that moves journalism away from its loyalty to all citizens in order to appeal to a select group of consumers and increase advertiser interest and news organization profits (Martin in press). Directing journalism to “upscale” consumer audiences (to the detriment of labor) is evident around the globe. For example, European-based Metro International, the distributor of the free Metro commuter newspaper in major cities around the world, which has become the world’s largest global newspaper, targets affluent young adults.
The Labor News Media
Given the shortcomings of labor coverage in the mainstream media, it is no surprise that labor activists have often taken the matter into their own hands by publishing labor oriented newspapers.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the US labor movement circulated hundreds of local, regional, and national labor newspapers, in dozens of languages (Bekken 1993). Partisan publications with pro-union messages were as popular as commercial newspapers. For example, Appeal to Reason, a socialist newspaper, was the largest-circulation weekly in the US, reaching a peak circulation of more than 760,000 copies by 1913. During the Great Depression, the Daily Worker, the Communist Party newspaper, had a circulation of 100,000 (Pizzigati & Solowey 1992). The high circulation of these weeklies (significant even by today’s standards) was difficult to sustain, especially with government-led antiradical campaigns that included banning certain publications from the mail, destruction of presses, and deportation of editors. By the end of the twentieth century, local, independent working-class newspapers in the US had mostly faded away. The remaining union-sponsored publications typically have limited readership, and have most often served as undemocratic mouthpieces for union leaders. The International Labor Communications Association has called for the opening up of labor publications to dissent, and the International Association of Machinists has proposed a labor satellite/ cable television channel.
Outside of unions, closer to the mainstream, but still on the margins, reside independent labor monthlies in the US like Labor Notes, websites like Workday Minnesota, public affairs magazines of the left (including the Nation, the Progressive, In These Times, and Z Magazine), radio news programs like Democracy Now, the syndicated radio service Workers Independent News, and satellite/cable channels like Free Speech TV and Link TV. London-based LabourStart.org offers the broadest global labor news on the Internet. These news organizations – not beholden to the commercial constraints of the corporate news media – provide the most consistent and accurate coverage of the labor movement.
To date, most of the focus of research on labor in the media has been on the US, UK, and Canada. There is a great deal of research to be done on labor in the media outside of these countries, especially as the labor movement grows around the globe.
- Alterman, E. (2003). What liberal media? New York: Basic Books.
- Bekken, J. (1993). The working class press at the turn of the century. In W. S. Solomon & R. W. McChesney (eds.), Ruthless criticism: New perspectives in U.S. communication history. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 151–175.
- Croteau, D. (1998). Challenging the “liberal media” claim. Extra!, July/August, 4 – 9.
- Curran, J. (1991). Mass media and democracy. In J. Curran & M. Gurevitch (eds.), Mass media and society. London: Edward Arnold, pp. 82 –117.
- Glasgow University Media Group (1976). Bad news. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Glasgow University Media Group (1980). More bad news. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Glasgow University Media Group (1982). Really bad news. London: Readers and Writers.
- Herman, E. S., & Chomsky, N. (1988). Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media. New York: Pantheon.
- Kovach, B., & Rosenstiel, T. (2001). The elements of journalism. New York: Three Rivers Press.
- Kumar, D. (2007). Out of the box: Corporate media, globalization, and the UPS strike. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
- Lichter, S. R., Rothman, S., & Lichter, L. S. (1986). The media elite. Bethesda, MD: Adler and Adler.
- Martin, C. R. (2004). Framed! Labor and the corporate media. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Martin, C. R. (in press). Writing off workers: The decline of the U.S. and Canadian labor beats. In C. McKercher & V. Mosco (eds.), Knowledge workers in the information age. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
- Miliband, R. (1969). The state in capitalist society. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
- Mosco, V., & Wasko, J. (1983). The critical communications review, vol. 1: Labor, the working class, and the media. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
- Parenti, M. (1986). Inventing reality: The politics of the mass media. New York: St. Martin’s.
- Pizzigati, S., & Solowey, F. J. (1992). The new labor press: Journalism for a changing union movement. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press.
- Puette, W. J. (1992). Through jaundiced eyes: How the media view organized labor. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press.
- Sinclair, U. (1920). The brass check: A study of American journalism. Pasadena, CA: The author.