Study shows media ignores labor except to portray unions as negative

April 2, 2013


report that examines national TV networks’ coverage of unions and the labor movement over three years confirms what  unions have long known: The media largely ignores labor, except to paint unions as a source of trouble in the American economy.

“Even in stories about labor or unions, the main sources relied on are external to labor or unions,” writes Professor Federico Subervi in a summary of the report. “Moreover, the discourse and framing continues to fault the workers and their representatives for any conflict or impasse, not the business, company or government.”

Professor Subervi’s report was commissioned by The Newspaper Guild-CWA. Subervi is the director of the Center for the Study of Latino Media & Markets at the School of Journalism and Communications at Texas State University.

To conduct the study, researchers accessed the Vanderbilt University Television News Archives, which offer an online searchable database of news headlines and abstracts of news programs. The study focused on ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN.

Ultimately, over three years – 2008, 2009 and 2011 —  researchers  identified a total of only 141 stories among the four networks that focused on labor either primarily or secondarily. “Estimating that these networks collectively air approximately 16,000 news stories per year, the 141 news items about labor/unions represent less than .3 percent of their news inventory for the studied time period,” Subervi writes.

The report identifies six main narratives in the coverage: 1) union rallies and endorsements during the 2008 campaigns; 2) the 2007 Writers Guild strike that extended into early 2008; 3) the discussion and vote in Congress to authorize a bailout for the Big Three auto companies in late 2008; 4) General Motors’ bankruptcy and reorganization in 2009; 5) the Wisconsin protests; and 6) conflicts between state and local governments and their teachers’ unions spread over the three years.

Subervi found that the pattern of portrayal of unions was negative, with workers critical of unions more likely to be heard. “One clear example was the case of a production crew member who was losing income and having financial difficulties due to the lack of work during the Writers Guild of America strike,” Subervi writes. “But the news failed to have any statement pointing to the corporations’ failure to reach an agreement.”

Additionally, he found that news about labor and unions related to the field of education and the automobile industry included more governmental sources than labor sources. “The news treatment thus presents the government as the organized party willing to provide solutions, but not the labor/union negotiators,” he writes.

The study is not yet complete. Data gathered will be further analyzed in order to find remedies to providing more full, fair and accurate coverage of labor.