Missing in Action: Media Images of Real Workers
By MATT WITT, Special to the Baltimore Sun
As the Labor Day weekend approaches, we will see advertisements
for back-to-school sales, reports on holiday traffic deaths and
recipes for backyard barbecues.
What we won't see is much reporting on the lives of people who labor
in the nation's offices, factories and service industries. There isn't much
coverage of how jobs are changing in America or of the growing gap in
wealth between those who do the work and those who profit from it.
Issues of work and class are largely invisible, not just on Labor Day
but year-round. Rarely do we see stories exploring important questions
facing working families. For example:
* Why is the average entry-level wage at least one-fifth less than it
was 20 years ago, with starting pay declining even for new college
* What business strategies are leading the shift to "contingent"
labor--the part-time, temporary or subcontracted jobs that make up 30%
of the work force?
* What has forced the average married couple to work 326 more
hours a year than 20 years ago to maintain its buying power?
A study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a liberal
media-watchdog group, found that the evening news programs of CBS,
ABC and NBC recently devoted only 2% of their total air time to
workers' issues, including child care, the minimum wage, and workplace
safety and health.
During a full year, the broadcasts reportedly spent a total of 13
minutes on job safety and health, while an average of more than 16
workers die daily from work-related injuries and more than 650,000
annually suffer back, wrist or other injuries from poorly designed
workstations and repetitive motion.
Although local television news shows are full of "how-to" consumer
stories--how to find good eyeglasses, how to choose a baby-sitter, how to
stay fit--they rarely give advice on problems at work.
Not only are work-related topics missing in the media, but so are
workers. Studies of ABC's "Nightline" and PBS' "NewsHour With Jim
Lehrer" found that almost all guests were corporate or government
officials, politicians or professors, while fewer than 1% were non-elite
workers or their representatives. A general examination of news reports
in the New York Times and the Washington Post (or the Los Angeles
Times) finds few sources who are workers or union representatives.
ABC reporter Sam Donaldson was candid in a magazine interview
about the media's practice of turning mainly to the corporate and political
elite for on-camera comment. "You can't come to me and say, 'Sam, I
know you're on deadline, you need a comment on such and such, go out
and take a chance on Mr. X.' No, I'm sorry, folks, I don't have time to
take a chance on Mr. X."
Working people are also nearly invisible in television entertainment
programming. Heads of households were working-class characters in only
11% of prime-time network family series from 1946 to 1990, according to
a study by Rider University professor Richard Butsch.
When working-class characters are shown, they often are portrayed
as "dumb, immature, irresponsible or lacking in common sense," Butsch
noted, referring to shows such as "The Honeymooners," "The Flintstones,"
"All in the Family" and "The Simpsons."
Public television doesn't do much better, according to a study of two
years of PBS prime-time programming by City University of New York's
Committee for Cultural Studies. Only about one hour a month dealt with
the lives and concerns of workers, while nearly 10 times that much time
was spent on the upper classes.
A number of factors contribute to media bias on labor issues.
One is that the news media are owned by big corporations, with strong
interests and opinions. NBC, for example, which might be expected to
inform working people about international trade agreements that make it
easier for U.S. corporations to exploit foreign workers in cheap-labor
havens such as Mexico, is owned by General Electric--one of the
companies practicing such exploitation.
A second factor is the influence of advertisers, who insist on a
"positive environment" for their ads--meaning one free of controversial
issues or opinions that clash with their corporate agendas.
A third is the class background of editors, producers and others who
make decisions about media coverage. Many live like corporate officials
and have little contact with working people. A Los Angeles Times survey
found that 54% of newspaper editors said they generally took business'
side in disputes with workers, while only 7% generally sided with
employees--a contrast with polls that show most Americans generally side
A fourth consideration is that working people usually do not have the
time, money or training to compete with corporate media-relations
operations. Union workers have greater resources, but many labor
organizations have only recently begun to use modern communications
While these factors generally combine to produce media coverage that
either ignores or is biased on work and class issues, some reporters have
managed to overcome the obstacles. In recent months, the Los Angeles
Times has published various articles that explore the causes of problems
working people face.
One Times story looked at the shift to temporary work--what it means
to workers, why employers are doing it, and how unions and other
organizations are responding. Another article discussed the irony that
some Catholic hospitals do not follow church teachings requiring respect
for workers' freedom to unionize.
Imagine how public debate could change if such topics were given the
same intense media attention given to crime (even as crime rates have
dropped) or the Dow Jones stock average (although a broad majority of
the population owns little or no stock).
Imagine if the news gave priority to the daily concerns of working
Americans--on Labor Day and every day.
Matt Witt is a teacher at the American University School of
Communication in Washington, D.C.
Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times All Rights Reserved