If you turn to network television to get your news, don’t expect to hear much about labor unions or the lives of organized workers.
During the years of 2008, 2009 and 2011, less than 0.3 percent of news stories aired on four major news broadcasting networks involved labor unions or labor issues, according to analysis recently released by Federico Subervi, a professor of media markets at Texas State University.
Subervi’s team searched the Vanderbilt University Television News Archives and found that the four networks–NBC, ABC, CNN and CBS – aired a combined total of 172 news stories during the time period that involved labor unions or labor activist groups. During the three-year time period, the four networks aired an estimated total of 16,000 news stories annually, according to the report, which was funded by the Communications Workers of America and The Newspaper Guild. (Full disclosure: Truthout workers are organized under The Newspaper Guild.)
The National Association of Broadcasters, a lobby group that represents network and cable broadcasting stations, did not respond to a request for comment from Truthout.
CNN ranked last for labor coverage, with only 23 news items in the three-year period, despite the fact that the network has an hourly newscast. CNN’s media relations office in Washington DC did not respond to an inquiry from Truthout.
A Focus on Labor Conflicts
A majority of the stories run by the four networks combined covered labor protests, pickets or other public manifestation of organized labor. On ABC, CBS and NBC, more than one-third of every news story involving labor issues covered a protest or picket, with each network running a total of 16 or fewer stories during the three-year period.
“The narrative of labor is conflict,” Subervi said.
In contrast, less than 18 percent of labor stories on all four networks combined covered union contract negotiations, and only 2.8 percent covered charitable and social services provide by labor unions.
Subervi, who presented the report on Sunday April 7 at the National Conference for Media Reform, said that TV networks often did not include the voice of union spokespeople and common workers in news stories.
“Even in stories about labor or unions, the main sources relied on are external to labor or unions,” Subervi wrote 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.”
The report identifies a half-dozen main narratives in the coverage, including union endorsements during the 2008 campaigns; the 2007 Writers Guild strike; the debate in Congress over the bailout of the Big Three auto companies in late 2008; General Motors’ bankruptcy and reorganization in 2009; and the 2011 Wisconsin workers’ uprising that challenged a union-busting law signed by Gov. Scott Walker.
Roberta Reardon, vice president of the AFL-CIO and co-president of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), a union that represents radio and television broadcasters along with performance artists, said that broadcast journalists are often barred from promoting their own labor interests due to ethical conflicts.
Reardon said the massive media conglomerates that control major broadcasters, on the other hand, often ignore labor unions and labor issues in order to protect advertisers that are often in conflict with organized workers.
“It’s not to the advantage to ABC or CBS or NBC to tell stories that make Walmart look bad, or make Calvin Klein look bad,” Reardon said.
Reardon agreed that broadcast television coverage of labor might also be impacted by public perceptions of unions in some regions of the country.
“Union workers are no different that workers everywhere else, except they have learned that they have more strength together than separate,” Reardon said. “But people see unions as exclusive, that they organize … on the backs of other workers.”