Inconvenienced Elites, Marginalized Unions and Sexual Harrassment: Network
Television Labor News in the Nineties
Scholars who have examined news coverage of labor and unions have found a
dearth of journalistic balance (Puette, 1992; Parenti, 1986; Glasgow University
Media Group, 1976, 1980, 1982). According to this literature, news about labor
regularly portrays management more favorably than workers, tends to describe
strikes in terms of conflict rather than issues, suggests that often-corrupt
unions represent workers poorly, and often frames union workers as greedy and
This paper attempts to explain the underlying structure of five years of
network television labor coverage in terms of the "enduring [journalistic]
values" described by Gans (1980). It examines differences among labor coverage
on ABC, CBS and NBC in terms of the distinct news cultures described in research
about how journalists report crises (Nimmo and Combs, 1985; Smith, 1992). The
authors will try to make theoretical sense of this in terms of the interaction
among journalist' professional values, the changing structure of television news
and the decline of union power.
The essence of union power in collective bargaining is the threat of a
strike. Labor Department statistics suggest this power has declined
substantially in the last 15 years. During the average year between 1950 and
1979, there were more than 250 strikes involving more than a million workers,
each lasting an average of about 20 days. In the 1980s, the annual number of
strikes declined more than two-thirds to 83, the typical number of workers
involved went down to about 500,000 and the mean length of work stoppages
declined to about ten days. Between 1990 and 1992, the annual number of strikes
shrunk by another 50 percent to 40 and the mean duration went down to five days
(U.S. Department of Labor, 1992; Monthly Labor Review, 1994).
Puette (1992), summarizing earlier research, noted that news accounts
covered the conflict between labor and management rather than explaining details
of the disputes. A study of American network labor coverage in 1980 found
corporate views represented more favorably than those of labor by 3:1 on CBS,
5:1 on NBC and nearly 7:1 on ABC. Only a small proportion of contract
negotiations actually lead to strikes (about seven percent in the 1990s,
according to Department of Labor statistics), but news that focuses on strikes
at the expense of other contract negotiations suggests that strikes are the
norm. In 1986, for example, CBS did 40 stories about union contracts and 184
According to Puette, the 1989 Pittston coal strike was "one of the most
important labor disputes of the 20th century" (117) because the management
position in that strike challenged four hard-fought rights won by unions: 1)
job security 2) seniority preference, 3) pensions and 4) health care for
retirees. The television networks largely ignored the Pittston strike, but gave
considerable attention to labor disputes over less important issues that
inconvenienced the public.
Puette describes eight "lenses" through which reporters examine labor in
ways that yield distorted representations (154, 155):
1. Labor unions protect and encourage unproductive, usually fat, lazy, and
2. America is unable to compete internationally in open markets because
big, powerful unions have forced the nation's employers to pay exorbitant union
wages to unproductive laborers.
3. Although some very poor and abused workers (particularly women and
immigrants) may need to form unions to protect themselves, big international
unions usually fail to represent the interests of such workers.
4. Union leaders, because they do not come from the educated/cultured
(privileged) classes, are more likely to be corrupted by the power they achieve
than are business or political leaders.
5. Unions should be volunteer societies organized and led by unpaid,
unprofessional staffs of selfless workers; union dues should not be used to pay
6. There was a time, long ago, when unions were necessary (when some of
our older friends and relatives were in the movement), but now things are
different. Employers are enlightened and would not generally try to abuse their
workers. In the few cases where they might, new federal laws (Fair Labor
Standards Act, the various civil rights acts, and Occupational Safety and Health
Act) can provide reasonable protection against employer abuse.
7. Unions institutionalize conflict. Unions came into being to solve a
specific labor relations problem. They solved the problem and, instead of going
away, they remain to dredge up conflict where there would otherwise be perfect
8. All unions are the same. All unions ae, therefore, accountable for the
corruption or excess of any one union or union leader and share the guilt or
Herman and Chomsky (1988) outlined a "propaganda" model of American
journalism in which the media serve primarily to support the existing power
structure. This model suggests an explanatory framework for the anti-labor news
coverage described by Puette. Gans (1980) sees less propaganda intent in
newswork than Herman and Chomsky, but comes to similar conclusions about the
values embedded in mainstream news reporting as represented by two weekly news
magazines and two network television news organizations (CBS and NBC).
The "enduring values" of journalists observed by Gans supported the social
order of business, of professional people and of the upper middle class.
Journalists, he noted, tend not to come from working class backgrounds. The
values of journalists tended in the stories he examined to uphold the legitimacy
of existing social and political power and to delegitimize challenges to that
power. Strikes, Gans said, are often portrayed negatively, especially if they
affect the public.
Gans divided people in the news into "knowns," such as public officials and
movie stars, and "unknowns," such as criminals and protestors. In the media
content he examined, 31 percent of the actors were unknowns and 42 percent of
those were protestors, rioters or strikers. In this last group nearly half were
strikers, amounting to about four percent of all actors in all news stories.
"Ordinary working-class people," he said, "once got into the news only as
strikers and victims of occupationally connected accidents" (26).
Protestors for most causes were portrayed as threats to the social order,
but disorder in the pursuit of racial equality received favorable coverage. The
elite media, Gans discovered, sided with blacks and women attempting to enter
the male social order.
The primary social value imbedded in the cited literature is the assumption
that news media in a democracy should inform citizens impartially and thoroughly
about public issues, including those affecting the working class. This notion is
sanctified in the codes of ethics of various professional organizations for
journalists, and is sometimes referred to as the social responsibility model of
reporting (Siebert, Peterson and Schramm, 1956). An underlying supposition of
the social responsibility media model is that news media in the United States
represent such a narrow range of views that an attentive media consumer cannot
get a sufficient breadth of information to participate effectively in democratic
self government unless journalists themselves accept the responsibility for
covering the full range of viewpoints and issues.
The scholarly literature on labor assumes little difference among news
organizations. If there are in fact a diversity of views in mainstream media
accounts, the problems with labor coverage would be less problematic because the
interested media consumer could obtain a wider range of views on labor and other
Labor research per se rarely addresses differences in coverage across news
organizations. There has, however, been research about crisis coverage that
finds substantial differences among the three American television networks. We
shall examine two such studies in an effort to apply their findings to network
coverage of labor.
Nimmo and Combs (1985) examined ABC, CBS and NBC coverage of six crisis
stories broadcast between 1978 and 1982. They found that ABC tended to follow a
non-technical sensationalist approach that said, in effect, "Good grief! Things
are bad. They could, probably will, get worse!" (183). CBS assured its audience
things are not as bad as they seemed, and made extensive use of experts to
sanction its reports. NBC followed a more neutral and folksy approach, and used
more filmed reports than its competition.
"For NBC the rhetorical vision thus suggests that reality is threatening but
affirms that purified life will continue in spite of everything. CBS has a
vision of threatening reality too, but ruling elites cope with the dangers and
reaffirm that life can indeed continue. The ABC vision, too, is of a
threatening reality. But why is life threatened? Because the system does not
Smith's (1992) examination of how three crises were covered in 1988 and
1989 found that ABC followed a more folksy and less strident style than the
other networks, and that ABC was more accurate and provided more context than
CBS or NBC. CBS approached the crises more stridently than ABC or NBC, used
more government sources than its competitors and focused more on official
versions of events. NBC quoted more scientists than the other networks and
tended to use more neutral language than ABC or CBS.
Changes at the networks between the Nimmo and Combs and Smith studies may
have modified the respective news organizations. Each network changed
anchorpersons during that interval and each network went to a new owner. But
some of the news culture appears to have persisted across these changes. During
both time periods, for example, CBS presented more factual information and
relied more on official sources. And NBC continued to be more neutral in tone
than ABC or CBS. The primary intra-network changes appear to have been that CBS
adopted some of the stridency that formerly characterized ABC, and ABC took on
the earlier CBS trait of providing more context and background.
The cited literature provides a theoretical framework for anticipating how
the networks would report labor in the 1990s. It predicts that labor coverage
will focus primarily on strikes and give short shrift to the issues that led to
those strikes. When issues are covered in the stories, the literature suggests
that upper middle class labor issues will receive substantially more attention
than working class ones. When job layoffs are covered, we expected that they
would more often affect white collar and professional than blue collar workers.
Gans' observation that social disorder in pursuit of equal opportunity for women
and minorities was favorably reported suggests that labor discrimination will
receive more coverage than other kinds of labor issues.
The research on crises reporting is less predictive because the network
news cultures appear to have retained only some of their characteristics across
ownership and anchorperson changes. However, the ongoing CBS penchant for
statistics and government sources suggests that it could be expected to report
more strictly factual stories about labor than ABC or NBC. Job layoffs fall more
into this category than our other coding categories, so we might expect CBS to
broadcast more stories about layoffs.
If ABC has taken over the CBS role of providing the most background and
context, we would expect ABC to do more coverage of labor issues than CBS or
NBC. And if CBS is now the network most likely to report conflict, we would
expect to see proportionally more strikes on CBS than on the other networks.
The on-line Vanderbilt Television News Index was used to retrieve all
abstracts of evening network news stories containing the words "labor,"
"strike," "employee" or "management" broadcast between January 1, 1990 and
December 31, 1995. Because some 1994 stories were not yet in the database early
in 1995, this draft of the paper is based on about 98 percent of the labor
stories that aired during the five-year period. The final draft will be based
on all such stories.
Examination of abstracts and initial coding efforts revealed that all
stories could be coded into five mutually exclusive categories: 1)
Discrimination, 2) Layoffs, 3) Labor Issues, 4) Strikes and 5) Working
Conditions and Benefits. Stories about the issue of job layoffs were coded as
Labor Issues; those that simply described layoffs were coded as layoffs. Stories
about striking baseball players and other professional athletes were excluded on
the basis of the assumption that players earning million-dollar salaries do not
fit the traditional concept of labor.
The initial coding process examined stories longer than 30 seconds on the
assumption that these were more likely than other stories to be
correspondent-delivered news packages. Each of the authors examined and coded
all five years worth of abstracts on two criteria: a) Whether the abstract was
of a story about labor and b) if so, in which of the five categories it
belonged. When coders disagreed, the relevant abstract was discussed until
agreement was reached. Stories of 30 seconds length and shorter were then coded
by a graduate student who participated in the earlier coding by the three
The data were entered into a database so that video of the
correspondent-delivered stories could be ordered from the Vanderbilt Archive and
so that cross tabulations could be obtained for all stories according attributes
such as topic, length, date and network. Although some of the video footage was
examined by the authors, the primary purpose of this paper is to categorize the
coverage and examine it in terms of the theoretical literature about how labor
issues are reported.
Because placement of a story in the lead newscast position is an indication
of prominence roughly analogous to placement on a newspapers' front page, we
took note of the topics addressed by newscast-leading stories.
Between 1990 and 1995, there were 260 labor stories longer than 30 seconds,
averaging two minutes and 50 seconds. Ten percent of these (N=26) were in the
newscast leading position. There were 109 stories about labor 30 seconds in
length or shorter, and an additional 50 stories of various lengths that
mentioned labor but also covered other topics. Most stories in this last
category were news summaries.
Of all length stories that focused exclusively on labor, 31 percent of the
time was devoted to labor issues, 30 percent to working conditions and benefits,
27 percent to strikes, eight percent to discrimination and four percent to
layoffs. The total running time was 14 hours and 46 minutes, all but 32 minutes
of which consisted of correspondent packages. On all three networks during the
five-year period, there were 161 stories about strikes, fewer than CBS alone did
in 1986 (Puette, 1992).
Figure 1 About Here
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) led evening newscasts five
times and the 1993 American Airlines Thanksgiving holiday strike did so four
times. The 1992 closing of a General Motors plant in Michigan led newscasts
twice, as did the safety conditions at a North Carolina poultry-processing plant
at which 25 workers died in a 1991 fire and the 1992 strike by the United Auto
Workers against Caterpillar. No other topic was covered more than once in a
Only one of 94 stories about labor issues was about wages. There were 21
stories about labor unions, many of which focused on their declining power; 13
stories about NAFTA, 11 stories about layoffs, and 8 each about child labor and
about temporary and replacement workers. Other topics were covered by two or
Stories about labor issues appear not to follow the predicted pattern of
focusing substantially more on upper middle class labor issues than working
class ones. Among the topics receiving the most coverage, only a portion of
those in one category, job layoffs, addressed upper middle class issues
exclusively. The majority of labor issue stories focused on issues affecting
working class Americans.
Stories about working conditions and benefits focused primarily on health
and health benefits (N=13), workplace safety (N=12), and pensions (N=8). The 78
stories in this category included four each about worker privacy and job
training, three each about family leave and women in the workplace, and two each
about child care, job-related stress, and drug testing.
Eighty correspondent packages and 81 30-second or shorter stories about
strikes contained 32 stories about the United Auto Workers, including 19 about a
bitter strike against Caterpillar in 1992 which the New York Times called "one
of the most important labor-management confrontations in a decade" (Hicks, 1992)
and 10 about General Motors; 31 about a 1991 Greyhound work stoppage in which
striking bus drivers permanently lost their jobs, 26 about airlines, including
17 about a 1993 strike by American Airlines flight attendants that threatened
Thanksgiving travel plans; 18 about railroad strikes in 1991 and 1992, and 8
about a teamster's trucking strike in 1994. There was one correspondent package
and two anchor-delivered stories about the Pittston coal strike that Puette
(1992) called "one of the most important labor disputes of the 20th century"
(117). Sixty-eight percent of the total time in strike stories was devoted to
the transportation industry and 22 percent to work stoppages by the United Auto
The anticipated focus on strikes themselves and their impact on the public
rather than the labor issues that caused the strikes characterizes evening
television news coverage in the 1990s. There were numerous stories about the
kinds of issues that lead to strikes (replacement workers, pensions and job
security, for example), but these stories were rarely tied to specific strikes.
Contrary to expectation, stories that focused on labor issues, working
conditions and benefits received more than twice as much time as stories about
strikes. There were a larger number of stories about strikes (N=161) than any
other topic, but half of these were 30 seconds or shorter. Seventy-four percent
of all 30-second-or-less stories in the five coding categories were about
Stories about strikes that inconvenienced the public (airline and railroad
work stoppages, for example) or that involved violence or the threat of violence
(the Greyhound, Caterpillar and Teamsters' strikes) received substantially more
attention than stories that did not have public impact or carry the threat of
violence. For example, there were 17 stories about a five-day strike of white
collar flight attendants, but only four stories about a strike of blue-collar
machinists at Eastern Airlines that started in 1989 and lasted until Eastern
halted operations in 1991.
There were 13 corespondent packages about the (American Airlines) strike
that inconvenienced the public affluent enough to travel by air, a group that
presumably includes many in the upper middle class, four of which were in the
newscast-leading position; and 12 correspondent packages about the most violent
strike (Greyhound), including one that led a newscast; but only one
correspondent package, 10 minutes into a newscast, among 14 stories about the
many teachers' strikes that closed public schools and inconvenienced the working
class mothers who pay substantial portions of their incomes for child care.
There were seven anchor-delivered stories about strikes at public schools and
six stories that included teachers' strikes in news summaries.
Stories about workplace discrimination focused primarily on sex
discrimination (N=6) and sexual harrassment (N=10). There were three stories
about affirmative action, two about sexual preference and one about age
discrimination. Four of the six stories about sex discrimination aired before
the October 1991 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas,
in which Thomas' former employee Anita Hill accused him of sexual harrassment.
There were no stories about sexual harrassment before the Thomas hearings and
ten stories on that topic afterwards, excluding stories that focused
specifically on Anita Hill.
Coverage of worker layoffs did not follow the predicted pattern of focusing
on white collar and professional workers at the expense of their blue collar
counterparts. There were two stories about layoffs at Sears and one about
layoffs at K-Mart; one each about layoffs at IBM, at financial firm Shearson
Lehman Hutton and at Pan Am Airlines. There were four stories about layoffs of
auto workers at General Motors and two that addressed layoffs in aircraft
As predicted, CBS devoted more time to stories about layoffs and did a
larger number of stories about layoffs than the other networks. The data do
not, however, support the predictions that CBS would devote more coverage to
strikes or that ABC would produce more coverage of labor issues. CBS, in fact,
devoted the least time to strikes. And the networks were virtually tied in the
amount of coverage devoted to labor issues.
Figure 2 about here
Assuming that each network broadcast 22-minute of news most evenings, there
were more than 5,000 evening network newscasts during the study period
constituting nearly 2,000 hours of coverage. All categories of labor stories
combined equaled about three-fourths of one percent of the five-year evening
network news hole.
Television reporting about labor in the 1990s focused far less on strikes
than we expected. Over the five-year period that started in 1990, the three
networks combined aired fewer stories about strikes (161) than the 184 stories
about strikes on CBS alone in 1986 (Puette, 1992). By this standard, strike
coverage on evening newscasts has shrunk about tenfold while the actual number
of work stoppages (in organizations of 1,000 employees or more) dropped by half
from about 80 a year in the 1980s to about 40 a year in the 1990s. Although
there would have been more strike stories in our story population if we had
included coverage of the 1994 baseball strike, we believe that our figures are
comparable to 1986 because there was not a baseball strike then.
Examination of Gans' figures about strike news in the 1970s leads to a
similar conclusion. Assuming that actors in the news are somewhat evenly
distributed across story types, coverage has shrunk tenfold from the four
percent of stories in Gans sample in which strikers were the main actors to
four-tenths of one percent of all stories in the 1990s that describe strikes and
Labor issues, working conditions and job benefits received considerably
more coverage than we anticipated. Wages, a traditional concern of organized
labor, were dwarfed as an issue compared to the power of unions, layoffs,
safety, pensions, NAFTA, child labor, replacement workers and discrimination.
Perhaps because Anita Hill legitimized sexual harrassment as a news topic, there
were many more stories about gender-based than racially-based discrimination, a
substantial change from the results reported in earlier studies of labor
The distribution alone of stories about various labor topics does not allow
examination of the various "lenses" described by Puette that distort coverage.
This distribution does, however, enable us to examine qualitative observations
made by Puette and other labor scholars, and permits us to investigate the
application of some of the journalistic values described by Gans and others that
proscribe reporting in ways that support the existing distribution of power and
marginalize threats to that power.
Although there was less coverage of strikes and more coverage of labor
issues than we expected, the distribution and prominence of various types of
labor stories in some ways follows the kinds of patterns described by Parenti,
Puette and the Glasgow Media Group; and supports observations by Gans, Gitlin
(1980), Herman and Chomsky and others who have argued that news accounts tend to
support the existing power structure and the values of corporations and elites.
One example of this is stories about workplace safety. According to the
National Safety Council, more than a quarter of a million workers have died in
job-related accidents since 1970, at an average rate of more than 10,000 a year
(Lewis, 1991; Tuller, 1990; Waldman, 1989). In 1991, when 25 workers died in a
fire at a North Carolina poultry processing plant because of inadequate and
locked fire exits, the deaths and failed safety precautions were the subject of
two correspondent packages. When the Thanksgiving holiday plans of presumably
more affluent and elite Americans were threatened in 1993 by a strike by white
collar flight attendants in which nobody died or was injured, the story merited
five correspondent packages. The inconvenience of airline passengers is
therefore more newsworthy than safety infractions that threaten the lives of
workers at the bottom of the wage scale.
Another example that supports Gans "enduring values" and the "propaganda"
media model described by Herman and Chomsky can be found by comparing stories
about transportation strikes in the airline, railroad and trucking industry that
challenge the existing social order to strikes in canneries and in the hotel and
mining industry that pose smaller threats to the power elite. The former
receive substantial and prominent coverage while the latter are described
briefly or overlooked.
Stories about working conditions and benefits also tend more often to
address the concerns of the upper middle class or matters that concern both blue
collar and white collar workers, such as health benefits, pensions, privacy, job
stress and safety rather than working-class concerns such as child care, the
working conditions in sweatshops and among migrant laborers or on-the-job
Stories about on-the-job discrimination focus more often on cases of
affluent female workers being harrassed sexually than on factory workers being
denied opportunities because of their gender, and more often on gender than on
racial discrimination. This pattern also supports the values of the affluent
and powerful at the expense of those who have neither power nor affluence.
However, the power elite do not have monolithic access to television news
organizations with regard to labor coverage. Most of the topics covered
specifically as labor issues rather than working conditions, job benefits or
discrimination favor the concerns of the working class rather than middle class
or professional employees. In this same spirit, there was virtually no
television coverage of two major newspaper strikes that occurred during the
study period, one in New York City and the other in Pittsburgh. If journalists
were interested only in labor issues that affect professional and middle-class
Americans, we would have expected these strikes to receive considerably more
Labor representatives who seek television coverage appear to have several
possible approaches that resonate with the characteristics that network news
organizations find newsworthy. The surest way to attract attention is to act or
threaten to act in a way that substantially inconveniences the affluent,
educated and powerful segments of society. Another successful approach would be
to perform a work stoppage in which their was violence or at least the threat of
violence against management or against workers who cross picket lines. A third
and sometimes successful technique is to raise workplace issues that affect
upper middle class and professional workers. Finally, the more powerful labor
unions, such as the United Auto Workers, seem to have a considerably better
chance of receiving media attention than smaller and less powerful groups such
as the United Mine workers or non-unionized workers with equally legitimate
Television coverage of labor in the 1990s appears not to be as polarized or
distorted as Puette, Gans and other scholars have suggested. But it does tend
to legitimize the existing distribution of political power and to marginalize
the work-related concerns of those at the bottom of the power structure. The
coverage examined here suggests that the concerns and needs of the upper middle
class, professionals, and managers are portrayed as considerably more important
and legitimate than the concerns and needs of working-class Americans.
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