No News is Bad News

Lack of fair labour reporting fuels the anti-union attacks
May 1, 2012

Journalism was always the career I wanted, almost from the time I learned to read and write, and I was fortunate to get into it while still in my teens. I became a reporter and columnist, and worked for several newapapers, first with Corner Book's Western Star, later for The Montreal Gazette and The Toronto Star. I enjoyed my work, most of the time, because the managing editors and publishers gave me a lot of freedom and rarely rejected or censored what I wrote.

But that was a long time ago. I’m glad that I’m not a working journalist today. The concentration of ownership — with a few large companies now owning most of the big newspapers as well as the major TV and radio networks — has degraded both the quality and integrity of the media. Canadians are being woefully ill-informed by the papers they read and the broadcasts they watch and hear.

Coverage of organized labour is one of the worst relapses. Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, into the ‘80s, almost every large newspaper had a reporter who specialized in labour-management relations. Wilf List covered labour for the Globe and Mail for an amazing 35 years. I wrote a labour column for The Toronto Star for 15 years, and several other papers also had labour columnists as well as labour reporters. Conventions of the Canadian Labour Congress and most of the larger unions attracted dozens of reporters.

Today, I’m not aware of any paper that has a labour reporter on staff, much less a labour columnist. Most union conventions get no press at all. Coverage of a labour-related story (usually a strike) is left to general-assignment reporters with little or no knowledge of unions, collective bargaining, labour laws, or any other aspect of labour relations.

During a recent strike, a union staff rep decided to keep a list of all the mistakes in the newspaper, TV and radio reports of the dispute. He gave it up after the first week, but even in those few days he had detected 17 errors in the news stories. Some were minor, like getting the union’s name wrong, but others seriously skewed the facts.

This is not an uncommon occurrence today. Most union officials (and even some management people) have similar “horror stories” of how the media mangle coverage of complex labour issues. Their consensus is that labour reporting in Canada today is execrable — shoddy, superficial, often misleading.

No one blames the reporters. Most of them are competent, conscientious, highly-skilled professionals. The mistakes they make are due mainly to their inexperience in the field of labour relations.

It takes at least a couple of years for a reporter to become sufficiently knowledgeable about labour-management affairs to be able to write about them with reasonable accuracy. But no reporters today can specialize in “the labour beat” because it no longer exists. Labour is not considered by the media moguls to deserve the comprehensive coverage given to business and finance, or to politics or sports. So any time a union does anything the editors deem newsworthy (usually by going on strike or threatening to do so), the reporter assigned to it is someone who knows little or nothing about labour relations.

Not so the journalists who cover corporate and financial matters, or the political scene or major sports. These “departments” are large and virtually autonomous, with their own staff, their own columnists, and – most important – their own assured space and time in the papers and on the airwaves.

On what basis today are the decisions made that certain human activities warrant this kind of in-depth media coverage? It’s obviously not their relative importance in the scheme of things. It’s because these particular blocs of readers are thought to be sufficiently large (in the case of the sports fans) or sufficiently rich and powerful (in the case of business owners and executives) to merit special treatment. Catering to the sports fans sells papers, catering to the CEOs sells advertising.

A poll of working people would almost certainly find that a big majority would like to have their activities more fairly and fully reported. But the newspaper and broadcasting industries today are operated like any other corporate enterprise: their sole objective is to maximize profits. They see no way of profiting from in-depth labour coverage, so they have scrapped it.

The result is that only the relatively few contract negotiations that culminate in strikes get media attention, usually generating stories that distort and misrepresent the actions of the unions involved.

The effect (whether intended or not) is to demonize the unionized workers and idolize their employers. This makes it easy and popular for employers and governments to attack the unions with pay and benefit rollbacks and with crippling restraints on their bargaining rights.

Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor.