In her last post, CWCS affiliate Denise Narcisse looked at the Pew Center’s latest research on the digital divide in America and noted the ways in which digital deprivation for poorer and working-class families amounts to a form of social and economic disenfranchisement.
To be sure, one of the most serious implications of the digital divide is the barriers to information lower income and working-class citizens need to fully participate in the political and social spheres of their communities and of the nation. But, even if working-class and poor Americans were to gain regular access to digital news and information sources, I wonder what kind of news and information they would find. For as traditional commercial news organizations migrate to the web, too many are replicating the structures and agendas that have elided the experiences and interests of the poor and working classes for most of the 20th and 21st centuries.
It is certainly not news to note that commercial mainstream news media abandoned the working class quite some time ago. The reasons for this desertion are numerous and widely cited: advertisers increasingly want to appeal to more affluent readers, reporters and editors no longer come from working-class backgrounds, and corporate media ownership encourages an ethic of business.
These factors, combined with the steady downsizing in newsrooms that began long before the crisis of competition with online news, resulted in the replacement of substantive issues stories in mainstream commercial media (the sources relied upon by most working-class people according to Nielsen) with cheap-to-produce stories about celebrities and scandals. For example, The Pew Research Center found that in 2007, the deadliest year for U.S. troops in Iraq, that Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith received more extensive coverage than the war, noting that, “During the two days immediately following Smith’s death, nearly a quarter of the news from all sectors (24%) was devoted to this story. Public interest did not match the amount of coverage, and 61% of Americans said the story was being over-covered.”
One result of this is that Americans who rely solely on commercial media for political knowledge and hard news are being denied critical information and analyses of the national and international events that may ultimately affect their daily lives.
In their recent book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols cite a recent study by a group of communications researchers that finds Americans with a high school education or less who rely on commercial media for news, score just above the 20th percentile in political knowledge of international and right at the 40th percentile for domestic hard news, compared to the next lowest group, British news consumers, who score just above 50 percent and 60 percent respectively. For McChesney and Nichols, the data suggest that American “commercial media systems tend to marginalize the poor and working class,” endangering the very purpose of a free press system.
Furthering the disenfranchisement of the working class is the skewing of coverage of workers issues, part of the mainstream media pursuit of an affluent consumer base designed to appeal to advertisers.
McChesney and Nichols cite Christopher Martin’s benchmark analysis, Upscale News Audiences and the Transformation of Labour News, which documents the emergence of news coverage targeted at an “upscale” readership, in which he charts the shift in labor coverage in the U.S. and Canada evidenced by content analyses of coverage of transportation strikes in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Toronto Star. Martin chronicles the movement in news accounts of the strikes from accounts of legitimate disputes between workers and management to tales of inconveniences suffered by the majority of consumers using transportation services. For Martin, this reconfiguration of news is related to the increasing consolidation of media and its adoption of the practices and ethic of big business, and this adoption is apparent in the narrative frames, and even in the language, in which the strikes are presented, notably in the commonplace phrasing that management makes “offers” while unions make “demands” or, as Mc Chesney and Nichols observe, “Poor and working-class people are, for all intents and purposes, only newsworthy to the extent that they get in the way of rich people” (51).
And, while the burgeoning economy of online news sites and blogs has led to increased awareness of working-class lives and struggles (as evidenced by this site) these issues often remain relegated to specialized sites and targeted user searches. Many mainstream sites still foreground the business beat at the expense of the labor beat and the former rarely represents the interests of the latter in a way different from what Martin describes. And too often, when working-class people are featured in mainstream accounts, they serve as anecdotes or catchy narrative leads to pave a colorful path to the “experts,” the real sources for the story.
There are of course, exceptions. Some excellent examples of stories that chronicle the lives and issues of working class Americans have emerged in the major dailies, particularly since the start of the Great Recession. Anne Hull of the Washington Post has written about the struggles of working class Americans with precision and detail, and Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times reports on the complexities of labor, economics and politics in a way that connects policies with people.
Yet, with the opportunities of the internet and the demand for news organizations to reinvent themselves comes the opportunity for the profession to further rediscover its working-class roots and mission– if news producers can see both a means and a benefit for undoing the damage, for as John Nerone notes in a 2009 article for Journalism:
The past half-century of neglect leaves a lot to overcome: the media have worked hard to encourage ordinary people to think of themselves as consumers rather than as workers, and to regard any overt appeal to the working class as not just biased but old, dreary, and boring.
Nerone believes, however, that there exists potential for news organizations to reconnect to their working-class readers, and that because traditional filters and gatekeepers are falling away in the new media economy, that such a reconnection is not only possible but beneficial, because in today’s economy, more and more people self-identify as workers. Indeed, with the most recent Labor Department data showing that 80 percent of the economy is tied to the service sector, Nerone may be on to something.
If news outlets continue to try to rely on advertising for revenue, which Nerone believes is probable, but McChesney and Nichols do not, then in theory, news sites can rely on advertisers who now recognize the importance of reaching the working-class, an appealing proposition, particularly for local news outlets, which many agree might be best positioned to carve out a niche in the online economy. In fact, People magazine has recently begun developing stories about working class people, telling CWCS co-director John Russo, that they understand that most of their readers are working class women.
Endorsing this rather optimistic view, Robert Niles of OJR: The Online Journalism Review lists the five most important beats for a local newspaper/newssite, and included in this list is the Labor Beat:
We eat. We learn. We work. But how many publications cover work, from the worker’s perspective? Business stories typically focus on the management side. But what about the pocketbook and workplace politics issues that employees face? Where’s the coverage of that? This is the home for your consumer reporting, including household finance and budgeting, but also for local development issues covered from an employee’s point of view. Are development incentives helping create jobs and pay for workers, or just fatting management’s pockets for projects that would have happened anyway?
For both Niles and Nerone, the resurgence of the labor/work beats would, at a local level, help to refranchise working class news consumers. And, if these stories were done in a way that explains the relationship between state, national, and international policies and the everyday lives of the working citizens, news sites could do much to return to the mission of journalism and to remedy the deficits in democratic participation.
Tim Francisco, Center for Working-Class Studies