Over the last three months, I have done interviews with and provided assistance to dozens of national and international reporters about various working-class issues, including the American Dream, manufacturing, education, the recession, displaced workers, local and international trade, and, of course, white working-class voting patterns. A few weeks ago, George Packer, staff reporter for The New Yorker, was a visiting scholar at the Center for Working-Class Studies, doing research on book project, and he spoke as part of our annual lecture series. So, obviously, I have been thinking a lot about journalists and reporting on the working class.
Packer titled his lecture, Do Journalist Care About the Working Class? His response was basically, “No!” He argued that the American public is more concerned about celebrity and success stories that often reinforce the American Dream. While job loss affects people of all classes these days, readers seem more interested in stories about hedge fund managers losing half their fortune than in profiles of manufacturing or service workers losing their jobs. In part, these attitudes reflect the confusion most Americans have about class. When asked the open-ended question, “what class do you belong to,” most Americans say they are middle class. But if given four options — lower, working, middle, and upper class — about 45% choose working class, and about the same percentage identify themselves as middle class.
Packer also points out that hard-nosed, urban, ethnic, and street-smart reporters like Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko, or Mike Barnacle, many of whom had working-class roots, have been replaced by metro journalists, most with college degrees, who identify themselves as professionals and spend most of their time with people like themselves. Packer quotes Pulitizer Prize winning columnist, Connie Schultz, who has noted that, especially in big cities, reporters have increasingly become privileged by their professional education, social connections, and access to internships and have become a “self-perpetuating” class. As a result, journalists don’t have contacts among the working class or much sense of working-class life and culture. Add to this unsympathetic editors who are more interested in selling upscale readership to advertisers, and journalists these days have natural hesitancy to pursue working-class stories. Put differently, as I heard as a panelist at a Society of Professional Journalists Conference say, there is a high degree of self-censorship among journalists themselves.
In the end, Packer suggested that the recession and the centrality of white working-class voting in electoral politics have made the working class more interesting to some newspapers. I can attest to that, but if my recent interviews are any indication, reporters are generally confused about who is working class, and they don’t understand the political and economic views of the working class.
Most journalists covering electoral politics define the working class as those without a college education. That definition is widely used, not only by reporters but also by some scholars and political analysts, in part because it’s easy to measure. I caution reporters that if they use this definition, then the working class seems to be shrinking as more people attend college. While some commentators have suggested that this shift makes the working class less important politically, I argue that this is simply a statistical shift. These days, many working-class people have at least some college education, and the working class continues to matter in American politics. In part because of that, I try to help journalists understand why class is not just a matter of education. It also has to do with occupation, income, wealth, and – among the hardest aspects to measure – culture.
At the same time, I remind reporters that class is not the only identity that might affect how people view political candidates and issues. For example, white working-class men might well view economic and policy issues differently from white working-class women or black working-class men. I also try to help journalists understand that the working-class varies politically by region and state, in part because other issues, like race and types of employment, shape working-class cultures. When we add religious affiliations and social values, things become even more complicated, but that’s the point. I want to encourage reporters to get beyond their assumptions and stereotypes when they write about working-class voters and issues.
Journalists often ask me to explain why the working class supports Republicans, a pattern that seems to go against their own economic interests. It’s true that a majority of white working-class voters has only supported a Democrat in a presidential election once in the last 50 years, voting for Johnson in 1964, so this isn’t a new phenomenon. We can’t even tie it to the so-called “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s. A number of historians and political scientists have studied this trend, but rather than focus on theories about why the working class votes for Republicans, I point out that the trend is shifting. White working-class support for Republicans has been dropping in the northeast, the Great Lakes region, and the far west, and it will probably drop further — because of Republican policy formulations. For example, Republicans want to cut the deficit by slashing entitlements, but many working-class voters believe that such cuts would have a disproportionate impact on them. While the Republicans put down the Occupy movement, many in the working class, both conservatives and liberals, support its economic and social populism and agree with its claims about injustice, unfairness, and inequality.
Packer is right, both that today’s journalists don’t really understand the working class and that the economy and the election mean that reporters will have to cover the working class anyway. One of the goals of the Center for Working-Class Studies is to help journalists do a better job of telling working-class stories. I think we’ve had some influence, largely because we take the time to do more than answer a few questions. We meet with reporters, help them make contact with other sources, take them around Youngstown, and discuss what they hear from area workers and what the statistics about employment, class identity, and political perspectives really mean.
We all complain about and critique media coverage of class issues. If we want the media to do a better job, more of us need to be willing to talk with journalists. When the phone rings and reporter asks you to comment on how the recession is affecting the working class, or why white working-class people support certain candidates, or how working-class students will be affected by interest rates on college loans, don’t duck. Take the time to not only answer the question but also, when necessary, challenge the reporter’s assumptions and help him or her understand the working class more fully. Think of it as teachable moment.
John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies