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Trade unions get scant coverage in modern mainstream media

in Opinion/The Nonagenarian’s Notebook by

Back in the 1960s, 1970s, and into the ‘80s, almost all of the large newspapers in Canada 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 relations column for the Toronto Star for 15 years (1968-1982), and the editorial staff of several other papers at the time also included labour columnists as well as labour reporters.

Conventions of the largest labour unions and the Canadian Labour Congress attracted dozens of reporters. The names of union presidents were almost as well known as those of prominent politicians and corporate executives. Once a year, in my Star column, I listed, in order, the ten labour leaders I considered the country’s most influential, without having to identify them with much more than their names.

Today, not a single daily newspaper employs a labour columnist, much less a labour reporter. Union conventions rarely get any press. Coverage of occasional labour-related events—usually strikes or threatened strikes—are left to general-assignment reporters with little or no in-depth knowledge of unions, collective bargaining, labour laws, or any other integral aspect of labour relations.

This doesn’t mean their reports are riddled with inaccuracies. They are, after all, conscientious and highly-skilled professionals, so they usually get the basic facts straight, sometimes even the correct name of the union involved. But, lacking in experience in the complex labour-management field, they are cognitively handicapped. They can’t specialize in a ‘labour beat’ that no longer exists.

Assigned to report on a strike, for instance, they tend to overlook the crucial underlying issues behind the dispute: the motivations and ultimate goals of both the union and the employer, the history of their past relationship that has led up to the recent confrontation.

Lacking such insight, their reports invariably are confined to a ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ approach, sometimes even to a ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ perspective. If the strike is settled peacefully, the employer is praised; if the strike occurs, the union is blamed.

For a long time, teachers of journalism have drilled their students in the importance of being guided by the fundamental Five “Ws” – Who, What, Where, When, and Why, along with the essential How. Adherence to these tenets was preached as the foundation of journalistic accuracy. Unfortunately, with the modern neoliberal-oriented media’s neglect of labour relations, the Why and How of journalism that used to be amply provided by labour reporters and columnists is now defunct. And missing, too, is the fair and comprehensive coverage of labour affairs that once prevailed.

Labour is no longer considered by the media moguls to deserve the comprehensive coverage given to business and finance, or to hockey, football, baseball, golf, and other sports. These editorial ‘departments’ are large and virtually autonomous, with their own specialized reporters and columnists, and—most important—their own assured space and time in the papers and on the airwaves.

On what basis, dare I ask, was the decision made that certain human activities warrant this kind of extensive 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 either sufficiently large (in the case of sports fans) or sufficiently rich and powerful (in the case of corporate executives and investors) to merit special treatment.

Catering to the sports fans sells papers, catering to the CEOs sells advertising space.

A poll of the 4.8 million unionized workers and their families in Canada would very likely find that most of them would prefer their activities to be more fully and fairly reported. But the newspapers and broadcasting networks are now operated like all other big corporations: their overriding fixation is to maximize profits. They see no way of profiting from in-depth labour coverage, so they have scrapped it.

The effect—whether intended or not—is to disregard unions’ diligent day-to-day operations, and belittle the significant economic and social benefits they bestow on the working people of Canada—and to the country as a whole.

And not just on the Labour Day weekend.

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