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Media Wed Nov 18 2009

Grassroots Collaborative: Media On Living Wage Ordinance Was Skewed

The Grassroots Collaborative issued a report last week looking at mainstream print media coverage of the Living Wage Ordinance that was passed by the City Council and subsequently vetoed in 2006. The research was done in conjunction with the Community Media Workshop and media researchers.

The report, "Media Box Out," which Progress Illinois also covered, has three main findings:

1. Balance was lacking in representation;

2. Balance was lacking in content;

3. Balance was lacking in presentation of problems and solutions, or framing.

Essentially, the Collaborative argues that the policy ramification of the Living Wage Ordinance was reduced to the typical power-politics analysis of "unions versus business," ignoring the deeper issues of the effect of low-wage jobs in poor and minority communities, and disregarding the opinions of supporters of the Living Wage Ordinance where they did not fit into the pre-defined (by Mayoral forces) narrative.

The most troubling fact revealed by the study was that while 75 percent of those quoted in the articles surveyed were businesspeople or politicians, only 6 percent were community residents.


The report goes on to illustrate that public support for the Living Wage Ordinance, particularly in the black community, was well over 80 percent, particularly in the communities where the mega retailer was looking to locate. This poll, conducted by Lake Partners (a well-known and respected Democratic polling firm) was ignored while a poll commissioned by "black ministers" that showed the opposite result was well covered.

The report also discusses, under the "framing" finding, a major problem when complicated policy debates are reduced to glorified personality struggles: arguments are attributed but not evaluated. So we end up with "a living wage ordinance will hurt business," a serious contention that was rarely backed up with anything besides an attribution to a source--"say leading business groups." But of course there is evidence that could be looked at--for example, looking at places where such ordinances have been passed and whether a market for retail survived. Also there are questions to be asked--why do these mega retailers rely on a business model that takes for granted bottom-of-the-barrel wages and a reliance on public subsidies for health care? In other words, while it was taken for granted that big retailers wouldn't operate under the auspices of a Living Wage Ordinance, it was never asked "why?" Why do we have to take it for granted that jobs created in low-income communities have to be bare-bones jobs? If the goal of these corporations is to "create jobs" (and not "make as much profit as possible, even if that means providing the lowest possible wages for the most possible work") why are they necessarily lower-paying?

The journalistic principle that reporters shouldn't take sides, in practice turns into reporters not doing needed analysis--just asking "stakeholders" what their opinions are. It is not worthwhile to report on a public policy matter without evaluating the truth value of the statements proponents and opponents make; naturally one side will be for it, and the other against it. That does not mean that their statements should not be critiqued.

Another frustrating element of the coverage was the "union clout" obsession:

Union Clout: Many articles focused on the unions and union leaders as the biggest proponents of the ordinance. Main thrusts of these articles were more about unions' clout than the merits of the Living Wage ordinance. Ordinary union members were left out of the discussion, their perspectives and consideration of how the ordinance would affect their life chances absent.

Don't get me wrong. Chicago Federation of Labor President Dennis Gannon has a close relationship with the Mayor (he was on the 2016 Olympic Bid Committee), and the building trades are influential players at City Hall. But the idea that "the unions" could come in and swing their clout around while the poor gigantic international mega-billions corporations, including the largest retailer on the face of the Earth, cower in the corner was and is ridiculous on its face. The largest players in an industry that forms the cornerstone of America's consumption-based economy are immensely influential in every conceivable way--and in more real, ominous ways than quotidian transaction politics.

There is something to be said about the role race played in the coverage as well. Any time race is a factor in some public issue like the Living Wage Ordinance, the media tend to get sloppy. This is true of all media, blogs included. In the case of the LWO, there was this sense that a handful of people could speak for an entire race, which is ridiculous. There's no doubt that opinions on the issue in the black community are wildly diverse--as they are in the white and Latino communities. Mechanics contributor Levois posted a link to a run-down of a community forum held in the Sixth Ward that discusses the contentious opinions of the attendees on the issue. Hopefully coverage in the future highlights the fact of debate. Clearly opinions differ not only between but among different communities in the city. It's not as simple as "narrative" politics wants. Given that, shouldn't media coverage look at the policy implications and the reasons for support or opposition, rather than simple "he said/she said" that assumes who someone is ("business leader," "union boss") is enough qualification for citing their opinion?

The report isn't without shortcomings. Complaints about "framing" are not as well taken, because frames are by definition rarely, if ever, neutral. Also "frames" is more of a buzzword than anything else. It's like critiquing a marketing campaign: it is subjective by necessity, so attempting to objectively evaluate it is, to a degree, impossible. And while studying only print media was a reasonable logistical constraint, television and radio are influential enough that omitting them leaves a large blind spot. Talk radio in particular.

That said, the report's recommendations are simple and uncontroversial:

►Coverage should include the voices and opinions of ordinary people who are affected by the issue.

► Coverage should not rely only on he-said/she-said back and forth of officials when other sectors of the community have a stake in the debate and are participating in public discussion about the merits of any policy issue.

► Coverage of an ongoing news story should include an examination of substantive issues of cause and effect as well as costs and benefits from a variety of perspectives, especially in cases that highlight historically difficult or controversial issues like race and poverty.

Here's hoping.

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conor / November 18, 2009 5:26 PM

Very disappointing and disconcerting, but how often is news coverage substantive or balanced? How many talking heads are actually qualified to speak intelligently on the issues they're covering? How many actual economists - people who are educated, you know, with doctorates and those kinds of things - are on TV talking about what's happening right now?

This kind of thing is sad, but it's not new and not unique to Chicago.

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