Labour Day Edition: On Academic Labour Reportage

Okay, well, this post was originally going to be entitled: “Why I Hate the Way that Newspapers Treat Academic Workers’ Labour Negotiations”.

Actually, to be honest, it was actually going to be devoted to calling out a single journalist for deliberately obfuscating the context for the current support-staff strike (which I have discussed in this previous post).  I had all my sanctimonious denunciations lined up, but then I took the time to actually learn about the specific journalist in question.

And actually, she seems like a pretty cool person.  I think that I’d like her, if I knew her.  And, no less importantly, I don’t know how much of her finished article is the result of an editor’s intervention.

So I realized that it’s not really about her or any single journalist, and what follows is really about the way that the reportage of academic labour issues in current newspapers seems to be inevitably biased, and how we as workers will have to work pretty hard to change the lens through which the media automatically, reflexively view and represent labour struggles in the education sector.

So here are the first paragraphs of the article, from the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, on Sept. 2:

College classes not expected to be disrupted by strike

WATERLOO REGION — When Rori Brown first learned about the support-staff strike at Conestoga College, she thought, “Not again.”

“Luckily for me, I got everything done before the strike except my OSAP,” the third-year accounting student said Friday.

Brown lives in Waterloo, so she got her parking pass, registration and most of her books out of the way in August, before support staff at Conestoga College walked off the job Thursday. They are among more than 8,000 support staff represented by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union on strike across the province.

This is the fifth time staff at provincial colleges have walked off the job since 1984. The last strike, by teaching staff in 2006, saw classes cancelled for three weeks. In 2010, the colleges narrowly avoided another faculty strike.

Okay, so what’s the problem here?  Well, let’s break it down: The story chooses to start with human drama — namely the character of the threatened student, cast in the role as “innocent pawn” or “stake” in a clash of wills between strikers and management.

Now, I can respect that choice, although I do recognize that it tends to cast the strikers in a worse light than management, simply because they’re the ones who become the agents of the labour stoppage.

But that’s not really my problem.  My problem is that the article chooses to begin with the words attributed to the innocent bystander in the first paragraph: “Not again”.  Now the dynamic shifts.  Automatically, before introducing a single fact or contextual detail about the struggle, we have the image of the innocent, who gives us the understanding that she has been repeatedly victimized by labour strife at her college.

We are led — as a consequence of the author’s and/or editor’s choices — to believe that the student’s educational experience has been plagued by repeated occasions when her education has been disrupted by workers on strike.

And the contextualizing evidence given to support that student’s (and now, the reader’s) impression is:

This is the fifth time staff at provincial colleges have walked off the job since 1984. The last strike, by teaching staff in 2006, saw classes cancelled for three weeks.

This is the fifth system-wide strike at provincial colleges in . . . 27 years.  An average of one strike every five-and-a-half years.   Moreover, it is the first strike to affect Conestoga in the last five-and-a-half years.

In fact, if these numbers are to be believed, it is somewhat improbable that a third-year accounting student could respond to a strike at Conestoga with the thought “Not again”, unless that student were seriously misguided.

But seriously misguiding, I believe, is the inevitable effect of newspaper articles like this one.

Nowhere in the article is it mentioned that this is the first strike by college support staff in 32 years.  Rather, the article magnifies the frequency of strike-actions by mentioning that, “In 2010, the colleges narrowly avoided another faculty strike”, thus conflating “near misses” with actual events.  The fact that there has been no strike in over five years is rendered less important than the fact that there was almost a strike 18 months ago.

(One of the risks of this journalistic approach, in my opinion, is to increase the likelihood of strikes.  Why?  Because if the media and the public remember only the workers’ threat to strike, rather than their ultimate choices not to do so, then unions have to live with the bad press regardless of whether or not they actually go on strike.  Consequently, unions have less to lose by actually going on strike, since they’ll get no credit from popular opinion — nor from newspaper articles in the K-W area — for choosing not to.)

The rest of the article (linked here) carries on with the typical things that I expect to hear: The strikers’ work being recognized exclusively in terms of what’s disrupted in their absence, and the college president calling strikers unreasonable, rather than asserting the value of their work.  And what’s missing, predictably, is any discussion of the two sides position, with any analysis of the strikers’ demands in relation to — as the Conestoga president puts it — “macroeconomic circumstances” (one of which includes, as I have said before, the dwindling of Ontario’s middle class).

And again, what I want to stress is not that this article represents a particularly egregious example of poor coverage of an academic labour dispute.  It is utterly typical, and utterly depressing in its typicality.  Because of the framing narrative and contextual detail that a journalist (even a potentially-sympathetic one) and editor chose to include, the support-staff strike is presented as  a commonplace occurrence that plagues the educational experience of Ontario’s college’s students, when in reality it has never occurred before in the lifetime of either the journalist or the student she interviewed.

And there’s no way that we can say that that serves to present the case objectively, or with respect to its particularity.  It’s a distortion of the situation, and it needs to be addressed as such.  Because it’s the kind of distortion that results from lazy journalism: From a journalist’s or editor’s unconscious belief that one event can be simply treated as an indistinct moment in a larger pattern (i.e., unions striking again, ’cause that’s what unions do… .  Cue victimized student…).

And what we need to do is recognize and announce the degree to which these unconscious journalistic choices result in an anti-worker bias, which is communicated to readers as objective fact.

The solution is definitely not the godawful “strikers say/ but management says” reporting of contradictory claims, with no concern for actual truth.  Interestingly, this article escapes that dynamic by presenting only the management’s side, and doesn’t even try to address the reasons why the union is on strike — not a single union member’s words are included.  Presumably, the author or editor felt that it went without saying.  And frankly, where newspapers are concerned, most labour issues do indeed go without being said.

But maybe one solution to this pattern of distortion is to try inspire journalists to treat a strike as something new, something specific to a particular time and place, and to the specific factors thereof.  Perhaps we actually need to invite journalists — and more importantly editors, who determine the length of articles —  to think more about the “macroeconomic circumstances” (like, say, the underfunding of postsecondary education in Ontario, or the increase of temporary workers in the province) and the role of workers within them.

Just like my opinion about the journalist and her article changed when I tried to learn about her as an individual, so might newspapers change their tune if they tried to understand strikes as specific, particular events, and strikers as individuals with their own particular needs and motivations.

Journalists like narratives, and I can’t blame them.  I love stories, too.  Stories help us to understand the world, absorb knowledge, and to ascribe meaning to events.  So, if I have to complain about journalists or editors, I guess that I’ll complain that they’re choosing the wrong stories: They see an instance of labour conflict only as an episode in a larger story of more labour conflict (with its dramatis personae of antagonists and victims).  We need to encourage them instead to see that instance as an episode in a larger story of the trends that confront our economy and society, and of our collective values and vision for our province.

And maybe, if we accomplish that, we can turn what seems to be a simple moment of opposition and conflict into an opportunity to foster discussion and community.

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