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How the business media has failed workers and consumers

July 22, 2022

Posted by Chris Roush

Talking Biz News is running excerpts this week from “The Future of Business Journalism: Why it Matters for Wall Street and Main Street.” Here is the fifth one.

The decline of unions has been slow and steady. After reaching its height in 1955, when one out of every three Americans belonged to a union, unionized workers fell to 27.3 percent of the workforce in 1970 and to one out of every five Americans by 1983. By 2019 the ratio had fallen to one out of every ten workers, with most of the union members working in government jobs.

During the same time, the rise in CEO compensation has been astronomical, rising by 940 percent between 1978 and 2018, according to the Economic Policy Institute, while wages for the typical worker grew just 11.9 percent.

These trends have been documented by the top business media in the last forty years. Today, however, most mainstream media have cut or stopped covering stories around labor and the average worker, preferring instead to focus on what is happening with the people who can afford high-priced business journalism, such as CEOs. Once a common beat in the newsroom, the “labor” beat has been either changed to the more nebulous “workplace” assignment, where reporters also cover topics such as ergonomics and dating coworkers.

“In its glamorization of the rich and powerful, the business press, I believe, has also begun to forget the American worker,” writes Jeffrey Madrick, a former business journalist at Money and BusinessWeek magazines. “This tendency evolved since the 1970s. But what is most bothersome about it is that, if the press does not represent mid-level and low-level workers, who will?”

Business and economics news coverage that focuses on consumers and how they should be spending their money has shifted as well, catering to those with the financial wherewithal to afford items such as life insurance, annuities, and long-term care insurance while ignoring stories that might be helpful to a wider audience. Researcher Nadine Strauss discovered that most business journalists “report for wealthy, male, well-educated business people or citizens with a strong interest in investments.”

The result is that many workers and consumers no longer look to the mainstream media for news and information about topics such as how much they should be paid, whether they should be renting an apartment or buying a home, or the effect of multiple credit cards on their ability to borrow money. While these topics are often covered by specialty news operations that have started online in the past decade, for the most part these journalists are targeting readers with a higher socioeconomic status, leaving workers and consumers in the lurch, scrambling to find bits and pieces without any coherence.

When these consumers do find help in the media, it’s often misguided or comes from a personal finance “guru” whose advice is questionable, writes Helaine Olen in Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry: “These experts paint themselves as our financial saviors, while often neglecting to mention they are making a living (and a good living!) not just from their television appearances and books, but by their agreements with everyone and everything from mutual fund companies and credit reporting agencies—not to mention the host of ‘products’ they try to sell us.”

Indeed, the rise of free personal finance news sites and blogs in the past decade may seem like a positive step for consumers, but most are tied to a product such as a credit card, which calls into question the sites’ objectivity. These ethical issues support the thesis that quality business and financial news is only for those who can afford it, and that most of the content that’s available for free is not good for the consumer.

Editors and those who run newsrooms today would argue that there’s no reason to devote a staffer to cover labor and employment issues because of the decline in union membership. And they’ve dropped their personal finance reporters or “helpline” reporters because they see an entire industry that’s been built around helping consumers spend their money more wisely.

That rationale misses the point. While workers may not belong to a union, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are 157.8 million people in the workforce—both union and nonunion members. Many are likely interested in understanding trends in the workplace, such as which companies are raising their minimum wage, which companies offer work-at-home options, and which companies offer job-swapping opportunities.

Steve Greenhouse, the longtime labor reporter at the New York Times, explained the importance of such coverage in the media:

A lot of people say it’s a boring beat. I thought, there are 150 million workers and there are a lot of interesting stories about workers. It’s not just about labor unions. It’s about struggling farm workers, and struggling immigrant workers, and sex/race/religion discrimination at work, how workers are getting treated on the job, and public safety programs at work, and same companies that do a great job in how they treat their workers, like Costco.

And in terms of personal finance, a 2019 study by GuideVine, a service that matches people with financial advisers, found that many Americans sorely lack knowledge when it comes to basic financial terms such as “interest” and “bankruptcy” and understanding how inflation works. Less than half of adults over thirty can explain a 401(k) retirement plan and how it works. By not helping consumers understand topics like these, the mainstream media is eschewing its responsibility to society.

The decline in relevant coverage for the working class and its impact has been well documented. In 2013 the Newspaper Guild and Communication Workers of America released a study that found the working class is not being covered in television news. In 2009, 2010, and 2011 just 0.3 percent of network television news content covered labor issues. And when there is coverage, the issues are often framed as being the fault of the workers, not the business or its executives. “It’s a direct line from the decline of labor unions and collective bargaining to the decades-long economic slide of American workers, yet few journalists seem to be able to find the narrative thread,” writes Christopher Martin, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa and an expert on the topic.

In addition, labor news is now framed around how it affects consumers and rarely addresses the issues that workers face. Two Canadian professors argue that such reporting hurts society, which as a result lacks the knowledge about wages, working conditions, and changes in the workplace. Martin adds that coverage of the working class focuses on white men and ignores women and people of color, and that stories about work-related topics have become political. He argued that the way for the news media to improve its work-related coverage is for reporters to unionize, which could “close the gap between journalists and the communities they cover,” and to find and talk to workers, to “give them a voice, and include them in their audience.”

This last step might be difficult. Media outlets have primarily geared their coverage toward more affluent readers.

This is an excerpt from “The Future of Business Journalism: Why it Matters to Wall Street and Main Street” by Quinnipiac University School of Communications dean Chris Roush.

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