The Intricacies of reporting labor strikes
June 5, 2013
By Jim Pumarlo
Newspapers continually are challenged to produce informative and probing business news reports. The problem is compounded when no one person is the designated business writer. That’s a luxury few community newsrooms can afford.
Labor negotiations are among the most difficult business stories to report fairly and comprehensively, especially when there are work stoppages. Strikes should be reported if newspapers are striving to reveal the effects on the community and those directly involved. In the case of public strikes, such as those involving teachers and other public employees, the public interest is clear and visible. Tax dollars are at stake.
In private disputes—especially if they involve a major employer—the strike is significant for the economic impact it may have on the employer, the strikers, other local businesses and the community overall. A prolonged strike may have a ripple effect for months or even years.
By their nature, strikes are sensitive and adversarial. Claims and counterclaims are exchanged with the media in the middle. The greatest hazard for newsrooms is to sensationalize by publishing unsubstantiated charges, and it can happen all too easily.
Take the example of a story that led with an alleged rock throwing at a picket line. But nobody was able to confirm the incident, including the police. The story quoted the police chief, who said the report could not be substantiated. In hindsight, the item—with no confirmation—probably should have been omitted from the report.
A clarification was published the following day. The “confrontation” apparently was some harmless rock tossing which did not involve strikers. The damage, however, had been done. Reporting the incident left the impression that a confrontation—no matter how major or slight—occurred between labor and management. And it likely needlessly inflamed emotions in an already charged community atmosphere.
The dynamics of strikes often find editors and reporters navigating a minefield to provide fair and consistent coverage. Pickets make strikes visible events, but that does not guarantee easy access to information. Union representatives and striking workers have a propensity to volley charges and talk openly against management. In contrast, management—to a fault—is reluctant to say much of anything, and often is constrained by labor laws. Reporters must flush out the facts, identifying those points where the two sides agree and disagree.
Communities also can be on watch when major employers negotiate new contracts, even without a threat of work stoppage. Resolution of new contracts is newsworthy. Specifics of the settlement can be a barometer for other looming wage negotiations.
No laws require that private companies release salary information, and many businesses keep details private for competitive reasons. Newspapers can compromise by presenting an overview of contracts including such standard information as percentage increase in wages and changes to benefits. It usually is to employers’ advantage to release something.
The opportunity to quash rumors is one of the strongest arguments editors can present to an otherwise unwilling or uncooperative news source. Rumors often fly about what’s transpiring at the bargaining table, even when talks are progressing relatively smoothly. Stating the facts can put issues to rest.
If a rumor has reached the newspaper, employers can rest assured it has circulated throughout the community. What better avenue for someone to set the record straight than to use the local newspaper. It’s also the responsible thing for newspapers to do.
One word of caution, though. Rumors can be never ending in labor disputes. Editors must establish that a particular rumor is significant enough to warrant a story. © Jim Pumarlo 2013
Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.