Unless you’re a politician or a star athlete, the news of the day is rarely about your life. But sometimes, the media is buzzing quite specifically about you. Are you part of that conversation? Nope.
That kind of treatment is reserved for people who lack political power, yet are the subjects of media coverage.
Like immigrants. Congress has been working for months to pass a law that would, among other things, provide a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants currently living in this country. That’s millions of lives directly impacted by this conversation. But the media hardly give immigrants a chance to speak.
Who are media talking to about immigration? When the media watch group FAIR, where I work, looked at a month of TV coverage around the president’s State of the Union address, the voices of immigrants could hardly be heard. We counted 157 sources in total addressing immigration issues. The vast majority were U.S.-born white male politicians.
Only three sources were identified as current or former undocumented immigrants — the people the conversation was about. That means the voices of the immigrants impacted by this political tussle, as well as those of the activists who made it a front-burner issue in the first place, were mostly absent.
Instead, the conversation is mostly among lawmakers. More than half of the appearances by Latinos in the study were by one Republican lawmaker, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. The Cuban-American politician was born in Miami.
Of course, it’s understandable that the politicians debating the laws will be in the news. But a media system that’s almost entirely focused on inside-the-Beltway maneuvering and policy squabbles isn’t informing Americans about the real lives that could be transformed by Congress. That matters a lot more than whatever John McCain thinks about the issue.
And this doesn’t just happen with immigration. FAIR looked at three months of coverage of discussions about raising the minimum wage — an issue that, like immigration, affects millions of people.
Out of 32 stories that featured 87 sources, just three of those sources were low-wage workers. Executives and managers — many of whom aren’t keen on paying workers higher wages — were heard from 17 times. In total, businesspeople and their advocates outnumbered workers and their advocates by more than 5 to 1.
The tragic thing about the debate over raising the minimum wage is that by focusing so much attention on political and business elites, the media give us an absurdly skewed version of reality.
Raising the minimum wage is wildly popular with the general public. It’s not, as some media accounts put it, a “divisive” issue — unless you think the most important debate in the country is between politicians and business owners.
And it’s important to note that while the political discussion focuses on a modest increase to $9 per hour favored by the White House, some economists point out that if the minimum kept pace with worker productivity, we’d be talking about raising the base wage to somewhere in the neighborhood of $16 an hour. That’s not a point a business owner is likely to make.
Can you imagine the media deciding to cover war without talking to the military? Or covering Wall Street without talking to bankers or CEOs? Me either.
But that’s exactly how the corporate media cover issues that affect working people — by robbing them of a voice in the debate over their own lives.
OtherWords commentaries are free to re-publish in print and online — all it takes is a simple attribution to OtherWords.org. To get a roundup of our work each Wednesday, sign up for our free weekly newsletter here.