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Helpful or Harmful? The U.S. News Media's Framing of Organized Labor from 2009 through 2013 Open Access

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For nearly a century, labor and communication scholars have explored how the U.S. news media frame labor unions, and how these frames might affect public opinion, unions and union members. Researchers have identified a dominant negative frame that defines unions as greedy, corrupt, conflict driven and lacking public interest. This literature provides a deep understanding of major labor union events and activity, but it is limited by a focus on strike coverage, case studies, and private sector unions. These limitations restrict understanding of how organized labor is portrayed, particularly given today's new media and labor environments in which audiences get news from a variety of sources and there are more public sector union members than private sector ones. This study aimed to determine how the U.S. news media have framed organized labor in recent years through a content analysis of 648 articles published in the most popular newspapers, newspaper websites, and cable and broadcast television news programs from 2009 through 2013. The study finds that unions were covered with a negative tone in the majority of articles, but not overwhelmingly. Coverage of union activity in Wisconsin and the events that followed, along with a few high-profile contract negotiations, seems to have contributed to this. Despite expectations, coverage of strikes and protests did not dominate. Instead, contract negotiations and the 2010 and 2012 elections resulted in a larger number of articles on contract talks and political activity. Finally, public sector unions during the time period were covered much more negatively than private sector unions.

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