Local media coverage of plant closings one sided
February 6, 2006 —
The local news media have had nearly forty years to perfect their coverage of manufacturing plant closings. Yet their coverage of the latest Ford announcement - the company will be slashing its operations in Wixom - suggests that they have learned little.
Without indicting any specific organizations, nearly every local television and printed news source has done a less than adequate job of reporting the events in Wixom. Journalism is not only about reporting events, however; there is an element of interpretation inherent to the duties of a journalist. This subtle analysis that news media makes is evident in the presentation of the "facts" of any given story. How have the "facts" been represented by our local news media? Is presentation, or method, really all that important?
In a word, yes. How these "facts" are reported is quite nearly as important as the facts themselves. How a newspaper or a television or even a radio news report contextualizes a story molds the very nature of the story itself.
My criticism of our local news sources is a criticism of their methods: although factually accurate, most of the local media present an excessively negative image of the companies that leave Michigan or any other state in the "rust belt" to pursue overseas investments or to simply cut costs. Take note that I am not arguing that these companies are wholly justified in doing what they are doing - the loss of manufacturing jobs has indeed decimated the state and local economy. But to portray these phenomena in "black and white," so to speak, is irresponsible.
A tri-city area television channel covered the events unfolding in Wixom and in Detroit. I will use their coverage as a case study in examining the role of the media in interpreting events.
First, I noted that the questions the reporter on the scene asked were loaded - i.e., they were deliberately intended to vilify Ford. Not to say that the wording was not subtle; naturally, journalists have gotten quite good at arranging sentences. The interviewees were quite candid about their feelings and were in fact extremely informative. Once the reporter finished questioning some of the Wixom plant workers, the focus shifted back to the anchor, who asked the reporter various questions concerning the well-being of the workers and the future of the town of Wixom.
Granted, the scenario does not seem that grim and taken at face value, the coverage does not commit any egregious violations against the laws of journalistic integrity. Yet it is in how selective the "coverage" was and how the entire story was framed that offended.
News sources are often selective of how they cover stories and our local news media are no exception. Here I am simply arguing that the channel in question chose to portray Ford in an exceptionally negative light; the coverage possessed a very foreboding quality. The questions the reporter asked and the seemingly barren outlook offered on Wixom's future exemplify this.
Manufacturing job losses are of overwhelming importance in mid-Michigan because it presents us all with the fundamental problem of reshaping an economy. Most people are reluctant to approach the issue because there is no easy answer.
I believe the local news chose to portray Ford in the manner they did because it reflects the disposition of the average person thinking about Michigan's economy. The loss of jobs in Wixom is indeed dreadful, as are all the job losses caused by the cuts made by the major auto manufacturers all headquartered in Michigan. Yet it is perhaps even more important to understand why these jobs are going away. It is readily apparent, from the coverage of the Wixom plant closings and the closings that have been covered throughout the years that the media has refused to approach the "why" question.
This continual refusal prevents people from truly understanding the matter. It is easy to reflexively respond to plant closings by citing corporate greed or special interests. It is not so easy to interrogate the issue.
Ultimately, it may be too much to ask of the local media to approach sensitive issues like job loss. Unfortunately it is becoming increasingly apparent to me that this phenomenon is hindering the creation of a popular dialogue on the matter. Michigan's manufacturing jobs have been lost. Everybody - not just academics or politicos - needs to be involved in a discussion about how we're all going to create the new, dynamic Michigan economy.