By Vincent Duffy, RTDNA Chairman
The news media and political wonks had quite a December in Michigan. Maybe you heard about it? Our legislature introduced and passed so-called “right to work” legislation in two days, and Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed it within hours, dealing a harsh blow to the more than 12,000 union supporting protestors surrounding the building.
But – did you see what I did there? Did my bias jump off the page at you?
If you’re new to this debate, the law made it illegal for union shops in Michigan to require either membership in the union, or the payment of dues or fees as a requirement of employment. Supporters of the law say it lets workers choose if they want to support a union and creates a climate that attracts more business to the state. Opponents say it’s a blatant union busting tactic designed to lower wages and benefits and increase profits.
But you already know my opinion of the law, right? Didn’t I give it away when I called the bill the “so-called right to work legislation?”
Many Republicans called this legislation the “Freedom to Work” bill or the “Workplace Freedom” bill. Conservative listeners to my station wrote or called to complain about our “obvious Democrat bias” because we did not call the bill what some Republican legislators named it. (The bill wasn’t really written by Michigan legislators, it was written by ALEC, but that’s another story.) Many Democrats and labor leaders called the legislation the “Right to Work for Less” bill. They wrote and called to tell me they knew the station had an “obvious conservative bias” because we were not calling the bill what it really was, and kept using the public relations-created phrase “right to work.”
“Right to work” is a very successful, poll tested, focus group approved frame, because the legislation has nothing to do with the right to work. As I said, it gives employees the right to refuse to pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment in some workplaces. But when you’re selling this idea to the public, who could possibly be against a right to work? That’s like being against religious freedom, or prosperity, or youth sports. All Americans who want to get a job should have a right to work, right? But walk into our radio station and demand that you have a right to work here. You won’t get very far. Or even better, see what happens if you go to the state unemployment office in a “right to work” state and demand the job that is now one of your rights.
At Michigan Radio we tried to address the language problem by referring to this legislation on first reference as the “so-called right to work bill.” That way, people would know what issue we were talking about, but also realize that we were aware it wasn’t creating a right to work. That only resulted in convincing even more people on both sides that we were biased. Many callers and writers thought we were making fun of the Republicans by adding “so-called” in front of their bill, and were clearly demonstrating our pro-labor bias. Others still felt using the phrase “right to work”, with or without qualifiers, still showed we were biased in favor of the bill and were trying to promote it.
What to call things in news stories is often a tricky business. Listeners and viewers assume they know the politics of your station if you call the recently passed federal healthcare laws “Obamacare” or the “Affordable Care Act.” “Obamacare” eventually caught on so well that even the administration started using it during the campaign to try and co-opt it from conservatives. This intentional framing of names for partisan politics goes back many years. Remember the “peacekeeper missiles” of the Reagan Administration? In the last Congress there was even a bill called the “Reducing Barack Obama's Unsustainable Deficit Act”.
The French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu wrote about the power inherent in the ability to name things. In the news business and politics sometimes those names are silly, and sometimes they are Orwellian double-speak. But if they are universally understood, like “Obamacare” or “Fiscal Cliff” or “Assault Weapons,” they tend to get used a lot. This can trip us up as broadcasters, because we need to write as efficiently as possible and the short-hand phrases help. We don’t have time in every story to replace the phrase “right to work” with “Michigan Senate Bill 116 and House Bill 4003 which together would make it illegal for union shops in Michigan to require either membership in the union, or the payment of dues or fees as a requirement of employment.” That would double the length of our story or reduce the other information we can put in it, especially when we can just say the “right to work” bills as shorthand and everyone knows what we’re talking about.
Maybe we can solve this problem by having a legislator draft the News Organizations Bypass Intentionally Ambiguous Speech Act? It could be a law that mandated we only call legislative bills by their House bill or Senate bill numbers. In the end the audience wouldn’t know what we’re talking about, but you can’t be more objective than numbers. (The legislation, of course, would be called the NO BIAS Act)
As a news outlet you can’t win in this situation. Listeners and viewers who are passionate about an issue will always pick apart your stories and complain that you are biased against them. When the issue is big enough, public relations firms are even hired to make those complaint calls to news directors in an attempt to re-frame the debates once they’re underway. The best we can do as broadcasters is use language that is clear and helps the audience understand the issue, not helps one side or the other frame it. We will always get calls complaining and accusing us of bias, it’s part of the game now. The true test, however, is being able to say that your coverage clearly and fairly presented the issue to your audience, and allowed all sides to make their case. Through that lens, I’m very comfortable with our coverage.