Media Effects on Public Opinion about a Newspaper Strike

Article excerpt

This study examines antecedents of public involvement in and support for a strike by newspaper journalists in a two-newspaper metropolitan area. Specifically, we focus on the role that perceptions of journalists and the news media, as well as mediated and direct experience, play in shaping involvement and support for the strike. Using data from a probability sample of 456 respondents, we find differential effects of the specific newspaper read by respondents as well as attention paid to newspaper and television news. Results indicate that direct experience, attention to newspaper news, and knowledge of local politics have an impact on strike involvement. Perceptions of news organizations as profit-driven and views of local media drive perceptions of the legitimacy of striking journalists' concerns.

As a key democratic institution, the news media perform crucial functions in America today, including surveying and analyzing the political environment for audience members, providing a platform for political debate, and acting as a watchdog against governmental abuse and corruption.1 As another democratic institution, labor unions perform similar advocacy and empowerment functions for workers. Stepan-Norris states that "the raison d'etre of labor unions is to democratize labor relations, that is, to give ordinary workers a voice in determining the conditions that shape their work lives."2 Specifically, organized labor has secured better wages and benefits and stronger protection for workers against management abuses.3

While one body of research has focused on journalists and the news media, and another on unions, little research has intersected to explore journalists in their roles as union members. Against this backdrop, we examine how public support for journalists as union members is influenced by perceptions of the news media and journalists themselves. Specifically, we use survey data collected in the context of a newspaper strike to explore the impact of such perceptions.

Examining Public Support for Labor Unions

On the surface, democratic institutions such as the presidency, state government, the press, and public education appear to share little in common short of occasional interactions working toward a societal good. But separately and collectively, these and other U.S. institutions have suffered what some deem "a sustained pattern of declining public confidence." Public opinion data indicate that the erosion of confidence has occurred across demographic groups since the 1960s.4

U.S. labor unions have not escaped these trends. Lipset and Schneider, summarizing the polls of Gallup, Harris, National Opinion Research Center, and Opinion Research Corporation, say that public approval of labor unions "declined continually from 71% in 1965 to 55% in 1981."5 During this same time period, the proportion of those expressing "a great deal of confidence" in union labor leaders fell from 22% to 12%, and public disapproval of organized labor increased from 19% to 35%.6 More recently, Americans have expressed a mixed view of labor unions. While most approve of unions (65%) and believe they are necessary to protect the working person (70%),7 Americans are divided on whether unions wield too much power. Americans are also divided on whom to support in labor disputes, with 45% siding with unions and 37% siding with companies.8

How can these variations in support be explained? Research on trust in institutions has summarized main factors behind public confidence levels. While some argue that it is the effectiveness of an institution that shapes public support for it,9 others contend that the activities of an institution have little bearing on confidence levels, placing them secondary to the perceptions of the individuals who occupy leadership positions in those institutions.10

Although research on institutional trust has dealt primarily with trust in the presidency, Congress, the media, and education,11 many of the same factors apply to public support for labor unions. …