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Reporting on the transit strike

Posted by Richard on April 4, 2006

Union workers for the Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD) went out on strike yesterday, after a Sunday vote in which 55% rejected the agency’s second "last, best, and final offer," which union leaders had tepidly endorsed. A week ago, an overwhelming 95% had voted to reject the first "last, best, and final offer," so RTD sweetened it with a $250 "signing bonus" and an agreement to absorb half of all health insurance increases (the agency currently pays one-third of health insurance premiums).

Denver’s two papers, the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post, both had stories describing the economics of the dispute, with the latter providing a lesson on how to slant the news. Here’s how the Rocky Mountain News story began:

It is about the money.

For RTD bus drivers, mechanics and support workers, a $1.80-an- hour raise phased in over three years – coming after a three-year pay freeze – isn’t enough, especially given that top managers reaped pay hikes last year that were paid up-front.

For RTD management, a $1.80- an-hour increase is completely fair, the largest wage rate hike in the agency’s history and one endorsed by the union’s negotiating team.

The rest of the Rocky’s story continued in this fashion, contrasting the workers’ perspective and management’s point of view to provide a good picture of where both sides are coming from. It explained that workers are angry about management raises last year, some of which were substantial (up to 52%), but reported RTD’s explanation that those were based on a national survey showing that its management was getting "substantially below market" salaries.

The Rocky’s story is a classic example of how lazy — or time-constrained — journalists practice fairness and impartiality: they tell us what the two sides claim, without adding any obvious bias or manipulation. It’s not particularly admirable. It’s the "who am I to judge?" school of journalism, and it can be a terrible disservice to the readers when what one side is saying is demonstrably false and that isn’t pointed out. But at least it’s impartial.

The Denver Post story, on the other hand, is a classic example of how lazy journalists promote their point of view without having to do the hard work of proving it. The story started right out with a large chart showing "RTD’s top salaries." Then it described workers’ rejection of the offer this way:

Workers for the Regional Transportation District soundly defeated the transit agency’s "final" contract offer Sunday, and many demanded richer, "up front" wage increases as they picketed RTD facilities on the first day of the strike.

The contract offer rejected by workers called for raises of 15 cents an hour four times a year over the next three years.

Notice first that according to the Post, the 55-45% strike vote, down from the earlier 95-5% strike vote, "soundly defeated" the offer. Most other news organizations used the adverb "narrowly."

Notice also how the wage increase was described in cents per hour per three months. Nowhere in the article was the per-hour total increase mentioned, much less a driver’s average annual earnings, or the proposed annual increase. So, nowhere in the story was the word "thousand" or a number in the thousands associated with the workers. Instead, the workers were associated with the word "cents."

The management raises, on the other hand, were described in both the body of the story and the chart at the beginning in annual terms, and thus thousands.

The Post story closed with another graph, this one much smaller and difficult to read, entitled "Transit wages and benefits at a glance" (click on it to open a bigger version, but it’s less than a third bigger and still difficult to read). Judging from it, Denver’s existing wages are similar to those in comparable cities, and its benefits are generally better. Of course, the story showed no such comparison for management salaries, nor did it even mention RTD’s survey of management salaries.

Mind you, I’m not saying that the workers’ complaints aren’t legitimate and management is in the right. In fact, I suspect that if you dug into it, you might conclude that the "competitive survey" of management salaries was biased toward maximizing managers’ pay raises. But that’s not what the Post’s reporters did. Instead, they just created the impression that the workers are victims and the managers are greedy and overpaid without actually having to prove it.

Thanks for the fine example of biased reporting, Denver Post. I’m guessing that staff writers George Merritt and Geoffrey Leib were singing "Solidarity Forever" as they wrote this story.

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