5 Questions with Chris Martin

UNI communication studies professor Chris Martin.

 

This UNI professor tackles the mainstream media’s coverage of the working class in his new book. Here, he answers five essential questions.

Chris Martin has always been a news junkie. He grew up obsessively reading every newspaper and magazine he could get his hands on. That lifelong passion — and a critical eye Martin developed for how certain subjects are covered — has served him well as a professor in UNI’s communication studies department, where he regularly teaches classes on journalism and the media.

It’s also what inspired his new book, “No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class,” which was recently selected as an Outstanding Academic Title by Choice magazine and is being used as the foundational textbook for a new class at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.

Your book addresses some of the most common misconceptions about the working class. What are those misconceptions, and how do you define the working class today?

The stereotype that we often get from the media when they talk about working class is a white male hard-hat — someone who's working in some kind of industrial job — especially when we talk about working class people and politics. We're in the midst of that right now. My argument in the book is that the majority of Americans are working class, and that working class covers a range of people. It's not just male, it's female, it's various genders, it's gay, it's straight, it's people of color and even people that a lot of people might think of as middle class. 

One of the biggest members of labor unions are K-12 teachers, who have had horrific conditions and horrible pay and finally have taken a stand for that. Journalists themselves have been victims of the same economy. In the past couple of years, thousands of journalists have been laid off across the country. Journalists have started to band together and form labor unions. We might have close to full employment but what kinds of jobs those people have is the most important question. Where's the money that's generated by our economy going?

Why is the media’s coverage of the working class so important? 

One of the major reasons there's so much inequality in the U.S. is that workers don't have representation. The majority of Americans are working class and the majority of Americans don't see themselves in everyday news coverage. Journalists need to start talking to those people — not talking about those people like they're some anthropological curiosity and not speaking down to them. They need to investigate power relationships in society, and shouldn't be on the side of power. Your loyalty should be to citizens and regular people.

Starting in the late 1960s, newspapers, which were the dominant news organizations, started to rethink their audience from the mass audience, which included the working class, to an upscale audience. So they started to eliminate people who were working class from their audience. And in doing so, they really kind of, as the subtitle says, they abandoned the working class. 

What role does social media play in all this? 

Social media could be something that's really good for getting out news about labor and the working class and other kind of news, because it does put the power of the press in the people's hands. But we've also learned that it's an incredibly great medium for propaganda and false information, so it can be really dangerous. I would encourage people to be careful and just rely on trusted sources. And a bigger perspective is that Facebook and Google have captured 80% of the advertising profits for media. I think we do need to look closely at Facebook and Google and look at antitrust law. We need to be really careful about what they're doing. The news is too important for them to have complete control over it.

The issues explored in the book raise more general questions about the role of politics and bias in the media, and how these impact everyday people — increasingly urgent concerns, in the era of disinformation. As consumers, how can we stay informed without being influenced?

I think it's important for people to read and watch and listen to a lot of different news sources — legitimate news sources. You really need to know where the news is coming from. I think people need to read widely and not believe everything, but it helps to have multiple information points and not just rely on one.

In the book, you discuss how conservative media has harmed the working class, but some working class people are conservative. Can you provide some insight into this dynamic and does it extend to liberal media outlets and their audience?

In our political world right now, I think people are really trying to tease those things out. People on the left and right are realizing this economy doesn't work well for everyone. It’s interesting because that was an argument on the left and the right in 2016, and the left and right offered different answers to that question. I think we’re struggling with that right now. What would be helpful from the media right now would be to cover the working class better. I think the way forward on the political side is for people who are working class to come together over economic issues that we have in common. The majority of Americans have a lot more in common on economic issues than they have on cultural issues, but those cultural issues have been the dividing wedge. But it doesn't matter if we win some on cultural issues if we lose on economic issues.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.