Molly Butler / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

In a blockbuster year for labor, cable news coverage of large strikes has flopped

The SAG-AFTRA strike received more cable news coverage in just a few days than any of the 21 major strikes garnered during the first six months of 2023

  • As the first six months of 2023 saw explosive growth for labor strikes, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News covered only five of the largest 21 strikes in the country for a total of 5 hours and 49 minutes, ignoring more than a dozen others involving nurses, teachers, and industrial workers. But when the SAG-AFTRA strike started in July, cable news covered it for almost 4 and 1/2 hours in the first eight days.

    Since 2021, when waves of labor unrest swept across the country, union organizing and striking have grown yearly with many notable labor successes. During the first six months of 2023, roughly 119,000 workers went on strike — an increase of nearly 80% from the same period last year. 

    Cable news coverage of labor in the past has been underwhelming. A Media Matters study examining all cable coverage of labor activity in 2021 showed that CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC tended to ignore labor for months on end and often failed to quote workers. Cable news has also given inadequate coverage to labor stories involving corporate giants, including the Starbucks unionization push and Amazon’s warehouse union action. Recently, CNN dropped the ball when reporting on railroad workers’ push for a fairer contract, blaming unions for not acquiescing to the multibillion-dollar railroad companies. 

  • Cable news coverage of labor strikes from January through June 2023

  • CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC’s coverage of the largest labor strikes in the first six months of 2023 has been inconsistent. From January 1 to June 30, 2023, cable news covered only five out of the 21 strikes with 500 or more participants: the Los Angeles Unified School District teachers strike, the Montefiore Medical Center and Mount Sinai Hospital nurses strike in New York City, the Oakland Unified School District teachers strike, the Rutgers University faculty and graduate students strike, and the Writers Guild of America strike. While cable news outlets spent a total of 5 hours and 49 minutes on these strikes, there was a big disparity in how much time they allotted to each story. For instance, the strikes by New York nurses and Rutgers faculty received a total of 4 and 8 minutes of coverage, respectively, while cable news channels covered the WGA strike for a total of 3 hours and 14 minutes.

    Key findings

    • Cable news covered only five of the 21 big strikes (with over 500 participants) in the first six months of 2023. We didn’t find any coverage of important working class strikes like the Spirit AeroSystems manufacturing strike or the Teamsters strike at Sysco
    • CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News spent a total of 5 hours and 49 minutes covering major strikes, with CNN airing the majority of coverage at 3 hours and 32 minutes.
    • Cable news spent over half of the total time on the Writers Guild strike, with some coverage focused on how the strike would impact entertainment and the economy. 
    • Fox News cited workers in just 18% of segments on the strikes. MSNBC and CNN both cited workers in roughly 60% of their strike segments.
    • Union-busting efforts were mentioned in only 1% of CNN’s strike segments, despite an uptick in unfair labor practices charge filings. Fox News and MSNBC did not mention union busting at all in strike coverage during the studied period.
    • Fox News and MSNBC had 33 and 35 segments, respectively, on different strikes throughout the first six months of 2023, while CNN dominated with 90 such segments. 
  • Strikes by how much cable coverage they received

    Citation Andrea Austria / Media Matters

  • Cable coverage citing workers in strikes

    Citation Andrea Austria / Media Matters

  • Cable news coverage of the SAG-AFTRA strike in July 

  • On July 13 at 3 p.m. ET, SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher announced that approximately 160,000 members had voted to go on strike for the first time since 1960. The union cited issues including corporate greed, advancements in artificial intelligence technology threatening the profession, and low average wages as the catalyst for striking. (Although there are high-earning celebrity members within the union, many SAG-AFTRA workers have described being unable to earn a living wage, while studio heads and executives like Disney CEO Bob Iger, who has called the strike “unrealistic,” were collectively paid more than $1.4 billion in 2021 — “up 50% from total pay in 2018,” according to the Los Angeles Times.) 

    Replicating the study of cable news’ strike coverage over the first six months of 2023, we examined the SAG-AFTRA strike from its announcement through the first week of picketing, from midday July 13-21. Although cable networks generally did a better job citing workers during the SAG-AFTRA strike, they also tended to rely more on framing through a financial or managerial perspective than in previous coverage of 2023 strikes. 

    Key findings

    • The SAG-AFTRA strike received 4 hours and 24 minutes of cable news coverage within its first eight days. In comparison, the 5 strikes covered in the first half of the year received a total of 5 hours and 49 minutes of coverage between January and the end of June. 
    • In coverage of the SAG-AFTRA strike, 77% of segments cited or interviewed workers. Coverage of strikes from the first half of the year cited or interviewed workers in 51% of segments.
      • Several of the workers cited were famous actors, including Mandy Moore and George Clooney, rather than non-celebrity rank and file members of the union.
    • During its first eight days, 60% of segments on the SAG-AFTRA strike featured or cited management, as opposed to roughly 32% in the previous six months.
      • In one particularly bad segment, MSNBC’s Morning Joe co-host Joe Scarborough called Bob Iger a “very disciplined voice” after playing his comments condemning the strike and asked if the union could find “middle ground.” 
      • Some segments which cited Iger’s comments condemning SAG-AFTRA neglected to mention executive compensation, even though the union has noted the financial inequities between actors and studios as being a major source of tension. 
    • Cable news continued to neglect union-busting efforts, noting them in just over 1% of segments.
    • The financial impact of strikes was mentioned in 50% of segments during the studied period, as opposed to 22% in the first six months of 2023’s strike coverage.
      • Fox News focused on the financial angle in a majority of segments, totaling 66% of the channel’s SAG-AFTRA coverage. 
  • This study reveals that cable news networks tend to ignore large-scale strikes when they impact primarily working-class Americans, but pay close attention to strikes that impact the entertainment industry and involve A-list celebrities. Coverage also tends to focus on economic impacts and mostly fails to mention union-busting efforts.

  • Methodology:

    Media Matters searched transcripts in the Kinetiq video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “worker,” “employee,” “member,” “labor,” “laborer,” “union,” “teacher,” “instructor,” “faculty,” “writer,” “nurse,” or “fisher” within 50 words of any of the terms “strike,” “striking,” “walk out,” “picket,” or “picketing” from January 1, 2023, through June 30, 2023. Media Matters used the same transcript terms in the Kinetiq video database for the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) strike from July 13, 2023, when the strike began at 3 p.m. ET, through July 21, 2023.  

    We timed segments, which we defined as instances when any past, present, or future labor strike that occurred in 2023 with 500 or more participants as cataloged in the Labor Action Tracker from Cornell University was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of such strikes. These were the Oakland Education Association, the Writers Guild of America, United Public Employees of California and the Laborers' International Union of North America, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, Rutgers University and the American Association of University Professors, University of Michigan and the Graduate Employees' Organization, Sysco and the Teamsters, Hearst Magazine and the Writers Guild of America, United Teachers of Los Angeles, Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, Maui Health System-Kaiser Permanente and United Public Workers, City of Portland and Laborers International Union of North America, the Woburn Teachers' Association, University of Illinois at Chicago and UIC United Faculty, the Kodiak Crab Alliance Cooperative, the New York State Nurses Association, Ascension and National Nurses United, Spirit AeroSystems and International Association of Machinists, Oregon Nurses Association, and the Mechanical Contractors Association of Greater Dayton, and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) strikes. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed such strikes with one another or when one speaker engaged in discussion or monologue about such strikes. We did not include segments about strike authorizations that did not later turn into actual strike actions. We also did not include segments about strikes in general. For multitopic segments, we timed only the relevant speech. We rounded all times to the nearest minute.

    We did not time mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker in a segment about another topic mentioned any such strike without another speaker engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about any such strike scheduled to air later in the broadcast.

    We then reviewed all identified segments in their entirety for whether any speaker quoted or paraphrased labor organizers or strikers, quoted or paraphrased management or company spokespersons, discussed the direct financial impact or supply chain disruptions of the strike action, or mentioned union-busting efforts.