Name any issue, and surely there are at least two sides to it. To gin up a story, simply pass the microphone to any two people with contradictory perspectives, regardless of expertise. Even easier: Pull two lines representing opposing viewpoints out of existing reports, and place them next to each other on the page. If one side has the backing of experts and the other is strategic misinformation, the thinking goes, you can get away without digging deeper by calling it a “debate.”
Of course, that’s also exactly how journalists unwittingly amplify well-funded propaganda machines.
Pittsburgh NPR station WESA fell into that trap in a recent article about the minimum wage in Pennsylvania. The piece was written in the wake of a new report published by the Keystone Research Center, which asserted that 1.2 million Pennsylvania workers would benefit from raising the minimum wage to $10.10.
Since 2009, the minimum wage in Pennsylvania has been $7.25 an hour — the lowest allowed by federal law. At a $7.25 rate, a minimum-wage worker, working 40 hours a week for 52 weeks a year, earns $15,080 annually, which is below the 2013 Federal Poverty Level of $19,530 for a family of three.
The state Legislature is currently considering bills to raise the minimum wage, an initiative introduced under the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health and endorsed by Governor Wolf. In fact, the Senate Labor & Industry Committee held a public hearing on the issue on Tuesday.
After highlighting some findings of the Keystone report, the WESA piece pivoted to conflicting data published by an organization called the Employment Policies Institute. The EPI claims raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would actually hurt low-income workers, and result in thousands of lost jobs.
The WESA story failed to mention that the EPI “is run by a public relations firm that also represents the restaurant industry, as part of a tightly coordinated effort to defeat the minimum wage increase.”
The original article has since been amended — without an editorial notation — with a line noting that the EPI “was created by the Washington-based public relations firm Berman and Company to lobby for the hospitality industry.”
Adding this sentence, however, doesn’t save this piece from being an example of classic false-equivalence reporting. On one “side” is broad expert consensus asserting the benefit of raising the minimum wage to low-income workers. On the other “side” are corporate-funded talking points. The poor reader, though, has no way of knowing that there is no legitimate debate over the benefits of raising minimum wage to low-income workers.
To be clear, WESA is not alone in their mistake: An analysis conducted by PRWatch.org revealed that newspapers failed to disclose EPI’s corporate ties more than 80 percent of the time while quoting their “research” over a three-year period.
At least two other Pennsylvania outlets that also used EPI talking points failed to adequately identify the organization. An article posted on CitizensVoice.com in Luzerne County described EPI as “a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., that conducts research on employment issues.” It noted that EPI — that’s EPI as in Employment Policies Institute, the corporate-funded messaging firm, not EPI as in Economic Policy Institute, which frequently reports on the benefits of raising the minimum wage — has a “different view” about raising the minimum wage than the Keystone Research Center report. Then it allotted more words to Employment Policies Institute’s talking points than to the findings of the Keystone Research Center report, which was ostensibly the occasion for the article.
“Debate to raise minimum wage continues” was the headline out of York County posted at Local21news.com. In reporting on the “continuing debate,” the piece didn’t even mention the Keystone report, or any analysis supporting the benefit of raising the minimum wage. Instead, it merely identified “advocates” of raising the minimum wage as “Democratic leaders, NAACP members and the Central PA Area Labor Federation representatives.” And then: “On the other side of the argument, the Employment Policies Institute released a report saying 30,000 jobs would be lost if the state raises the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.”
In this example, the actual report isn’t even mentioned, and support for raising the minimum wage is diluted to mere partisan perspective — while EPI’s talking points are presented as legitimate statistical research. This juxtaposition leads the reader to believe expert economist consensus supports not raising the minimum wage when in fact, the opposite is true.
Nationally, 600 economists including seven Nobel Prize winners signed an open letter supporting raising the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2016. The U.S. Department of Labor has publicly dismissed the claim that low-income workers will lose jobs if the minimum wage is raised as a “myth,” citing 64 studies on minimum wage increases.
“Why would journalists grab quotes from EPI?” asked a Slate writer last year in a profile of EPI. “Because they need to get ‘anti’ quotes in their stories, and because the EPI is there.”
Strategic lobbyists such as EPI thrive on this type of journalism failure. In fact, it’s their business model to exploit journalism’s shrinking newsroom, obsession with flimsy, hastily assembled faux “balance,” and addiction to fast journalism.
It’s worth noting that suppressing the minimum wage is not the group’s only interest, by a long shot. All kinds of campaigns are conducted by issuing talking points with “the gloss of research.” They’ve even targeted Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
From the New York Times: “The [EPI] campaign illustrates how groups — conservative and liberal — are again working in opaque ways to shape hot-button political debates, like the one surrounding minimum wage, through organizations with benign-sounding names that can mask the intentions of their deep-pocketed patrons.” (In a bit of head-spinning meta reporting on false equivalence, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting called out the Times for performing false-equivalence in their piece on false-equivalence by observing that there isn’t actually a left-wing equivalent to the Employment Policies Institute.)
Certainly, the research findings published by one corporate-funded business-interest advocacy group are not equivalent to research published by the Keystone Research Center.
Not every story is a “debate.” Policy is not always politics. When issues are given false equivalence, journalism is reduced to a megaphone for corporate interests … which is pretty much the opposite of the point of the entire journalistic enterprise.
The real controversy here isn’t whether or not raising the minimum wage would benefit low-income workers: raising the minimum wage would benefit 1.2 million Pennsylvanians. In three counties in western Pennsylvania, it would raise the wages of more than 30 percent of that county’s workers. The real controversy is how such a no-brainer as raising the minimum wage could still be considered controversial by any but the rich and those who serve their interests.
Tara Murtha is a journalist and the Associate Director for Strategic Communications at Women’s Law Project, the only public interest law center devoted to women’s rights in Pennsylvania.