Thursday, June 9, 2016

Research: The construction of workplace injury in Canadian newspapers

Move it along, nothing to see here: The construction of workplace injury in Canadian newspapers 
Jason Foster and Bob Barnetson, Athabasca University
Canadian Association for Work and Labour Studies Conference, Calgary, June 2

What we’re going to talk about today is some research we’ve completed on the social construction of workplace injuries in Canadian newspapers. The nub of our analysis is that newspapers provided a skewed view of workplace injuries. They largely ignore non-fatal injuries and injuries to women. And the media frames (or “story templates”) that journalists use create a sense that injuries are isolated events that happen to others for which no one is responsible (except maybe the worker) and thus we shouldn’t worry too much about them.

This paper draws on three studies—all of which found the same basic pattern. The first is by Tim Gawley and Shane Dixon from Laurier. They looked at how newspaper reports of injury lined up with injury statistics in Ontario between 2007 and 2012. Jason and I replicated this quantitative analysis using a 2009-2014 dataset of big city papers from all across the country. We also extended the analysis by identifying at the media frames that were used and talking to journalists about them. We then repeated both the quantitative and qualitative analysis on a new sample of western Canadian papers—mostly to see if there were any differences between urban and rural newspapers (and there weren’t).

Over the next few minutes, I’m going to give you the highlights of the quantitative analysis and then I’m going to turn it over to Jason to talk about media frames and outline some of our conclusions.

Quantitative Analysis
The quantitative analyses drew on two main data sources. Newspaper reports were identified using an FPInfoTrax search while official injury statistics were drawn from a 2012 statistical summary of fatalities and lost-time claims compiled by the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada. We’ll be presenting national data but these patterns recur in provincial-level analysis. 

The most striking result was the overrepresentation of workplace fatalities in newspaper reports. In this slide, fatalities are green and injuries are yellow. 

Fatalities are the subject 61.2% of newspaper reports even though they comprise only 0.4% of all time-loss and fatality claims in Canada.
We see similar disjunctions when we look at the kinds of injuries reported. Here, newspaper reports are green and official injury statistics are yellow. 

Newspaper tend to over-report acute physical injuries—such as burns, fractures, intracranial injuries, and traumatic injuries— while the most common type of injury—a sprain/strain—is vastly under-reported. We similar under-reporting of bruises and contusions and lacerations. 

And, when we look at the kinds of injury events that are reported, we see dramatic injuries are over reported. Again, newspaper reports are green and injury statistics are yellow. 

Newspapers over-report contact with objects/equipment and fires/explosions while the much more common “bodily reactions and exertions” are basically never mentioned in newspaper coverage. 

Overall, what this suggests is that newspapers tend to over-report sensational injuries (that are relative rare) while ignoring the vast majority of injuries altogether. 

The second striking result is the virtual absence of women in newspaper stories about injuries. In this slide, men are green and women are yellow. 

Men feature in 95.6% of newspaper reports even though they account for only 62.9% of accepted time-loss and fatality claims. Women are almost entirely absent from newspaper accounts of workplace injuries and fatalities. 

This result may be partly explained by the kinds of injuries that newspapers report: women are less likely than men to be killed on the job and are also less likely to experience a traumatic injury. That said, the absence of women is profoundly troubling because it makes injuries that are common in female-dominated occupations invisible.

Finally, the quantitative analysis looked at what sources journalists tend to rely upon for information. The most common sources are government spokespeople, police officers and firefighters, and employers. 

Workers (including the victim), workers’ family and friends, and union representatives are rarely included in newspaper reports. Reporters’ tendency to rely on cops, OHS, and employers may reflect the kinds of stories that newspaper runs about injury. Most newspaper stories simply report the occurrence of the injury—and these sources are the most accessible sources of the information that reporters need to file that kind of story.

Qualitative Analysis
One of the things we noticed when doing the quantitative analysis was that newspaper reports of injuries sounded a lot alike. At times, you could almost swap stories if you changed the names of the businesses and the cities where the injury occurred. We decided to apply frame analysis to this same dataset to investigate this phenomenon.

A media frame is a particular way of telling a story to optimize reader accessibility. Essentially reporters approach telling a particular kind of story in a particular way. And if you read enough of these stories you can start to see an underlying story template of sorts. The effect of a frame is to privilege certain problem definitions or causal interpretations or moral evaluations at the expanse of other way of looking at an issue. Basically framing tells the reader what is important and what isn’t.

We found three media frames in the data. Newspaper reports tell us that injuries are under investigation, human tragedies, or before the courts. Some examples really help explain the key elements of each frame.

Here’s an example of the under investigation frame. The reporter notes a worker has been killed and the authorities are investigating. About 55% of all newspaper reports of injuries and fatalities look almost exactly like this—literally you can just swap out the proper nouns and, voila, you are a PostMedia journalist.

The key message in this frame is that the authorities have the situation under control. The passive voice (“the employee has been killed”) focuses attention on the victim rather than on what killed the worker or who was responsible for the death. Rarely do we see follow-up stories—instead the event just passes into history.

This report is atypical in that it also names the injured worker and where he lived. Normally the worker is described in generic terms such as “a 33-year-old carpenter”. Such sparse descriptions tend to dehumanize the victim by framing them as a nameless job holder rather than in a more relatable way.

Now let’s turn to an example of the human tragedy frame. These articles typically recount the life story of a dead worker and most often appear around the National Day of Mourning. They often include an abbreviated summary of the incident followed by reminiscences about the worker’s interests, character, life history or social roles as told by a family member, friend or co-worker. These reports are highly idiosyncratic but the broad message is that the worker’s injury or death was a tragedy.

There are two key aspects of this frame. First, the “tragedy” is often accompanied by the word “accident” and implies the incident was unforeseeable and unavoidable. In this way, the Human Tragedy narrative elides any discussion of wrongdoing, cause or culpability.

Second, the tragedy in these articles is the personal loss and emotional suffering of the families. Focus is taken away from the workplace and put on the workers’ loved ones. In this way, the Human Tragedy frame encourages readers to think of the worker, not as a worker, but as a father or son with interests and families--drawing out sympathy but, in doing so, removing the workplace context. Consequently, this frame discourages the reader from linking the human elements of the incident to economic, political and structural factors giving rise to whatever caused the “tragedy” in the first place.

The third media frame appears primarily in articles reporting charges filed or resolved under provincial OHS laws. The articles typically recount the facts of the case (similar to other court reporting) and the penalty(s) imposed. The reports use technical and passive language. While the issue of cause and blame cannot be avoided, these reports to narrow the focus to legal culpability, thereby downplayng how the employer’s action (or inaction) killed or maimed a worker. Typically the matter is discussed as simply a regulatory violation addressed via a fine—an violation little different than being fined for speeding or jaywalking.

While each of the three media frames construct a different understanding of workplace injuries, taken together these frames create a meta-frame that guides readers’ understanding of workplace injuries. There are four elements to the meta-frame are injuries and fatalities are (1) isolated events that (2) happen to “others” for which (3) no one is responsible (except maybe the worker) and thus (4) we ought not be concerned about them.

The meta-frame begins with the reporting of injuries as one-off events—curiosities of little significance other than to the victim and the victim’s family. Even avid newspaper readers are unlikely to ever learn the result of the investigation or the fate of the worker.

The various frames also create distance between the reader and the victim. Victims are never portrayed as a whole person. They are either a faceless (and usually nameless) worker injured or killed at work. Or they are a loving spouse, parent or child whom their family mourns, with the work-related particulars of the injury pushed into the background.

There is virtually no meaningful discussion of what caused workplace injuries. A few articles tough on the proximate cause of incident, such as a worker being crushed when vehicle rolled forward. But there is rarely any discussion of the root cause of the incident—such as mechanical failure, faulty job design, pressure to speed up production, staffing reductions. The exception is discussion of worker error—which is often implied

For example, consider this article:

Basically the newspaper parrots the employer’s assertion that, while the cause of a worker’s death is technically unknown, neither equipment nor training was at fault. The implication here is clearly that the worker made a mistake.

Finally, the tone of the frames tells to readers there is no reason to be concerned about the incident. Workplace injuries are routine happenings that are under investigation or before the courts or were tragedies that happened a long time ago

Overall, newspaper reports provide a very skewed picture of workplace injury. This is important because media reports play an important role in how we view issues. Newspapers frame workplace injuries and fatalities as isolated, traumatic events that affect mostly men in blue-collar occupations that we shouldn’t be too concerned about.

Downplaying the frequency of workplace injuries and their impact on workers and their families undermines demands for safer workplaces. And ignoring injury causation obscures that employers determine the hazards to which workers are exposed. In these ways, inaccurate newspaper coverage benefits employers at the cost of workers’ health and safety.

This in turn, suggests, that governments should take steps to make available information about the hazards workers face. For example, workplace inspection reports should be available online—just like restaurant food inspection reports—and an annual list of the the worst safety performers would create both awareness and public pressure around injury.

1 comment:

Matt M said...

Interesting read. Thanks.