College papers don’t give hospital story a fair look

I have some distressing news. We, the campus media, are failing you. In the wake of the disastrous failure of the national press corps to hold the Bush administration accountable for its lies concerning Iraq’s WMD and links to terrorism, the campus press is showing its own inability to hold our own administration, that is, the administration of the university-hospital complex, accountable for their misleading information.

Stories appear every week in this paper and the other campus papers that show an alarming degree of deference to the political views of the Yale administration, even to the point of willfully misrepresenting the facts. Sometimes people wonder why Yale students are not more confrontational with their school. I argue that it starts with the information students are receiving. When an article shows up purporting to be objective news, one expects, at the least, a high level of empirical reliability. Today I’m going to talk about just one manifestation of the larger problem of deferential and poorly reported news on this campus.

An article, titled “Hospital unionization fails to unite workers,” was printed in the Feb. 2 edition of the Herald. The article was about the ongoing struggle between the Service Employees International Union District 1199 and Yale-New Haven Hospital. The National Labor Relations Board canceled a union election scheduled for December after Margaret Kern, the neutral arbiter agreed upon by both the hospital and the union, ruled that the hospital engaged in “serious violations of federal law” in its campaign tactics. In a seven-page ruling issued in December, Kern also wrote that the hospital had violated a neutrality agreement brokered by Mayor John DeStefano last spring, which allowed for a union election and the construction of the hospital’s new multi-million-dollar cancer center.

The Herald article centers on interviews conducted with three hospital workers who oppose unionization. In the article, the writer suggests that she is attempting to counter the way the “media typically portrays the conflict,” by telling the stories of these three workers. But, context is noticeably absent in the piece — nowhere does the article mention the canceled election, or the more than 200 violations of the neutrality agreement cited by the arbiter.

Worse, the article quotes the three employees — Walter Bailey, Kristie Lavorgna and Ann Terranova — without mentioning that they are a part of the organized anti-union campaign, called “Just Us.” Bailey, in particular, is often quoted in the media representing the anti-union side. The reporter presents her subjects as if she encountered them almost by chance. Rather, the reporter told me in a phone interview, is that she got the names of the three workers from Vin Petrini, the hospital’s senior vice president for public affairs. In other words, the Herald called the hospital’s PR officer and got the names of three hand-picked anti-union activists, and then proceeded to quote them knowingly without including their credentials.

To be clear, the problem here is not that the reporter quoted Bailey, Lavorgna and Terranova, but that their backgrounds are misrepresented. It would be equally wrong to quote a union organizer without mentioning her affiliation. If I interviewed a spokesman for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, I would identify that person as such, and not equate his opinion with that of the average voter.

The article does quote one pro-union undergraduate and Paul Bass, a Yale professor and journalist who is generally sympathetic to the union, but no undecided or pro-union workers are mentioned. The result is that the views of the three workers the reporter spoke with are generalized to represent the views of all the hospital’s employees. This cannot be the case, since a majority of the workers in the bargaining unit signed cards applying for membership in the union and designating 1199 as their representative in collective bargaining.

Readers of papers like the New Haven Advocate and the online New Haven Independent got a very different picture. The papers accurately identified Walter Bailey and others as being members of the anti-union effort. Casey Miner’s Dec. 21 Advocate story, “Dead on Arrival,” and all of the Independent’s reporting should be of interest to students looking for information about the unionization issue. Even the often-disappointing New Haven Register seems at least to grasp the gravity of the canceled union election.

Am I being too harsh on an inexperienced campus journalist? I would be if, for example, the article in question were about what act the Yale College Council is bringing for Spring Fling. In this case, however, the wages and benefits of 1,800 workers and Yale’s relationship with New Haven are at stake. As a community, we have no choice but to hold our campus papers to higher of standards.

Jared Malsin is a senior in Berkeley College. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

Comments