The Mercury News Takes on its
Immigrant Paper Carriers
A Grade the News analysis of the strike week’s coverage shows:
- On the positive side, the Mercury did cover the story. It also reported
at the end of one article that the carriers had been complaining about most
of the issues involved in the strike for four years with little response from
management. And the paper did quote one carrier contradicting Publisher Harris’
complaints that strikers were intimidating working carriers. It should also
be noted that Mr. Harris, though he blamed the action on the workers alone,
also praised their work ethic and expressed some sympathy with their complaints.
- A single partisan source dominated an issue with two clear sides. That source
was the publisher. He spoke not only for the Mercury, which is proper,
but for the paper carriers as well. Mr. Harris used the front page
five times to place the blame for the job action solely on the carriers. Day
after day, he wrote, papers weren’t delivered because of strikers “refusing
to fulfill their obligation.” On only one day did Mr. Harris use that most
read page to acknowledge that the carriers had legitimate gripes--soaring
gas prices and delays in getting the papers off the presses in time for carriers
to make their deliveries and report to their day jobs on time.
- Excluding Mr. Harris’ front page notes to readers, the Mercury published
six short articles about the strike. Mercury reporters quoted Mr. Harris
by name in 48 paragraphs. Other named Mercury executives were quoted
in 10 more. By contrast, only 12 paragraphs were devoted to comments of specific
carriers (named or un-named), only one of whom was identified as a striker.
One wouldn’t expect perfect symmetry, but an almost 5-1 ratio demonstrates
- Not only did Mr. Harris dominate the sourcing, his quotes came first. Specifically,
30 paragraphs of Mr. Harris’ quotes were placed in the top half of the story
vs. three for the carriers. Seven of the ten Mercury executive quotes
also appeared toward the top of the articles.
Such placement is important because most readers don’t
follow stories to the end. Further, reporters are trained to put the most important
information first, less important later, in what’s called the “inverted pyramid”
- The story was told from the Mercury’s point of view, not a neutral
journalistic viewpoint. Five of the six stories lead with the Mercury’s
action or disappointment. Two of the leads paraphrased Mr. Harris.
The stories’ dominant--but not exclusive--portrayal, was of Mercury
execs, particularly Mr. Harris, valiantly trying to get out the news in the
face of people who refused to do their duty. One lead read: “Threats of violence
and vandalism have hindered efforts by the San Jose Mercury News to resolve
a labor dispute….” Another: “The Mercury News on Tuesday gave newspaper carriers
a 12 percent raise and scrapped two rules that workers considered punitive hoping
to end a dispute….” A third: “San Jose Mercury News officials Monday continued
efforts to resolve a two-day dispute….” Mr. Harris and other executives were
described stuffing papers in the wee hours of the morning filling in for the
- Instead of quoting strike leaders giving the reasons for their action, reporters
quoted Mr. Harris’ on what he thought were reasons for the strike. In fact,
no one identified as a leader of the strike was quoted at all. This was not
because they were unknown to the Mercury. The paper fired “the most
vocal” strikers, only to re-hire them later under pressure. It was also not
due to a language barrier. The Mercury publishes a local paper in Vietnamese.
- Reporters failed to get the other side when Mr. Harris accused the strikers
of resorting to violence. Mr. Harris alone, not police or other witnesses,
were quoted on the accusation of violence.
Mr. Harris did not respond to our questions. John Woolfolk, the reporter whose
byline appeared most frequently on the stories, said reporters faced several
difficult logistical problems. First, he said, the newspaper carriers do not
belong to a union so there was no official spokesperson, only a “handful of
more vocal employees.” Second, the carriers “work from 2:30 to 5:30 in the morning
and sleep during the day,” a different shift than most reporters work. Third,
reporters had to work through interpreters rather than being able to ask questions
The Mercury’s own management also sandbagged reporters, according to
Woolfolk. When reporters asked who Mercury managers were negotiating
with, they were told “nobody,” Woolfolk said. Later, Mercury execs conceded
that they were talking to strike leaders. “We’d ask for names of people repeatedly
and they wouldn’t give us the names,” Woolfolk said.
Woolfolk said little was changed in his articles and his immediate editors
pushed him to be aggressive. “Obviously, you understand it’s in-house coverage,”
he added. “Every one of our stories got piped up the chain of command, up to
the executive editor. We try to be as objective as possible, but none of us
want to lose our jobs.”
-- John McManus
this article to someone
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