Bristol is a small market, but the state’s larger newsrooms, in places like Roanoke and Richmond, haven’t picked up the slack. The reporting on Romney’s coal-country campaign stop, in which reporters had to juggle the candidate’s comments on that morning’s unemployment report with his messages on coal, was generally fine. But, even though the impact of regulations on coal-mining jobs is at the center of the political debate, I didn’t see one account that offered any hard data about employment in the industry. The best employment data, according to Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette and Pam Kasey of The State Journal in West Virginia, comes from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. (It takes some expertise to work with the files.) As Ward explains, the basic story is that coal jobs in Appalachia and nationwide actually increased during Obama’s first three years, before a wave of layoffs this year. And some regional think tanks anticipate coal employment may rise in the coming decades even as the industry declines, because productivity is falling. You wouldn’t know that from reading this year’s campaign coverage in Virginia.
You also might not know, unless you’re a close reader, the role that coal cash is playing in the campaign. Richard Gilliam, the founder of Cumberland Natural Resources, may be the single biggest political donor in the state, but other than a flurry of mentions in stories after the release of some VPAP data in August he’s hardly been mentioned.
The absence of that jobs data, and of Gilliam’s dollars, is probably the clearest sign of how campaign coverage of coal hasn’t dug deep enough, but a more thorough explanation of what some of those regulations actually do would also be welcome. It would also be good to hear more directly from the people of southwestern Virginia and across the region, some of whom are trying to speak up—and are voicing grievances about regulation but also about politicians’ failure to help diversify the region’s economy.
For inspiration and ideas, Virginia’s reporters only have to look across the state line, where some West Virginian journalists reliably turn in outstanding work on the coal beat—like this story, where The Charleston Gazette’s Ward serves as a one-man PolitiFact for one of those Romney ads. The campaigns have put coal at the forefront. It’s time for the coverage to catch up.
Staff writer Greg Marx contributed to this report.