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Poor Journalism: Is Media Coverage of the Poor Getting Better or Worse?

April 6, 2016
by Katia Savchuk

In 2000, Tina Rosenberg, a journalist for The New York Times, pitched a story for its Sunday magazine about the AIDS epidemic ravaging the world’s poorest nations. She wanted to show how pharmaceutical companies had pressured governments in sub-Saharan Africa, where 1 in 12 adults were living with HIV or AIDS, to deny access to generic drugs, making treatment unaffordable.

Her editor’s response: “I cannot subject our readers to another 7,000-word story on how everybody is going to die in Malawi.”

A homeless person receiving a cup of coffee

It’s a reason often cited for the longstanding dearth of U.S. media coverage about poverty: It’s depressing. Despite a rich tradition of poverty journalism—from Jacob Riis’s How The Other Half Lives to James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed — reporting remains scant. In 2014, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, a progressive media watchdog group, found that three major network newscasts devoted just 0.2% of their programming to poverty in a 14-month period. Similarly, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that poverty coverage accounted for less than one percent of stories in 52 mainstream news outlets from 2007 to mid-2012. Meanwhile, 46.7 million Americans—nearly 15 percent—were living in poverty in 2014, according to the U.S. Census.

“Covering the poor doesn’t seem to be a beat that many or most reporters aspire to. It’s not generally the beat rising stars are promoted into. Audiences are often perceived not to be very interested in these stories,” said Barbara Raab, a Ford Foundation program officer who moderated a panel on the topic at the Logan Symposium on Investigative Reporting held over the weekend at UC Berkeley.

Partly to blame are intensifying cost pressures on news organizations, which have shed reporters while struggling to remain profitable, or at least sustainable. In 2013, when Raab was a senior producer at NBC News, she led “In Plain Sight,” a 14-month project funded by the Ford Foundation to cover poverty in America across the network’s platforms (Raab had no role in securing the grant). Although her team produced more than 100 pieces and ended up winning the George Foster Peabody Award, Raab said it was tough to get segments on the air because they didn’t appeal to advertisers. “The executive producers were very reluctant to air stories about poverty,” she said. “It was a steep, uphill climb.”

Deep-rooted mythologies about the American Dream have also shaped the reception and quality of reporting on the poor, according to Maggie Bowman, a documentary filmmaker who produced “Hard Earned,” a series on low-wage workers that ran on Al Jazeera America.

“(The) impoverishment of journalists impoverishes journalism.”

“The personal responsibility narrative is so strong in America: that if you haven’t been successful in this country, you must’ve done something wrong,” she said. “People think this is really a question of choice.”

Impoverished housing

Donnell Alexander, who has personally experienced poverty, said the bias goes deeper. “There’s a dislike of the poor that comes from the fear that it could be them next,” said Alexander, who writes for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, an initiative Ehrenreich founded to support reporting on the working poor.

But concerned journalists warn that as news outlets balk at paying good wages and instead rely on enlisting freelancers on the cheap, they drive out the contributions of people who, like Alexander, bring an innate understanding of poverty born of personal experience. “There are many thousands of people like these—gifted journalists who want to address serious social issues but cannot afford to do so in a media environment that thrives by refusing to pay, or anywhere near adequately pay, its ‘content providers,’ ” Ehrenreich wrote in The Guardian last August. “Some were born into poverty and have stories to tell about coping with low-wage jobs, evictions or life as a foster child. Others inhabit the once-proud urban ‘creative class,’ which now finds itself priced out of its traditional neighborhoods, like Park Slope or LA’s Echo Park, scrambling for health insurance and childcare, sleeping on other people’s couches. They want to write—or do photography or documentaries. They have a lot to say, but it’s beginning to make more sense to apply for work as a cashier or a fry-cook….This is the real face of journalism today: not million dollar-a-year anchorpersons, but low-wage workers and downwardly spiraling professionals who can’t muster up expenses to even start on the articles, photo-essays and videos they want to do, much less find an outlet to cover the costs of doing them.”

Her conclusion: “(The) impoverishment of journalists impoverishes journalism.”

Yet there is some evidence that the landscape is changing for the better.

“I think we are entering a golden age of reporting about poverty,” said panelist Terrence McCoy, who covers poverty and social justice for The Washington Post. The ability to quantify audiences has disproven the assumption that people aren’t interested in the topic when the story itself is good, he said. For example, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2014 essay in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” went viral. In McCoy’s case, he said readers have flocked to articles on how the best African-American figure skater in history ended up living in a trailer, or how a Harvard Law School graduate became homeless.

“People are reading these stories…and I think we’re about to see more of it,” he said.

Edward Wasserman, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, observed that coverage of inequality has improved since the 2008 economic crisis. “People discovered the ‘undeserving poor,’ ” he said. “The reality of inequality has grown so extreme that it touches the mass majority of readers.”

A couple sitting on a trash strewn street

Just over a month into his new role as San Francisco bureau chief for The New York Times, Thomas Fuller says higher-ups are indeed supportive of stories that show the effects of tech wealth on the city’s transformation: “I think there’s enormous appetite for it.”

Expanding the number of stories is not itself enough, according to Jamie Kalven, a Chicago-based writer who has spent decades covering poverty and police abuses. “People aren’t suffering for lack of information,” he said. “The challenge for journalism is how to tell these stories so they matter in an urgent and immediate way.”

Immersion in poor communities is key to gaining the trust of sources and portraying their lives meaningfully, said Susan Smith Richardson, editor and publisher of The Chicago Reporter. “Nobody’s life is a symbol,” she said. “It’s a question of telling stories that have context, historical perspective, perhaps use data, and are authentic.”

After her editor’s disheartening response all those years ago, Rosenberg found a way to get her story into print. Instead of writing about countries in crisis, she focused on the one nation that had managed to fend off pressure from drug makers: Brazil. “How To Solve The World’s AIDS Crisis” became a cover story. It highlighted the worst situations but also offered a hopeful alternative.

“It was far more engaging to readers and far more impactful,” said Rosenberg, who later co-founded the Solutions Journalism Network to encourage reporting on responses to social problems.

That approach is one way to help editors and readers get past the sense that problems facing the poor are intractable, which kills potential stories. “People need to know it’s possible,” she said.

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