Keeping Poverty on the Page

Covering an old problem in new ways

Poverty should be in reporters’ crosshairs this coming year, as it will be a central issue in the presidential campaign, at least for certain candidates. John Edwards visited a street in South Carolina that still has outhouses. Barack Obama spoke in Clarendon County in the same state, where one of the first lawsuits that led to Brown v. Board of Education was filed. He said, “We’re going to have to reclaim in our own lives the belief that I am my brother’s keeper.” How can a reporter cover that most persistent of problems, poverty, today without making it boring and predictable, or guilt-tripping readers and turning them off? Do you focus on one injustice—say, a corrupt housing authority—or try to connect the dots and cover all of the reasons, both individual and systemic, that poverty is entrenched in certain places in America? Mary Ellen Schoonmaker, an editorial-board member at The Record in northern New Jersey, asked Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., a political writer who has his eye on poverty, to suggest some ways to return it to front-page status at our news organizations.

How can local reporters, who are not on the trail with John Edwards or anyone else, link what some of the candidates are saying about poverty to coverage in their own back yards?

People talk all the time about media bias. I actually think there’s a structural bias in the media against the poor. Newspapers are built to cover the wealthy and the famous much more than they are built to cover the working class or the poor. There are entire business sections devoted to what the people running big companies do. There are whole sections that focus on gossip about celebrities and rich sports figures. There are good reasons why all these sections exist, but taken together, this is a very large commitment on the part of journalists to a particular slice of society. There is no part of the newspaper routinely devoted to the coverage of the problems of poor people, or struggling working-class—or even middle-class—people. So anyone who cares about covering these matters knows he or she has to fight this structural issue. That said, a lot of these stories are very compelling stories. Jim Wallis, the progressive evangelical, invented a whole category of voters from a visit to a Burger King where he saw a mom working behind the counter while two of her kids were doing their homework. He called her a “Burger King mom.” She was doing everything society said she should because we don’t provide universal childcare, and because people in lower-end service jobs don’t have flexibility with their time—there were her kids doing their homework. I think the stories of folks like that are very compelling to readers. I think stories illustrating what these numbers about the lack of health-care coverage mean, or what the imposition of higher co-pays or insurance costs mean to actual people, are compelling stories. I have been a political reporter for a long time, and this critique applies as much to me as to anyone else. We probably don’t do enough to take these abstract issues and explain them in light of people’s actual experiences. And I think that can be done at every newspaper in the country, and indeed reporters on local papers may be in a position to do a better job of this than those of us so focused on the horse race of the presidential election.

Given this “structural bias,” what can one reporter—or one editor—do to fight it?

Journalism is rooted in the faith that a single reporter can make a difference. It often happens in the case of stories about political or financial corruption and in stories calling attention to serious public problems that have been ignored. I think it’s possible for a reporter to encourage a community to give more thought to issues related to poverty, and perhaps to think about them differently. It’s important to make a case that there is a “but for the grace of God go I” aspect to many of these stories. Readers who are not poor can relate especially to stories in which they could imagine themselves if their luck ran out, or if they were born into different circumstances. And because many people these days who aren’t poor feel under various financial pressures, there are ways to link their situations to the situations of the poor.

Can you do it in a way that doesn’t make people feel guilty, or that they have heard it all before?

Maybe this just proves that I’m Catholic, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making people feel guilty; I think we should have a sense of guilt or, if you prefer, a responsibility about this suffering in our midst. In terms of whether this turns people off, there are books that have been best-sellers that call our attention to this. One thinks of the classic, The Other America, by Michael Harrington, which had an enormous effect in making us pay attention to the poor. There are Barbara Ehrenreich’s books [such as Nickel and Dimed] that were very compelling to a lot of people. So I don’t think this coverage turns people off, nor does it all have to be downbeat. A lot of stories about the poor are heroic stories of people who despite the odds are trying to do the right thing. There’s a problem when poor people get in the paper more for committing crimes than for doing the right thing.

How do we do it in a way that doesn’t feed this attitude that the poor are somehow to blame for their plight?

I don’t see anything wrong with explaining that poverty is very complicated and that there is personal responsibility here as well as the social problems and racism that are involved in creating poverty. If you take some of the great writers, recently, about poverty—I think of Alex Kotlowitz or Jason DeParle—they’re really honest about the complexity of this; that poor people make mistakes just like everyone else. The breakdown of the family is a real problem that we shouldn’t shy away from covering. It shouldn’t be done in a propagandistic way, but in a way that calls the public’s attention to these problems and makes them part of the larger dialogue. The person who covers poverty right most consistently and I think courageously is Bob Herbert of The New York Times.

But don’t you think that this dialogue about the poor has been largely diminished in recent years, that since 9/11, national attention has turned toward a very insular defense of “us against them”?

I think there are fads and vogues in journalism; there always have been. I think there are moments when certain stories push their way up front, and often for good reason. It made perfect sense after 9/11 to have the media spend an awful lot of time on terrorism. But things change and people go back to, or forward to, other interests, and I think Americans still care about the story of terrorism, but I don’t think this drives all the coverage, or for that matter all our politics, anymore. I also think that we have to be candid that what journalists do is in many ways reactive to what is happening in the political environment, and I think it’s been awhile since people in our political realm were willing to push poverty up front, particularly in a presidential campaign. The late Paul Wellstone [the senator from Minnesota], before he died, tried to do it with his poverty tour, where he retraced Bobby Kennedy’s steps. Certainly John Edwards has made this a major theme of his campaign, and I think Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are doing that to a degree—both have given serious poverty speeches. And in Congress, with the s-chip debate, for example, the state children’s health-insurance program, you’re opening up on a national level, day after day after day, a debate about how poor and lower-middle-class and middle-class kids get, or do not get, health care. So I think the environment now is more conducive to real coverage of these problems and this issue than it was just two or three years ago.

There was a compelling series recently in The Buffalo News that explored the story behind new census figures that show Buffalo is the second-poorest large city in America, and almost half its children live in poverty. What does it mean to go to bed hungry, to be hungry when you get home from school and there’s nothing to eat? The paper focused on individual children to humanize the issue. It was powerful stuff, but then they interviewed the mayor, and he said something like, Oh, yes, we’ve got all these projects in the pipeline, and we’re developing, and we’re going to come back as a city, etc., and it ultimately left me unsatisfied. Will anything change? Where is the outrage? Should journalism be more willing to tell people that they should be angry about situations like this?

You know the one place where you did see that happen was Hurricane Katrina. It is true that after a burst of interest in the chronic poverty that Katrina exposed there is much less interest now, much less coverage of what is happening down there. But I, like a lot of people, was struck at how visibly angry reporters on the ground got about how people were being treated. It really was almost a muckraking style, and it wasn’t ideological; it was just, there’s a human outrage here. I do think that in the period immediately after 9/11, there was a kind of patriotic style of coverage, and I understand that, because we all felt that the United States was under attack, and there was a sense of solidarity in the country. But that cannot dominate journalism for long without journalism having a problem, and I think you’re seeing a move again toward a more critical style of coverage.

But wasn’t the much-praised Katrina coverage actually an anomaly?

Katrina was powerful because it combined a huge natural disaster (such stories always get covered) with a huge social catastrophe. Social catastrophes get far less coverage. So it is not surprising that Katrina was the exception. But again, I think we should be candid about vogues in journalism, how a whole series of factors can come together to create an interest in a topic. In the early 1960s, it was the combination of John F. Kennedy campaigning in West Virginia and seeing how much poverty there was, and Dwight MacDonald’s review of Mike Harrington’s book in The New Yorker that came to Kennedy’s attention, and Lyndon Johnson’s own moral sense about poverty and the civil-rights movement, which moved from a focus on the rights of African Americans to the opportunities, or lack thereof, that all African Americans had. So you had a whole lot of factors coming together. I think now what you have coming together is obviously Hurricane Katrina, a sense on the part of some politicians at least that poverty is a problem that should be discussed nationally, and a real concern among the middle class about rising inequality and what it means for the country and for democracy, and that their own circumstances are more fragile than they should be.

The Buffalo News series was not about advocacy. Its role was to “be the spotlight on the problem, not an actor on the stage.” Does this surprise you?

On the one hand, because I care about these issues, I would love to see the paper crusade. On the other hand, I think there is something very valuable about saying, “We’re not going to dictate how you look at this.” There is a case to be made for good reporting that is not linked to advocacy. Yes, editorial pages are supposed to advocate, but I think a lot of people never believe you when you say that the editorial side of the paper is independent of the news side, when at the vast majority of papers it actually is.

Because most reporters are middle class, like our readers, are there biases that we bring—blind spots—that get in our way when we write about poverty?

My conservative friends say the media are biased, liberal, and in fact I think the bias in the media is one of the educated, middle- to upper-middle class. So if there’s a bias on social issues, it’s more liberal, but if there’s a bias on economic issues, it tends to be slightly conservative. I joke that the two things you don’t want to be in confronting a reporter are an evangelical preacher or a trade-union shop steward. Having said that, the best journalists have a kind of empathetic ability, the ability to see the world not just from their own perspective but from somebody else’s perspective. At its best, journalism is an interaction between an empathetic view and a critical view, which is: How does the world look from this perspective. And viewed a little bit from the outside, does that perspective make sense or not? Does it always work? No. But when it does, it can produce some great journalism.

What are some aspects of the poverty issue that are under-covered and too important to ignore?

To the extent that poverty is linked to high crime rates, a whole community has an interest in doing something. School failure is a huge issue because it blocks kids from rising out of poverty. School success, by the way, is also important and almost never covered. The impact of poverty on people’s health—and the health costs this can impose on a community—is important. We also need a lot more coverage of family breakdown and single-parent families, to figure out more about the connection between family structure and poverty and what can be done about it. It’s a problem not easily dealt with through public policy. It’s important to show why jobs may be harder to find in inner-city communities than in suburban areas. It’s important to show that the poor often lack transportation to travel from where they live to where the jobs are.

How can a reporter keep the people in a story on poverty from becoming one-dimensional, simply the sum of their problems? Do poverty stories always have to be grim?

Poverty stories don’t have to be grim. We don’t write often enough about solutions, about programs or agencies that work—and explain to readers why they work. We don’t write often enough about people who work with the poor. There are many religious organizations that do amazing work, and whose commitment is something many in a community can relate to. There are affluent churches and synagogues that partner with houses of worship in less-affluent parts of their communities. These are often settings in which the well-off and the less well-off relate to each other in human ways, and not as “caregivers” and “clients.” And the poor often have a sense of humor about their own condition, which can create a spark of recognition in readers. 

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Mary Ellen Schoonmaker is an editorial writer and columnist for The Record in Hackensack, New Jersey.