The New York Times Public Editor Elevates Concerns about Media۪s Poverty Coverage
Inadequate coverage of low-income issues in the American media has long been a topic discussed by the poverty and opportunity community — but recently some in the news media have raised similar concerns.
Poverty affects nearly 50 million Americans, yet coverage related to poverty adds up to less than one percent of all American news. Acknowledging this reality, Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of The New York Times, wrote a column last week urging the paper to actively work toward better coverage of the issue. Sullivan۪s focus on poverty resulted in part from veteran journalist Dan Froomkin۪s examination of the way the media cover poverty in the winter 2013 issue of Nieman Reports.
“The Times۪s coverage of poverty strikes me as a paradox. It is both top-notch and too occasional,” Sullivan wrote. Her analysis may be applicable to news media more broadly. The Springfield News-Leader, which published a front-page series on child poverty, was praised by Froomkin۪s report. Executive editor David Stoeffler spearheaded the child poverty series because he believes the News-Leader “has a role to play in shining a light on complex topics. And we can beat the drum in hopes of getting people to pay attention.” Other news outlets and journalists have taken note. For example, NBC launched an initiative in March to cover American poverty, aptly called In Plain Sight
Few are talking about the fact that U.S. poverty rates are higher and mobility rates are lower than most developed nations, according to CNN۪s Fareed Zakaria. He introduced these statistics in a Global Public Square segment last spring and pleaded with his audience and with politicians to discuss poverty in America. “The sad part is these statistics are reversible,” he said.
Perceived shortcomings in news coverage of poverty and related issues led two veteran poverty journalists to help found the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which aims “to force this country۪s crisis of poverty and economic insecurity to the center of the national conversation.”
Thoughtful journalists are not just questioning whether the news media cover poverty, but also how they cover poverty and related issues. Part of the problem, Froomkin argues, is that coverage of inequality in our society often focuses on “the excesses of the rich rather than the deprivations of the poor,” one example being the media attention garnered by the Occupy movement. Sullivan makes a similar point in her commentary: “Poverty coverage does not have the regularity or the inclusive tone of Times coverage on the opposite end of the affluence spectrum, like Paul Sullivan۪s business feature Wealth Matters.۪”
Moreover, the kind of coverage that often exists today can backfire, distorting rather than informing public opinion. Political scientist Shanto Iyengar studied television news stories in the 1990s that profiled individual victims of poverty what Froomkin essentially called “sob stories” and found they reinforced viewers۪ stereotypes of poverty. Political scientist Martin Gilens۪ research suggested that coverage of poverty during the mid-1990s focused significantly more on unemployed working age adults than was warranted by the actual demographics of who was poor.
OOTS is encouraged to see opinion-makers like Sullivan and so many others stepping up and speaking out about media coverage of poverty. Many of the issues raised by these articles, initiatives, and reports were ones Spotlight focused on in its 2012 forum, “The Politics of Economic Opportunity.” With support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Spotlight hosted this half-day forum examining how the struggles facing growing numbers of low-income families would affect the 2012 elections.
Considering that a core part of Spotlight۪s mission is to elevate the discussion of poverty in America as an essential step in finding solutions to poverty, one of the panels sought to answer the question, “How has the ongoing economic downturn affected media coverage of poverty?” Panelist Bob Herbert summed up the issue well: “We don’t have coverage of poverty in this country. If there is a story about poor people in the New York Times or in the Washington Post, that’s the exception that proves the rule. We do not cover poverty. We do not cover the poor.”
Posted by Megan
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