Insights from a Pultizer-prize winning journalist on covering poverty

by Lindsay Kalter
Sep 5, 2012 in Miscellaneous

Reporting on the complexities of human hardship is a daunting task.

Digging into tough social issues, such as poverty, requires emotional awareness and interpersonal finesse that your average news story doesn't demand.

In a Q&A with arts and politics magazine Guernica, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity Katherine Boo, discusses some of these challenges and offers advice for reporters covering disadvantaged communities.

Here are IJNet's takeaways:

Avoid streamlining

Journalists often approach social service organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to ask to speak to the clients they help. Not a good strategy, Boo says. "It serves to streamline the storytelling, but it gives you a lopsided cosmos in which almost every poor person you read about is involved with an NGO helping him." Instead, she says, try to find sources who can provide an accurate snapshot of the area, its economic state and the actual number of individuals managing to emerge from poverty.

Observe more than ask

Interviewing people who live in poverty can be a challenge, since they may fear saying the wrong thing, Boo says. The solution? Talk less. "Listening and observing often work much better [and] reveal much more about the complexity of someone than the answers that they give to questions about themselves."

Explore the area

Even if you're focusing on a very specific area within a community, familiarizing yourself with the entire city helps to provide social and economic context, Boo says. When reporting in Mumbai's Annawadi slum, Boo made a point of leaving her area of focus to get a sense of the city. "It is a city that until 11 years ago was unknown to me, and is changing all of time, so I really had to explore it, learn about it," Boo says.

Reveal the whole person

One common mistake journalists make when reporting on those living in poverty--or on any underprivileged population--is the tendency to create a narrative in which the subjects are saints, "perfect in their own suffering." This builds a wall between the people and the audience, Boo says, making it impossible to provide an accurate portrayal of the situation. Instead, reveal more nuance. In her book, when she profiles a source named Abdul, she includes the flaws that make him human. "He’s diffident, he’s selfish, he’s not very verbal. Even his own family considers him charmless. But when the reader meets him, they sense he’s a real person, that he’s not a construct," Boo says.

To read the full Q&A, click here.

Photo courtesy Morguefile