Tips for covering poverty

Nov 19, 2018 in Specialized Topics
Man on deck

Low wages, unpaid internships and the often exorbitant living costs of media capitals — such as New York City or London — are making it increasingly difficult for anyone from a working-class or disadvantaged background to launch a career in journalism. Poverty is frequently covered and debated in the news by people who are disconnected from the communities and issues. When combined with decades of entrenched and inaccurate beliefs and the pressing deadlines of 24-hour newsrooms, the quality of the work produced on the topic is affected.

“Bluntly speaking, most people don't have an accurate sense of the scope of poverty, who is experiencing it and what causes it,” says journalist Heather Bryant, who co-authored a tip sheet on the subject and wrote about the industry’s class problem in the past. “Economic hardship is one of those spaces where oversimplified narratives about poverty serve political interests, industry practices and exclusive social interactions. This means that reporting out accurate and appropriately complex coverage is an uphill battle.”

Barbara Raab was a senior producer for In Plain Sight, the NBC News’ reporting project on poverty in the United States that won a Peabody Award in 2013. She says that when it comes to poverty, the first challenge is getting editors and other gatekeepers to agree to run the stories in the first place: “Editors often think such stories are depressing, or not relevant to the audience [or] readers.”

Advertisers also want to privilege content targeted at those more able to spend on products and subscriptions.

With almost 14 percent of Americans still living in poverty and one in 10 people worldwide surviving on less than US$1.90 a day, it is important to examine how the news media covers the complex realities of people’s daily lives. Is the content serving audiences, without relying on stereotypes and harmful practices?

IJNet gathered tips from experts Heather Bryant and Barbara Raab to start improving coverage of people and communities living in poverty.

Question your preconceived ideas

As humans, journalists can’t escape personal opinions and preconceived notions. But just as we have to interrogate ourselves on implicit bias around gender and race, we have to do the same for poverty.

Bryant explains that most journalists have grown up in a world that perpetuates inaccurate narratives about meritocracy, work ethics and the “bootstrap theory” — that anyone can succeed if only they work hard enough. “It's important to question all of the things you think you know about the topic,” she said.

Don’t let the hunt for a great soundbite compromise a fair representation of the complexities of people’s lives. “A desire for simple answers and explanations is an inherent tendency for people, including journalists who are tasked with explaining such things,” says Bryant. “We can't afford to forget that every person's life is extraordinarily complicated.”

Write clearly and make stories accessible, but don’t oversimplify.

Don’t miss the bigger picture

“Why are poor people not able to ‘bootstrap’ themselves out of poverty? What are the systems and cultural barriers in their way?” asks Raab. It's not enough to tell individual stories, it’s crucial to uncover, understand and highlight policy issues that make it difficult to rise out of poverty.

Many stories about poverty follow a similar template: a story of triumph versus adversity. Raab gives an example of a story of a homeless family who sends a child to Harvard despite their challenges. These stories suggest that hardship can be overcome if only one tries hard enough, and they fail to address the systemic problems that stand in the way of economic mobility.

Look for different angles that show how poverty can be tackled, Raab adds, “Not through sheer ‘grit,’ but through systems and policies that can make a difference.”

Involve people experiencing poverty in your stories

Talk to people and ask them to explain things that may not make sense to someone who has never experienced economic hardship, Raab suggests. “For example, many may say, ‘If you're so poor, why do you have a big flat screen TV?’ The answer to this may be something you haven't thought of," she says.

Let them tell their own story through words and images. For example, let your sources take photos and videos of their own lives, Raab says. It doesn’t always have to be for a story specifically about poverty, either. Journalists should practice inclusion and diversity across beats, in stories about politics, healthcare, education and other topics.

“I see too much ‘poverty porn,’” says Raab. “[Which is] the kind of reporting where [audiences] are taken — visually and otherwise — to inconceivably poor places.”

Such reporting frames poverty as a one-dimensional tragedy, which gives a limited view of the whole picture, and while it may garner attention, it doesn’t serve your subjects or your audience.

Additional resources

This article about how much more expensive it is to own a phone if you experience economic hardship shows how day-to-day coverage can become more inclusive. It is produced by Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic justice that has a language guide for reporters, too.

New models are also being designed to ensure that fair and useful news reaches and engages more diverse audiences. For example, Detroit-based Outlier Media is delivering personalized information to local residents via text and, as mentioned by Heather Bryant, programs like the Documenters Project recruit, train and pay members of the public to report on their own communities.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via lhoag.