The news media meet the poor

March 16, 2009

The media have discovered the poor, some of them anyway.  As the recession slices deep into the U.S. middle class, people who have lost jobs or homes and now face the miseries of sudden poverty are in the news. That’s as it should be, and if the news media weren’t so cash-strapped themselves we’d see more reporters talking to people instead of officials, and visiting families who are huddled in motels or living out of their cars, trying to get by with dignity and hope.

The media are showing greater concern for the people who have recently plunged into poverty than they normally show for poor people. Indeed, coverage tends to steer away from the already-poor, even though their plight has worsened too as the downturn ravages retailing, services, construction and the other sectors where low-paid workers scratch out a living.

Sure, it’s the newly poor who are the news. But is there also an implication that they differ because they are, in some sense, the “undeserving poor”—that they’re a nobler breed, unfairly victimized, more entitled to public sympathy than the 37 million Americans the government was counting as poor back when the economy, as far as most of us were concerned, was doing just fine?

That’s the question raised in a new study by the liberal media watchdog, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).  The author, journalist Neil deMause, found that during the last three months of 2008 the broadcast networks’ evening news programs did one poverty-related story every four or five nights, up from once every three weeks in 2007. That suggests a mildly greater presence in the news.

But deMause found subtle ways that media are sending a message that the people they’re covering, though just as hard up as any poor people, are really quite different. These people are ashamed to go to food banks or apply for food stamps, they’re embarrassed to be homeless, they’re depressed that they lack skills the workplace demands. The point: They’re worth caring about.

As for the tens of millions of pre-existing poor—the security guard whose factory job was shipped abroad, the people who haven’t been paid well since the last recession, the former mechanic on disability, the people who mop your office, pick your tomatoes, do your dry cleaning—their situation wasn’t newsworthy before and isn’t newsworthy now, not compared with the discarded executive who’s losing his 7,000-square-foot home or the Ph.D. who passes out shopping carts at the Wal-Mart.

My own sense is that in general, coverage of the poor has been so bad for so long that if indeed there is growing interest in the newly impoverished—even with the undertone of disdain FAIR finds toward other poor people—it’s still an improvement. I’ve followed media treatment of poor people for the past several years as supervisor of a student-run website for journalists, The site aggregates poverty news from all over the country, broadcast as well as print.

Seldom does the reporting amount to much. Coverage is meager. It tilts strongly toward two areas: first, the homeless, particularly community responses to the blight associated with homelessness; second, bureaucratic foul-ups and corruption in delivering support to the needy.

In the reports, poor people don’t often speak; they’re spoken about. Rarely are the working poor or their struggles covered at all. Instead, emphasis is on those who are dependencies, burdens on the rest of us, taxing the good will and ingenuity of beleaguered officialdom.

By contrast, the new poor are great copy. Many are educated and well-spoken. Chastened but determined, they’re people whom middle-class media audiences can identify with. Plus, they fit easily into a tragedy narrative, the fall from exalted status provoking pity and terror. Underlying their condition is an infuriating story: They played by the rules, worked hard and consumed hard, kept up their end of the American bargain, and suffered an unreasonable and unjust fate.

So they do get covered, but despite what FAIR suggests they still aren’t really the media’s main focus in covering the recession. Instead, the media overwhelmingly do what they do best, report on officialdom—market mavens, business owners, policymakers, lenders and the like—not on the people whose personal calamities constitute the real history of this economic disaster.

So let’s see more coverage of the new poor. Maybe the rest of the country’s disadvantaged will benefit from a trickle-down of a different sort, of compassion.

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