Ethics of poverty coverage

This originally appeared in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, June 2013, vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 138-140.

There is historical precedent for the critique known as poverty porn, in this case the objection that contemporary media are drawn to the slow-motion collapse of Detroit by the unsavory appeal of a picturesque and compelling misery. Somehow the media’s attention to the no less voyeuristic appeal of ostentatious wealth does not draw the same moral condemnation and is accepted as a natural response to the allure of glamour. Still, the idea that suffering makes good copy is, of course, a troubling one, in that it raises the larger criticism that the media’s relationship to poor people is more exploitative than ameliorative.

It is true that hardship, in the right hands, makes for a good read. The growth of story- driven journalism in the late 19th century, with dramatic forms that mimicked those of fictional narrative, was nourished by a steady harvest of tales of struggle, mistreated workers, spurned wives, and grimy children struggling to keep their spirits and health intact. The publications that traded in this content, many of them upstarts, were assailed by their established elders for profiting from the desperation of the people they wrote about, as well as for giving their plight a prominence it didn’t merit and, by implication, impugning the dominant narrative of steadily widening prosperity (Schudson, 1981; Iggers, 1999).

A more sophisticated variant of that critique is offered by Sandra Borden, and rests in part on what she identifies as the failure of much media coverage of Detroit’s travails to assign proper weight to the energetic efforts of local people to confront and surmount the conditions of secular decline that have plagued the city. I will return to this in a moment as an aspect of the problem of agency.

For now, as a preliminary point, let me say the criticism that poverty coverage routinely appeals to an ignoble audience interest, is patronizing and reductionist, robs its subjects of their dignity, and ignores systemic failings, seems well-founded. But like the unhappy restaurant customer  who complained that the food was terrible and the portions were small,  I  need to add that Borden’s observations pale beside the overarching reality that the coverage of economic hardship—good, bad, or indifferent, focused on Detroit or anywhere else for that matter—is scant. Indeed, even during the latest recession news was skewed to the plight of  the recently displaced middle class (Flores, 2012) rather than to the people who were poor beforehand, were suffering even more as the recession raged, and would remain poor afterward (Ehrenreich, 2011).

That said, I want to offer some general observations keyed to Borden’s critique that have bearing on the ethics of poverty coverage, and which, I think, derive from structural and discursive realities in which the news business is embedded and with which journalists must contend.

Motivation: Why cover poverty at all? The coverage, after all, is largely the work of nonpoor journalists serving up stories of  economic hardship for  nonpoor  audiences.  It is tempting to note that such coverage is especially hard to square with today’s revenue-starved news business, which is eager to drive traffic, engender clicks and tweets, and serve a demographically succulent readership.

But there is nothing new in the fact that poverty coverage is an outlier. The argument for attending to the poor has always been a tough one to make. Jacob Riis’s answer in 1890, in How the Other Half Lives, was that his readers had better listen up because the people he was describing weren’t going to stand for this misery indefinitely, and would one day bring the bill for their desperation to his readers’ door (Riis, 1890). James Agee wrestled painfully with the indecency of the undertaking in the first chapter of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1939), and had no satisfactory explanation for why Fortune magazine had sent him and photographer Walker Evans to chronicle the lives of dirt-poor Alabama sharecroppers. Michael Harrington (1962) was driven by his conscience and his socialist  politics; his goad was the postwar smugness of the “affluent society” that was unaware of just how hollow its promise of generalized prosperity seemed.

Nowadays, the safest and least contentious justification for covering poverty is the notion that it’s a byproduct of some kind of policy failure or social breakdown. The coverage, hence, fits comfortably under the umbrella of the news media as an organ of accountability, a means for calling on officialdom—chiefly public sector officialdom—to explain what went wrong, and for demanding officials tell the public what they plan to do about it. The possibility that nothing went wrong, that poverty is not aberrant but normal, that the system is operating precisely as  it is designed to operate, and that it reproduces poverty systematically as a routine feature of a maldistribution of social product and life chances, is one that fits poorly into that worldview.

Poverty versus the poor: Along those lines, the notion that the way to understand poverty is by understanding the poor as a specific population riven with serious pathologies is, unfortunately, established doctrine both in the social sciences and among journalists. One of the few scholars to foreground this as a phenomenon in the sociology of knowledge is Alice O’Connor (2002) in her penetrating work Poverty Knowledge. To  be  sure,  that focus on “the  poor” is well suited to empirical research by scholars and to powerful journalism. It has produced distinguished work on the “culture” of poverty, on the forces undermining stable marriages and effective parenting, on dropout rates, racism in hiring and promotion, nutritional deprivation, substance dependency, and a host of social and material dislocations.

But as O’Connor argues, it also represents an important change in intellectual and empirical focus. The reformers of the 19th Century were inclined to believe that in the final analysis people were poor because they were not paid enough. Engels’s Condition of the English Working Class in 1844 situated the determinants of poverty not in the degrading conditions, drunkenness, malnourishment, environmental toxicity, and reprehensible behavior he chronicled, but in large-scale economic changes that swept up a class of rural peasants and turned them into desperately exploited, ludicrously underpaid, industrial workers.

By contrast, today’s insistence that family stability, reduced substance dependency, strengthened public education, improved job training, and the like would, overall, reduce poverty rests on the implausible idea that the pay for low-skill jobs that employers are able to fill for subsistence wages would suddenly get substantially higher if job-seekers were faithful, sober, and better educated. If Walmart had to hire college graduates to hand out shopping carts, would it start paying them $60,000 year, with benefits?

Agency: This may be the most vexing judgment journalists face in covering poverty: Who’s responsible? What is the appropriate weight to assign to the efficacy of individual effort? This is both an ideological and ethical problem. Ideologically, America is rooted in the belief in the practical possibility of self-betterment, of a porous system  that not only tolerates but also relies on the routine, upward rise of meritorious individuals. Ethically, denying that disadvantaged people can indeed strive and succeed  is  insulting because it consigns them to indefinite victimhood and is, moreover, empirically unsustainable: Poor people do indeed achieve dazzling success. At the same time, however, insisting that grievously difficult obstacles can readily be overcome is ignorant and equally unsupportable empirically.

Faced with an economic catastrophe like the one that overtook Detroit, the question is how to cover such awful realities both sympathetically and honestly: Plainly, journalism must identify and applaud instances when individual and collective responses have been effective. But those cases must be recounted without suggesting that such heroic success can be considered a norm; those who succumb to the powerful undertow of industrial collapse and are left to flail without distinction cannot be left in the shadows and, by implication, considered to have failed a tough, but surmountable, test. Agency, in short, is real, and heroism is possible, but circumstance is strong and persistent.

Advocacy: Sandra Borden’s critique does not explicitly ask this, but it is a theme that, I think, underlies her cri de coeur: What is this journalism for? Shouldn’t coverage care about consequence? If not, is it, by default, exploitative and devoid of conscience? The implication is that coverage of harrowing realities should, to be morally defensible, be driven by a measure  of advocacy—a desire to provoke action to improve the conditions that it illuminates. And I think that’s right.

Poverty coverage, detailing as it must misery and deprivation, cannot avoid being a pleading— even if that means deviating from a professional cornerstone principle of observational independence, the notion that the activity of witnessing and describing realities is ethically praiseworthy regardless of whether it seeks, let alone triggers, an ameliorative response. The fundamental message underlying all journalism—“Pay attention to this!”—trumps any quibble over whether the journalist prefers this versus that response. The coverage itself is already an expression of support for those who suffer from the conditions that the reporting exposes. Even the journalism Borden rightly deplores, and which infuriated locals, represented a brave and commendable attempt to break through the miasma of media distraction and diversion, and force a public with an ever shorter attention span to look and to  care.


Agee, J. (1939). Let us now praise famous men. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Ehrenreich, B. (2011). Nickel and dimed: On (not) getting by in America. Gordonsville, VA: Picador.

Engels, F. (2012). Condition of the English working class in 1844. Hamburg, Germany: Tredition.

Flores, L. (2012, November 7). “Redefining the deserving poor.” Berkeley Political Review.

Harrington, M. (1962). The other America: Poverty in the United States. New York, NY:  Simon & Schuster. 

Iggers, J. (1999). Good news, bad news: Journalism ethics and the public interest. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

O’Connor, A. (2002). Poverty knowledge. New York, NY: Princeton University Press.

Riis, J. (1890). How the other half lives. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Schudson, M. (1981). Discovering the news: A social history of American newspapers. New York, NY: Basic Books.

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