On the Journalism of Poverty:
Foreword to Routledge Companion to Media and Poverty,
Sandra L. Borden, editor
New York: Routledge, 2022
Extremes of inequality are among the most morally troubling realities of contemporary society because they defy our belief, or our wish to believe, that the social order is basically fair. Of course, wealth and poverty pose different challenges. Wealth troubles us less. Indeed, we are normally fascinated by the spectacle of way too much, and unless there is clear evidence that it is paid for by somebody’s way too little, the moral problem is hard to discern. So inequality on the fat end of the spectrum is more likely admired than deplored, and “the rich” benefit from a media culture that typically bows before even lavish accumulation as a sign that the system is working, not that it is failing.
That said, great wealth still needs defending. Today’s colossal fortunes, generally the product of either the financialization of the economy or the digitization of the society, are so new that time has not yet dusted them with the respectability of age. Plus, they are so big. It is not hard to argue that pluck and vision should be rewarded, but it is not easy to explain why society should part with so many billions in incentive pay when much the same entrepreneurial heroism could be induced for a fraction of that. It is not that wealth of that magnitude is unearned, it is that it is unearnable: Nobody creates value on that scale. Nobody deserves that much money.
A time-tested response to the unfairness of such oceans of wealth has been public-facing philanthropy. Philanthropy, for the media, is always a great story. The benefactors are admirable, humble and wise. Coverage of their generosity usually foregrounds the needs they are trying to meet, and their names become familiar background brands behind high-minded social interventions. They get a reputational scrub; people now know of the Ford Foundation, not Henry Ford’s admiration for Hitler; they know of the Rockefeller Foundation, not John D.’s henchmen ordering striking Colorado miners machine-gunned. So the givers benefit, as does the system that treated them so well. It gets a varnish of benefaction against the criticism that plenitude on that scale, even if some goes to charity, still does not seem fair.
This volume explores coverage of poverty, not wealth, but I have started with observations about wealth because it is important to situate reporting on economic hardship in the context of how inequality in general is understood and portrayed. Poverty, after all, occupies the butt end of the same socioeconomic spectrum that includes those billionaires; it is the name we give to the conditions people endure when their earnings and assets position them among the worst-off on that spread. For them, inequality means denial and deprivation, and because they are suffering, their condition poses a challenge to the rightness of the social order that has teeth. Something is wrong. Explanations are sought because explanations are owed.
The journalism of poverty is a response to the questions, What is the meaning of this? Why do people suffer from a lack of things that are readily available — food, clothing, shelter, medical care, safety, education? Who is responsible? What can be done? Why is it not already being done? Those questions come with an inescapable moral urgency because, unlike other conditions that journalism describes, these are not things that already happened; they are continuing harms. The implied admonition underlying all journalism — “You should pay attention to this!” — has a special poignancy: The children you read about here are still hungry, and need not be.
Economic hardship existed for centuries before journalism and the public sphere it helped engender took notice. In the Anglo-American tradition, a journalism of poverty emerged only when a hardscrabble industrial proletariat arose in the mid- to late-19th century and large-scale immigration filled U.S. cities with dispossessed Europeans. During the generations of want that came before, there had been no tradition of outraged coverage of rural poverty, an absence that supports the idea that it is not the existence of hardship that provokes attention; it is the possibility of betterment. Hence Marx’s observation that humanity recognizes as problems only those things it is able to solve. Enslaved Black people in the United States endured two centuries of misery before the landmark Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Stowe, 2012/1852) appeared during the runup to the Civil War that put an end to slavery. The works that mark the advent of a journalism of poverty appeared in in the United States in the 1880s, a period of reform that also saw the passage of the sweeping Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Examples included Engels’s (2019/1845) magisterial The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (not translated into English for nearly 40 years) and Jacob Riis’s (1971/1890) How the Other Half Lives, which incorporated the nascent art of photography in stunning ways. It was a time when the full might of industrialization was being felt and its redemptive potential,recognized.
This was also the era in which journalism began its professionalization.That meant embracing two missions: first, to bring intellectual honesty to the civic task of chronicling significant realities in the service of social illumination and political empowerment, and second, to draw crowds with appealing content who could then be monetized as customers for consumer goods. Neither of those missions inclined journalism toward covering poverty in a major way. Its civic duties did not compel close attention to people who were disenfranchised, easily ignored, and had little political impact. The need for the coverage was thus seen as questionable, and news organizations that undertook it were vulnerable to criticism that they were seeking out lurid stories for their own benefit, the overall project exploitative instead of ameliorative. Journalists themselves wondered about their motives. Riis’s (1971/1890) answer, ominously, was that readers needed to pay attention to the wretched conditions he described because his subjects would not put up with them indefinitely. James Agee (2001/1939), in his Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, said he could not explain why the country’s flagship business magazine had sent him to write about Alabama sharecroppers. Even now, more often than not, coverage is sparked not by the needs of the subjects, but by some broader policy significance —assessing the impact of the War on Drugs or the Clinton-era welfare reforms, or gauging the effects of shutdown policies linked to the coronavirus pandemic. By themselves, the day-to-day travails of people who have too little are not news.
As for journalism’s second mission, as a lubricant for merchants to reach robust consumer markets, the disincentives of covering poverty are not subtle. The coverage may be criticized as self-serving — just a way to sell newspapers, as the traditional rebuke goes — but in fact the nonpoor readers the journalist serves are not clamoring for stories about harsh conditions and people whose lives rarely touch theirs and whom they may not want to care about. Even if that resistance can be overcome through storytelling skill, tales of economic hardship do not create the editorial environment that advertisers want for their pitches. And coverage that undermines the self-portrait of an economic system that claims to deliver generalized prosperity is hardly catnip to consumers either.
So it is important to remember that the most salient fact about poverty coverage is not its flaws, but its rarity. That is something the alarming shrinkage of news media resources has undoubtedly worsened because poverty is expensive to cover: People experiencing hardship do not put out press releases; they are hard to identify and often reluctant to open up their lives to outsiders, and their stories take time to understand and report. Few news organizations are willing to commit that time, and coverage is scant.That said, quality does matter, and the work Prof. Borden has assembled forth in this volume offers keen insights into the institutional, commercial, sociological, political, cultural, and imaginative failings that beset coverage of economic hardship. The critiques of coverage worldwide the authors offer here are smart and timely. They also reflect a growing activist insistence that journalism take steps to empower the subjects of poverty stories and ensure that coverage reflects a world they recognize, honors the resourcefulness and determination with which they face poverty’s challenges, and supports remedies for the conditions that oppress them. Today’s assault on “extractive journalism” reiterates and updates the century-old criticism — that such coverage is inherently exploitative — by adding an expectation that it be shaped, in part, by the people being covered, even if such partnering upends traditional norms of journalistic independence.
Still, even at its best, journalism remains a practice conducted within limits— posed by the information-gathering and storytelling techniques it relies on and a conceptual gaze that binds importance to timeliness. It witnesses, and it chronicles, and it thus produces a unique and irreplaceable kind of social knowledge. But it is not sociology, and it is not economics, and it can offer only the human face of deprivation. That is no small thing. But its very success risks reaffirming, by implication, the paradigm that insists that the way to understand poverty is to understand “the poor” as a discernible population with cultural and psychological deficiencies and facing a similar plight. The flaws in that intellectual framing within both journalism and the social sciences are the subject of the critique Alice O’Connor offers in her powerful Poverty Knowledge (2002).
One persuasive alternative is to focus on the one clear deficiency people who experience poverty unquestionably suffer from — a lack of money. That sounds obvious, and early reformers had no doubt that paltry wages were the main source of the misery they saw. But if low pay were still understood as the principal driver of poverty, journalists would focus their reporting not on the household, the social service agency, the courts, the schools or the street corner, but on the workplace, and they would realize that the myriad other dysfunctions they encounter derive from that sturdy and powerful wellspring of material injustice. A recent RAND Corporation study found that, if the United States had retained the same level of income inequality that it had in the mid-1970s, the low-income worker who now makes $35,000 a year would be earning $61,000 instead (Price & Edwards, 2020.)
Unfortunately, the workplace is very hard to report on. Journalists have nothing like the rights of access they have with public entities: Even barebones information about working conditions and pay is not readily available, potential sources are chilled by the constant threat of reprisal, and, increasingly, non-disclosure agreements muzzle even former employees. So few reporters do it, and fewer do it well — David Shipler’s The Working Poor (2005) remains a brilliant exception. But it is in the workplace, in the final analysis, that poverty is engendered, and understanding the powerlessness of the contemporary worker should be a starting point toward putting economic hardship in its proper context. It is in those primal economic relations that the spectrum of society’s inequalities is produced and reproduced, for richer and for poorer.
Agee, J. (2001/1939). Let us now praise famous men (three tenant families). Mariner Books.
Engels, F. (2019/1845). The condition of the working class in England in 1844. Anodos Books.
O’Connor, A. (2002). Poverty knowledge: Social science, social policy, and the poor in
twentieth-century U.S. history. Princeton University Press.
Price, C. C., & Edwards, K. A. (2020, September). Trends in income from 1975 to 2018
[Working paper]. RAND Corporation.
Riis, J. A. (1971/1890). How the other half lives: With 100 photographs from the Riis collection. Dover Publications.
Shipler, D. K. (2005). The working poor: Invisible in America. Vintage.
Stowe, H. B. (2012/1852). Uncle Tom’s cabin. Dover Thrift Edition.