What to Know About the Challenges of Covering Poverty

Poverty needs to be covered with sensitivity and with the understanding that each story is unique. Assumptions are especially dangerous to make in writing these stories because poverty affects each person in a different way. 

Poverty coverage can be beat-specific or include a discussion of socio-economic issues within breaking news and stories across beats.

To paint a more inclusive picture of the communities they serve, news organizations can focus resources toward training journalists on beats, while including an intersectional conversation about poverty within each area of coverage.

The Fickle State of Poverty

Poverty is news and has become an increasingly newsworthy item as studies from the Brookings Institution indicate more Americans now live in poverty in suburbs than in cities. However, Brookings Institution also said poverty in these areas is not being covered well by the press. 

Part of covering a community through a sense of place is knowing the different demographics in the community. As evidenced by the Brookings Institution study, poverty may be prevalent in places journalists wouldn’t consider. To begin covering poverty, the newsroom should split and observe each sector of the community and how residents relate to other sectors.  

The need for poverty coverage at some newspapers is apparent, but how do journalists cover it without making readers numb to the issue?

Trista Vincent examined this in the Ryerson Review of Journalism in 1999 by observing the newsroom conversation at The Toronto Star, when it had two reporters assigned to cover social policy and six others who wrote about issues pertaining to poverty. Fred Kuntz, the Star’s deputy managing editor said, “The best poverty stories are those containing a narrative and offering true, real-life, human drama, as well as the historical context of the issue, quantified facts about the scope of the problem and informed and dispassionate discussion about the causes and possible solutions.”

This all-encompassing responsibility is tough, but Kuntz thought it was possible. One of the staffers wrote a story in 1994 about three community members who benefited from public housing but also critically analyzed non-profit housing. Once again, establishing a sense of place by addressing a local, addressable and historical issue through a personal narrative is key. 

The Humanity of It All

Journalists can’t ignore poverty coverage. The Community Service Society of New York evaluated the decreased coverage of poverty in New York in 2004 and figured coverage was dropped because newspapers were aiming at readers’ wants instead of needs, favoring more trivial news. 

Articles tended to contain stereotypes, which “can lead to the conclusion that there is no need for public investment in poor neighborhoods,” or were misleading and incomplete. “Just as damaging has been the media’s refusal to look at underlying problems of poverty,” they wrote.  

Considering “sense of place” is important while covering poverty.  Sense of place is how a person relates to their environment. Journalists should learn to convey information through their local identities to explain poverty in persistently impoverished locations. History, personal narratives and community-wide traditions should be used to cover poverty in a way that will draw in readers and create a strong sense of place.

Community members should be able to form accurate ideas about their locale and know how poverty affects it through crime and mass incarceration, health, business and education. National statistics, surveys and legislation can be used at a local level to explain poverty trends, and journalists should specifically incorporate coverage of poverty-related issues and low-income communities in beats across the newsroom.

To understand how to cover poverty, journalists should first check how poverty manifests itself as a sense of place in the community. Are people accepted and helped or shunned? Who is affected and how does poverty play a role in political, social and economic aspects of the community? 

Avoid These Misconceptions 

There are numerous misunderstandings in covering poverty that journalists should be prepared for. The following are some of the most common misconceptions that journalists should be prepared for:

  • The belief that people are responsible for their own poverty; that poverty is caused by lack of willpower or willingness to work; that if they were eligible for government help, they would be getting it. 
  • The belief that poverty can’t be alleviated. 
  • The belief that anti-poverty programs don’t work—they do. But they often need updating or to be refined for new groups in poverty. 
  • Journalists often don’t understand the full picture, and can work from stereotypes of impoverished people. 
  • There is very little understanding of the fact that the majority of people living in poverty actually have jobs.
  • Most Americans do not understand that we are the most impoverished nation in the developed world or that poverty is a complicated mixture of structural injustice, the lack of capability of freedom to function at a minimal level and behavioral responsibility. 
  • The belief that people living in poverty are likely to have a specific set of values, political beliefs and education. That most poverty comes with unsatisfactory education, lack of understanding or knowledge of the world and lack of sophistication about politics.

As a journalist, understanding your own bias as a human is a solid place to start. While reporting, treat the topic of poverty as the multifaceted subject that it is and regularly evaluate your personal and community biases.

Poverty is a complicated topic, and thus difficult to cover, but it can be done well.

Savannah Ware is a fourth year majoring in journalism at the University of Georgia.

To see why covering poverty is so important, check out this video:

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