Writing Across Difference

As a reporter, one of the greatest challenges you may experience is learning how to write across societal differences. Journalists must stick to the facts while still capturing nuance when covering poverty. They have to prevent their biases from interfering with the story. 

Moni Basu, an award-winning journalist, first came across this challenge over 30 years ago as a reporter in Tallahassee, Florida, when she wrote a story on inmates who couldn’t afford lawyers on death row. This became the first of many stories she wrote on people who experience poverty around the world.

Basu says that story taught her how to set aside her own biases, because the inmates she was interviewing lived a life that was completely different from her personal life experiences.

One of her most notable stories on poverty was the 2017 CNN article, “Seeing the New India from the Eyes of an Invisible Woman.” In this story, she returns to her hometown, Kolkata, India, and gains a fresh perspective about an old friend.

The article profiled a woman named Amina who provided domestic help for Basu’s family from 1998 to 2001.

Throughout the story, Basu paints a picture about the growing income gap in her homeland. “In India,” she writes, “the wealth of 16 people is equal to the wealth of 600 million people.”

In the CNN article, Basu recounts taking Amina to one of India’s most upscale shopping malls in Kolkata, Quest Mall.

In the article, she reported that it would have taken Amina almost 25 years to earn enough money to purchase a Michael Kors handbag she saw at the mall that was worth almost $2,000.


“It was like a magical world to her,” she said.


Basu never saw Amina again after their trip to Quest Mall in 2015. The slum she lived in was bulldozed to make room for a new high-rise where flats could sell for approximately $150,000 or more.

Telling stories about people who experience poverty can be difficult. Basu says that one of the most valuable techniques a reporter can use to successfully write across difference is to educate themselves on the communities they cover.

Leave your bias at the door.

The best way to confront your biases is to assume a position of humility.

“Be humble, lower yourself. People don’t have to talk to you. You are privileged that they’re talking to you and don’t forget that privilege. Treat them with the courtesy that they deserve.” 

-Moni Basu

Throughout her career for media outlets including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and CNN, she has discovered that it’s OK to plead ignorance. Call someone in the community before you visit and admit to them that you may not know what it’s like to be a part of that community or that you may not have a full picture of poverty in that area, but you’re willing to learn.

Observe, observe, observe.

Basu, the Michael and Linda Connelly Lecturer for Narrative Nonfiction in the Department of Journalism at the University of Florida, advises journalists to find the most popular coffee shop or restaurant in the community they’re covering and go observe. Find out who the regulars are. What are people chatting about at the tables around you? Do all of those people have something in common?

She also says that reporters should visit a local place of worship to find out where people are seeking hope and guidance. It’s the small details about the everyday life of a community that will help add context to a story.

Be sensitive to trauma.

Basu explains that families who experience poverty often experience trauma. The National Education Association reports that between 50 to 80 percent of students living in poverty have been traumatized.

Basu warns reporters to be sensitive to the trauma people may have suffered and not treat their sources like victims. Instead, reporters should carefully consider how they frame questions and remember that no one wants to be subject to these types of stories. 

She said, “Be sensitive to the fact that everyone has pride and no one wants to be seen beneath dignity. Treat them with the dignity they deserve.”

Interview an elderly person.

Basu also encourages reporters to find the pillars of the community they’re covering, because those are the people who have lived in that area the longest.

 

A person who has lived a long time and spent decades in the same community can help you layer your story with historical context related to socioeconomics and poverty.

Listen first, write later.

Listening is the key to capturing the nuance of poverty in a story.

We tend to get one quote or get one sound bite and leave. And we often end up writing misleading stories or stories that are not nuanced enough.”

-Moni Basu


Basu says this type of reporting leads journalists to write stories that only depict black and white, but the reality is that poverty is many shades of gray. 

People who are experiencing poverty often don’t have a voice. When you have the opportunity to hear from them, listen to what they’re saying, put it into context, collect valuable data and write your story based on what you find. 

Kelsey Coffey graduated in fall 2020 with a journalism degree from the University of Georgia.

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