Many news outlets tell stories about people living in poverty, which provides many chances to miss important details which need to be told.
To empower readers with the tools to uncover those details, Covering Poverty spoke with Greg Jaffe, a national reporter with The Washington Post and finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. Jaffe was nominated “for deeply reported stories that powerfully depict the suffering and dislocation endured by Americans who lost their jobs after the sudden collapse of South Florida’s tourist economy in the pandemic,” according to pulitzer.org. Jaffe also shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for his work on a Wall Street Journal series about defense spending.
Read his nominated stories here:
- A pandemic, a motel without power and a potentially terrifying glimpse of Orlando’s future
- The pandemic hit and this car became home for a family of four.
- ‘I didn’t make it:’ A Walt Disney World waitress struggles to hold on to her middle-class life amid a pandemic and catastrophic layoff
Question 1: Does the story help readers understand why this person is in poverty?
Similar questions to consider: Does the story tell readers about how a person came into poverty, or is it just telling readers about a moment in a character’s life?
To really understand people, you need to understand the progress of their story, including what they experienced, how they got there, and a story that feels honest, Jaffe said.
“Everybody makes mistakes, so it’s important to not judge people for those mistakes but also not shy away from telling the full story,” he said.
Understanding how a person came into poverty is essential to fully understand a person’s story. This includes a person’s past, their present and any historical context that keeps them in poverty.
Reporting that fails to explain how people, especially when used as characters in a story, came into poverty do not accurately represent the individuals who trusted journalists with their stories.
Question 2: What context could be missing?
Similar questions to consider: Does the story discuss historical or economic context, or tie the story into a larger relevant issue? Could that context tell a more complete story of what’s happening to the characters?
Considering broader contexts can help readers better understand how the story represents large-scale issues. Plus, knowing the context can help readers understand why the story is timely.
“It’s good to have some sort of news peg that you can say to your editor: This is why we’re telling this story now,” Jaffe said.
When he reported on people living in the Star Motel in Kissimmee, Florida, he told the story of how the pandemic was drastically worsening the lives of residents.
“The pandemic had heaped crisis on top of crisis,” he said.
Question 3: Does this story try to show a complete picture of its characters?
Similar question to consider: Do you see multiple sides of the characters?
Journalists have to overcome biases when covering poverty. Two of the biggest biases are judging people’s mistakes and underestimating the stress that poverty causes, so it’s important to discern whether a story spend too much time talking about characters’ mistakes.
Jaffe said journalists can ask a source, “Why did you quit this job after six months?” as they sit by and think, “I wouldn’t have done that. I would have stuck with that McDonald’s job until I had another job. I wouldn’t have gone out drinking and missed work. I wouldn’t have smoke weed.”
“There are so many stresses in people’s lives,” he said. “People in poverty smoke weed because sometimes it’s the only escape. We tend to judge them too harshly for these things.”
On the other hand, Jaffe said some stories ennoble people affected by poverty. Stories that are one-sided in conveying that they did nothing wrong and bad things just happened to them also should be avoided.
“But it’s never a simple story,” he said. “People make mistakes and we shouldn’t judge them, but we shouldn’t shy away from putting them in the story.”
For example, The New York Times story “When Dasani Left Home” follows the story of Dasani, a girl who separates from her family to try to escape from poverty. The story talks about some of Dasani’s best moments, and some of her lowest moments as she goes through her time at private school.
“And that shows the value of understanding people in all of their complexity,” Jaffe said. “That piece didn’t shy away from writing about the mistakes that Dasani made, but it puts them into a broader context. So you got to understand what she had to overcome and why she did the things that she did.”
He describes Times reporter Andrea Elliott’s storytelling as “sympathetic and honest” because she captured what Dasani had to overcome to become a remarkable person.
Telling a more complete story of a person allows the reader to better understand them.
“When you embrace the complexity of the person, it’s easier to have empathy for people who are different,” Jaffe said.
Kyra Posey is a graduate student studying journalism at the University of Georgia.