Want to Uncover Hidden Details Missing from Poverty Coverage? Ask these Questions.

Graphic by Kyra Posey

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:

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. 

Read the story: A pandemic, a motel without power and a potentially terrifying glimpse of Orlando’s future

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 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. 

When Dasani Left Home

“And that shows the value of like, 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.

How I Reported the Story: Grab your sneakers! Here are some upcoming fundraiser runs, events in the Athens area

Read how Liset Cruz reported this story for The Athens Banner-Herald/OnlineAthens.com: Grab your sneakers! Here are some upcoming fundraiser runs, events in the Athens area

Community engagement is an important topic to cover. With the pandemic leaving some people feeling trapped inside and alone, this story allows residents to become aware of events in their community, which would help them fight those feelings. 

The Covering Poverty site helped me realize how I can reach out to these organizations and ask questions about their causes without making them feel ostracized and exploited. 

The organizations they work with can deal with sensitive matters and the Writing Across Differences page helped me work through that. On this page, there was a section titled “Be Sensitive to Trauma,” which allowed me to realize how to ask personal questions. For example, Jadon’s Run is an event featured in my story. However, the story behind the event deals with infant death. I asked questions carefully and allowed interviewees to take their time answering. 

Overall, the Covering Poverty project site is helpful for a wide range of stories. I’m glad to be a part of this initiative.

Liset Cruz is a senior at the University of Georgia. She has worked for NBC News, GPB News, and The Red & Black.

How I Reported the Story

Our reporters produce service journalism pieces and report on issues related to poverty through our partnerships with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Athens Banner-Herald. Below, read how they reported their stories to see how these journalists take multiple different approaches to reporting and storytelling.

Service Journalism

How I Reported the Story: How to Find Affordable Child Care in Georgia. Reporter Anila Yoganathan explores the world of affordable child care for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

How I Reported the Story: Grab your sneakers! Here are some upcoming fundraiser runs, events in the Athens area. Reporter Liset Cruz explores community engagement and explains how to ask questions about sensitive topics.

Features

How I Reported the Story: Colleges Expand Food Pantries to Help Studies in Need. Reporter Sofi Gratas explains how she discovered a trend in the development of new and expanded student pantries in Atlanta-area universities.

How I Reported the Story: For Local Nonprofits, Need and Support Swells. Reporters Carolyn Crist and William Newlin examine trends in Atlanta-area nonprofits.

How I Reported the Story: For Local Nonprofits, Need and Support Swells

Read how reporters Carolyn Crist and William Newlin reported this feature for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution: For local nonprofits, need and support swells.

Credit: William Newlin

Step one in reporting the Atlanta Journal-Constitution story “For local nonprofits, need and support swells,” was to define our focus. A 2021 report from the Giving USA Foundation indicated that charities had an uptick in giving in 2020 as compared with 2019, particularly in human service organizations such as shelters, food services and affordable housing groups. It was important to check this trend on a local level to see how much COVID-19 disruptions impacted vulnerable communities in metro Atlanta and how well nonprofits maintained needed support systems. 

We looked at Charity Navigator to find representative nonprofits in several of the top AJC coverage areas: Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties. We contacted four local groups with different service areas (housing, food and financial services), as well as two larger statewide groups: Habitat for Humanity and United Way. A diverse sample of organizations was key to see how the nationwide trend broke down based on nonprofits’ missions and level of resources. 

We interviewed leaders at the six organizations about the start of the pandemic, the increase in need, the increase in support and the outlook for the rest of this year. Each group shared impressive data and documents, which we reviewed for relevance and accuracy.

For a feature story, it was important for us to synthesize the trends across the organizations to provide an overall narrative for readers but not oversimplify the message. From Dwight Reighard at MUST Ministries in Marietta to Laura Drake at the Southeast Gwinnett co-op, varied anecdotes and personal experiences created an intimacy that balanced our inclusion of data. That was important given the human fears and struggles at the core of this story. Finally, we edited the story several times for clarity, removing repetitive sections that didn’t move the narrative along.

Thanks to the Covering Poverty site, we knew to:

  • Double-check data – both at the national and local levels – by looking at documents such as the Giving USA report and the individual nonprofit’s annual reports from 2020.
  • Be cognizant of word choice when writing about services, particularly connotations around food services, affordable housing and financial support. It was important to remain human-centric at all times.
  • Look at the beat guides around topics such as housing and health care for the services that were covered in this article.

Carolyn Crist is a graduate of the University of Georgia. Her byline appears in The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Reuters and WebMD.

William Newlin is a graduate student at the University of Georgia with work appearing in Georgia Health News, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Red & Black.

Action Items for Better Poverty Coverage

Editors and content directors say a focused newsroom, prioritizing context and an equipped staff are necessary to ensure that their organization covers poverty and low-income communities well.

The effects of poverty reach far and wide into educational systems, courts and legal systems, housing, social services and throughout many more corners of life. Poverty intersects with environmental concerns, collective mental health, and the success or failure of local businesses.

“We are all affected by the adverse effects of poverty,” said Caitlyn Stroh-Page, executive editor at the Athens Banner-Herald.

The Banner-Herald received a grant from Report for America in 2021 to add a reporter and visual journalist focused on issues of equity, equality, diversity and inclusivity. Writer DJ Simmons and visual journalist Kayla Renie have covered stories about homeless camps, new nonprofits that support children in low-income communities and local residents known for their outreach efforts.

It’s also oftentimes difficult to determine who is experiencing poverty in our communities. In Athens, Georgia census statistics show that about one third of residents live in federally defined poverty. 

“In our community, a third of our population is either at the poverty line or below the poverty line, so we’re not serving a third of our community if we aren’t covering people who are in poverty. Those are our readers,” Stroh-Page said.

And in order to serve a publication’s community, it’s important that coverage of people in poverty is done through a realistic lens, with the reader in mind.

“Those people that we know who are our neighbors, and who come from those communities, they’re also a part of the conversation,” said R.L. Nave, director of content at Reckon South, a news brand dedicated to covering stories that aren’t normally found in traditional media.

If editors and newsroom leaders are intentional about prioritizing poverty coverage, a larger segment of their audience will be served. Editors can use these five action items to ensure that low-income communities are being covered ethically and professionally. 

Be in the Community

To center your newsroom around strong community journalism, focus on building and maintaining professional relationships with a diverse set of community leaders. Regularly seek feedback from community members about what matters to them and what stories they would find valuable. 

“I think the first thing that our reporters do is actually speak to somebody that lives in the community they’re covering,” said Josephine Bennett, director of news at Georgia Public Broadcasting. “If you gain trust in communities, where you’re not just parachuting in, then you can really get a sense of what that community is going through.” 

Stroh-Page advises avoiding fly-by journalism and instead opting for deep-rooted community journalism. She explains the importance of sharing the human element of often complex issues. She focuses on leading a newsroom that covers poverty in a rich way, instead of a passing way.

“There’s a human to every story,” Stroh-Page said.

Focus Your Newsroom

With certain editorial priorities, editors can help focus how the newsroom covers people living in poverty. Stroh-Page suggests placing a strong emphasis on solutions journalism and challenging staff to report on the response to social issues, not just the issues themselves. 

When considering how natural disasters, such as the recent Hurricane Ida, affects its readers and people in poverty, Reckon South considers what guides and resources will actually help its readers. Whenever the newsroom takes a solutions journalism approach, it engages voices in the affected community.

From Reckon South: New Orleans, coastal Louisiana and Mississippi hurricane outreach: How to help

The newsroom recently went through an exercise where it  put together a research group of 20 southerners across political and ideological spectrums as well as across different races, ethnicities and genders, and worked to determine whether Reckon South’s stories would work for any of the real individuals of the group.

“Who is the real human being that the story is for?” Nave said. “And a lot of times, if we can’t figure out who that person is, then maybe it’s not a working story.”

From Reckon South: Nashville is growing like crazy. Rents have skyrocketed. How can regular people afford to live there?

This exercise, along with the lens that its news should serve its “underdog” audience of people who haven’t had a voice in traditional media, help the newsroom stay focused in its poverty coverage and beyond.

Housing is a key issue in covering poverty. Here’s how Reckon South told the story through the experience of one couple: How this Alabama couple bought a house for $8,000 cash

Ensure Reporters Evaluate Context

When reporters begin reporting on a story about poverty or housing issues, editors can emphasize taking a step back and considering the wider context of the story. 

When Los Angeles Times housing reporter Liam Dillon begins reporting a story, he takes a step back to consider how individual anecdotes tie in to broader fact-based data, a broader conversation in the region, or a wider context. 

For example, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, he heard multiple anecdotes about tenants being illegally evicted from their homes. To add context, he used data from the Los Angeles Police Department to determine whether these anecdotes represented a wider problem of landlord-tenant disputes surging after eviction protections went into place. He found that reported disputes happened in the lowest income and poorest communities in Los Angeles.

From the Los Angeles Times: Despite protections, landlords seek to evict tenants in Black and Latino areas of South L.A.

“When you focus narrowly on a particular project and you do these one-off stories, you really miss the forest through the trees,” Dillon said. “And I really think that writing about housing issues and affordability benefits way more people from a wider scope. Connect to historical narratives, history about governmental and private race practices that prevented people from being able to access housing, and you’re able to write about that in ways that are still acting on the housing market today.”

From the Los Angeles Times: 710 Freeway is a key link in the U.S. economy, but pollution and evictions doom its expansion

Include Overlooked Areas

Covering neighborhoods and communities that aren’t usually covered also better serve a newsroom’s audience and ensure a wide scope of poverty coverage.

“Even in fairly well-funded newsrooms, neighborhood coverage has gone away,” Nave said. “It’s even worse in rural states where, for some newspapers, it’s a question of whether they can cover communities and neighborhoods in the cities where they are, but also about getting out 50 miles from where the newsroom actually is.”

After evaluating communities which needed better coverage, Reckon South assigned a reporter to spend a lot of time on covering Arkansas. 

“Offer a product nobody else is offering,” Nave said. “Once you undergo self reflection, and say that we can own coverage of these particular communities, it’ll probably pay double dividends.”

Bennett, with GPB, also advises reporting the stories that nobody else is talking about. 

“Go after those stories, because it used to be that there were reporters crawling out of the woodwork 20 years ago to cover those things,” she said. “There’s nobody now.”

In neighborhood coverage, editors should also emphasize understanding the past.

“Step back and understand what happened, and what was the history of this neighborhood,” Dillon said. “What are the broader affordability issues, and how would this affect existing residents?”

Be Aware of Staff Needs 

The goal is to have a newsroom staffed with a diverse set of journalists who work with a high level of empathy and integrity. When hiring new employees, Stroh-Page said she looks for candidates who are intentional, empathetic, have good conversation skills, are committed to covering all communities in an equal fashion and are aware of systemic current issues. 

Another important aspect is an ability to interact with sensitivity and understanding with guarded communities. 

But some editors also acknowledge the toll these stories take on reporters and visual journalists.

“It’s hard because you take on the burden of the stories you’re telling all the time,” Stroh-Page said. 

Bennett makes empathetic leadership a priority. She’s attended webinars on trauma and reporting after she began to notice burnout in the newsroom. When she notices that a reporter might be struggling with burnout and a heavy workload, she allows them to take a day off that doesn’t count as vacation time. She also calls her reporters to check in with their workload.

Editors can support their staff by encouraging them to take time off and set boundaries for work and personal time. Often, a healthy workplace culture is created when editors and newsroom leaders publicly do these things for themselves, modeling healthy boundaries. 

This could mean routinely and visibly taking time off, using the schedule send feature on emails to avoid sending messages on nights or weekends, and sticking to set hours for non-emergency correspondence.

“I always tell them: if I see you struggling, it’s much better for you to have leave than for us to go to this place where you’re producing nothing,” Bennett said. “I think it’s about being observant, staying in touch with your staff and talking to them.”

Kyra Posey is a graduate student studying journalism at the University of Georgia. Taylor Gerlach contributed to this story.

How I Reported the Story: How to Find Affordable Child Care in Georgia

Read how reporter Anila Yoganathan reported this explainer for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution: How to find affordable child care in Georgia.

Students return to school at Barrow Elementary School on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach; taylormckenziephotography.com)

In order to explore the world of child care for my Atlanta Journal-Constitution story, How to find affordable child care, I had to talk directly with state leaders who work in the industry. I first reached out to the Department of Early Childcare and Development and the Georgia Association of Childcare Research and Referral Agencies. From there, leaders such as Pam Tatum, president and CEO of Quality Care for Children, and DECAL’s chief communications officer, Reg Griffin, put me in touch with more industry contacts.

Initially I interviewed sources about what first steps they thought families should take to find affordable child care. As I learned about the different programs and information and spoke with multiple sources, it was important to keep the information clear and comprehensive. 

For an explainer story, it was important to double check the information so that readers and users wouldn’t run into trouble as they followed the guidance. 

Sources also used specific terms to refer to different types of child care such as “licensed” and “quality rated.” I asked them to define the terms and later verified those definitions as part of the  fact checking process, which is recommended in Covering Poverty toolkit’s piece, The Tip Sheet.

Data specific to Georgia’s affordable child care situation was crucial. While DECAL’s data was slightly older, it was the most recently verified source. The data gave a comprehensive look at how much childcare could cost in different areas of the state. 

Prior to this piece, I had never covered child care before and I had never written an explainer. Having worked on this piece, I learned that explainers are important because they can provide verified and accessible information to individuals who may not know where to start. Having done my research beforehand on the Covering Poverty site, I knew I needed to immerse myself in the industry first. I didn’t want to make assumptions that could lead to confusion and errors. I wanted this piece to be as accurate and as helpful as possible. 

Anila Yoganathan is a graduate of the University of Georgia. Her byline appears on the Associated Press website, on The Atlanta-Journal Constitution website, and in The Red & Black.

How I Reported The Story: Colleges Expand Food Pantries to Help Studies in Need

Read how reporter Sofi Gratas reported this story for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution: Colleges expand food pantries to help students in need.

Credit: Ryan Cameron

Because my reporting was done remotely and I simply couldn’t visit the pantries at the schools to ask questions, it was important for me to establish a newsworthy angle before I started my reporting process for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution story, Colleges expand pantries to curb hunger for students in need.

Social media and university press releases quickly helped me discover a trend in the development of new or expanded student pantries in the Atlanta area, specifically as a result of increased poverty due to the pandemic. I followed that trend back to the schools and counties of origin. 

Reporting on university-run initiatives requires a direct line of communication with higher education  officials. Identifying and reaching out to the universities’ media contacts  was the first step in my reporting process. Because student privacy is crucial, my reporting primarily focused on the expertise of pantry supervisors and organizers. They provided me with data and information on the operations of each student pantry, in addition to firsthand experiences and observations. 

In addition to these conversations, analyzing data from each area was essential to my big picture reporting. I looked at COVID data through the CDC Data Tracker and unemployment statistics by county using the Georgia Department of Labor. 

Covering Poverty emphasizes getting the data, especially in pieces such as its education beat guide. For this piece, the College Navigator database on the National Center for Education Statistics website was a helpful resource when it came to student demographics, including the percentage of financial aid recipients.

Sofi Gratas is a graduate of the University of Georgia. Her byline appears on The Atlanta-Journal Constitution website, the Georgia Public Broadcasting website, and in The Red & Black.

Explainer Pieces: Child Tax Credit

Here’s one idea for service journalism on poverty-related matters.

Check out the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s explainer below about child tax credit payments. The AJC created the one-page document from a piece published on AJC.com and in print in summer 2021, just as the monthly payments began.

This guide — using an ASF (alternative story form) with the Q&A setup — is intended to be shared with people who need to know whether they qualify, what it takes to receive it and more information about the child tax credit.

Download and share the document (with AJC credit) with readers/viewers, community groups, nonprofits, individuals and families.

If you do so, please let us know (email coveringpovertysite@gmail.com) so we can keep track of efforts to spread the information.

Economics in Covering Poverty: How to Humanize the Numbers

The issue of poverty is complicated, oftentimes convoluted, and has an effect in many arenas, including writing about economics and money.

It is important to keep the human interest element in these stories in order to respectfully discuss the role of economics in poverty. If you lose the human interest element, you are doing those experiencing poverty a disservice.

Money and economics are the reason those experiencing poverty are in their situation, but economics cannot be separated from issues such as politics and human rights. Venise Wagner, co-author of “Reporting Inequality: Tools and Methods for Covering Race and Ethnicity,” said she sees all of the issues being connected. Economic issues cannot be completely separated from racial inequality issues. 

The components of our society add up to the issue of inequality as a whole. You should not cover poverty without covering the economic and social justice beat at the same time, added Wagner, a journalism professor at San Francisco State University.

Wagner gave an example about home ownership. She said that we know there is a wealth gap, and we know the wealth gap is tied to home ownership. The wealth gap is the systemic problem in the United States of unequal distribution of assets amongst citizens of the country. Home values are often worth less in communities of color than in white neighborhoods. She said economic and racial issues cannot be separated.  

“They’re all tied together and I don’t see covering them differently,” she said. 

Poverty is a social justice issue just as much as it is an economic and political issue. Co-author Sally Lehrman described these tightly bound issues as “interlocking structures.” She said that often, journalists cover the issue of poverty in one of two ways. They play it as a human interest story or as an economic story for the business beat.

“We often have these two extremes. We rarely bring them together in an individual story, and that’s a real disservice,” said Lehrman, who has covered social issues related to the science beat and is CEO of The Trust Project

Stories involving poverty should not just be about a single human experience or just about economic policy. Every economic policy and situation has effects on human beings, and the story is incomplete without talking about both, she said.  

The authors say it is unfair to those in poverty to not cover the stories from every angle. 

“With racial inequality, usually economic inequality is tied into that. The policy that is going to dictate where people are going to be living, for example, also dictates the value of their homes, if they own their homes. Policies end up having racialized outcomes,” said Wagner, a journalism professor at San Francisco State University and a previous reporter for both the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. 

The beats and coverage areas cannot be separated when covering poverty, and humanizing the issue while explaining to readers its economic and political impact is a critical step for credibility when covering poverty today and in the future. 

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