The intersection between poverty and other coverage areas requires research and analysis. Use these best practices and steps to get started.
What to look for
Log in to one of our suggested databases. Look for data such as average median income, the percentage of people on SNAP benefits, or other statistics that can give you an idea of how many people live in poverty in your county.
Research housing costs and compare that to median annual income.
Look at Medicaid recipients in your county and take note of documented health crises.
Compare high school dropout rates across different neighborhoods and schools. Start making connections and noticing possible trends.
Ask questions about affordable housing, demand for services like food banks or nonprofit community organizations that help impoverished people.
Become familiar with local statistics, and compare those with observations and personal experiences.
What to ask
Answers to the questions below might help you determine what needs the most coverage in your community and what you need to know before diving in.
According to the U.S. Census, what is the poverty rate in your county? When was that statistic last updated?
How many people are unemployed in your county?
How many jobs have been lost in your county over the past year? What about the past five years?
What are legislators doing to fight or support existing problems regarding poverty, including addressing homelessness, crime and mass incarceration, affordable housing, etc.?
How does your county’s foreclosure rate differ from neighboring counties, and why?
How are resources allocated across schools in your county?
What is being done in your county’s education system to close any achievement gaps, reduce drop-out rates, etc?
Is government-subsidized housing meeting the needs of your county?
What forms of affordable healthcare are available in your community? What percent of women, men and children in your county qualify for Medicaid or other affordable healthcare programs?
What percent of adults in your county are uninsured?
What percent of students are on free/reduced lunch in elementary school and continue this service in middle and high school?
What do public health nurses identify as the major health concerns for low-income women, men and children in your county?
What’s being done to help people coming out of prison into jobs? Are inmates able to get an education in prison?
What legal assistance is available to people in poverty?
How many physicians or healthcare facilities will treat uninsured patients?
Is specialized medical care provided by the public health department? If applicable, have individual, low-income patients been adversely affected by limited access to specialized care?
What is the history and intersection of racial and poverty discrimination in the area, and why do these conditions continue to exist? Who is fighting them?
What is the maternal and infant mortality rate in your county?
Do students at schools with high levels of poverty (majority on free/reduced lunch) perform similarly to students at schools with lower levels of poverty on the CRCT, end of year, and/or graduation tests?
Do any resources in your county bar LGBTQ+ individuals from seeking assistance?
As with any story, you’ll need to:
Consult secondary sources
Locate key documents
Observe the story in play
Sofia Gratas graduated in fall 2020 with a journalism degree from the University of Georgia.
READING “How Photography Exploits the Vulnerable” Ryan Christopher Jones, a photographer with The New York Times, discusses in a 2018 op-ed how photojournalists should balance the “responsibility to portray the visceral realities of an often devastating world” and the simultaneous responsibility to photograph with respect to the humanity of the people photographers cover.
“Covering poverty: What to avoid and how to get it right” A guide compiled by Denise-Marie Ordway and Heather Bryant, two journalists who grew up in poverty themselves, outlines common mistakes journalists make when covering poverty and related issues and offers ways to avoid committing those problematic reporting practices.
“Reporting Inequality” Sally Lehrman and Venise Wagner’s guide aims to equip journalists to cover the complex issues surrounding racial and social inequalities. This book provides straightforward, practical strategies for reporters to use in the field to investigate the root causes of inequality and report more comprehensively. Read our interview with the authors.
In this podcast, journalists Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone talk about how they covered poverty in the preceding episodes of the series and walk through various pitfalls to avoid. Authors and other experts are interviewed to provide alternatives to avoid these insensitive or incorrect mistakes.
ON POVERTY AS A TOPIC
VIEWING “Why Poverty?” This PBS Peabody Award-winning documentary series explores global, international poverty. Eight full-length documentaries and several shorter episodes look for answers to questions like “can a good education provide an escape from poverty?” and “how have attitudes to poverty changed over the ages?”
“Four Reasons To Include Race in America’s Poverty Discussion” In a video presentation by Alan Jenkins and written discussion by Katie Le Dain, The Aspen Institute provides context to the links between race and poverty in the U.S. Common misconceptions are brought to light and presenters introduce reasons for why conversations around poverty should not shy away from race.
“Growing Up Poor in America” PBS Frontline’s 2020 documentary follows three children and their families to share their experiences fighting to stay afloat as the COVID-19 pandemic amplifies existing challenges. In the political battleground state of Ohio during a pivotal presidential election year, hopes and fears for the future are shared from a child’s perspective.
LISTENING “View from Room 205” This 2017 radio series from WBEZ in Chicago includes illustrations, photographs and long-form written stories, organized into chapters. The piece as a whole investigates whether public schools can make the American Dream a reality for children who live in poverty. The story focuses on 30 fourth graders and their intimate experience with the intersection of poverty and education on Chicago’s West Side.
“Toxic Stress – Poverty and Health” On Latino USA’s podcast, Daisy Rosario speaks with doctors and researchers about how excess levels of stress, often due to experiences related to poverty, can change brain psychology and affect life course trajectory.
READING “In Plain Sight” NBC News’ Peabody award winning series investigates a diverse range of content related to trends and impacts of poverty across the U.S. Each story dives into a particular newsworthy policy or aspect that relates to poverty and covers that in detail.
“$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America” This narrative by researchers H. Luke Shaefer and Kathryn Edin follows several U.S. families who live in extreme poverty and investigates how they survive on less than $2 per day, and readers are transported into the everyday lives of each family. The 2016 narrative novel is a product of years of ethnographic research learning how these families reached an extreme level of poverty and the survival strategies they have adapted, including a discussion of policies that impact their specific situations.
“Understanding Poverty” Composed of essays compiled by Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee, Roland Benabou and Dilip Mookherjee from 34 leading economists focused on the most valuable key points from their research on poverty, this 2016 collection covers a large range of relevant topics. Some essay topics include the empirical measurement of poverty, the impact of colonialism on enduring contemporary poverty, the future of micro-credit, child labor and gaps for future research.
“The Working Poor: Invisible in America” In his narrative, David Shipler, a former New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, presents personal stories of working people living in poverty. Combined with statistics, these accounts identify and describe interconnected obstacles to climbing the socioeconomic ladder.
“Nickel and Dimed” Barbara Ehrenreich’s narrative describes her time as an undercover journalist working minimum-wage jobs around the U.S. while on a mission to determine if landing a job is truly a surefire way to prosperity.
“Evicted” This Pulitzer Prize winning narrative follows eight families in Milwaukee as they fight to keep consistent housing. Author Matthew Desmond provides an in-depth look at poverty and economic exploitation alongside scenes of hope and ideas for solving these deeply rooted issues.
“Heartland” Sarah Smarsh’s memoir of her childhood growing up as a fifth generation Kansas wheat farmer brings insight into life for working class Americans in the midwest. Through personal narrative from her own memories and impactful analysis and cultural commentary, Smarch investigates the class divide in the U.S.
“The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap” Mehrsa Baradaran’s 2017 nonfiction work explores the persistence of the racial wealth gap in the United States and provides insight into Black banks. Baradaran presents research that shows how institutions like housing segregation, racism and Jim Crow credit policies that prevent Black communities from accumulating wealth in a segregated economy.
Taylor Gerlach is a fourth year majoring in journalism and sociology at the University of Georgia.
This tip sheet serves as a tool for journalists to use while pitching, writing, producing and editing stories on poverty. While this list doesn’t include every aspect of the subject, it can help you brainstorm how to approach your next story. Here are 10 best practices for covering poverty:
Get the data and find key documents.
Develop your story from statistics. Gather key documents and data, then connect the numbers to a socioeconomic characteristic related to your beat or a timely issue. After that, compare state and national statistics to what you find to put your story into a greater context.
You can find even more essential data sets here. The facts you find can reveal gaps in the community you’re covering. From there, it’s your job to illustrate those gaps in your storytelling.
To start, look at the level of federal funding intended to boost a community’s economy. You can find that information on Recovery.gov and USAspending.gov. Also, research how a county is allocating stimulus funds on ProPublica. It’s important to follow the flow of money from the government to agencies, trickling down to businesses and consumers.
Commit to thorough sourcing.
Interview local experts about how poverty affects their community. Think big picture. Ask questions that speak to how the income divide can affect multiple areas of a person’s life.
After you interview the experts, get to know the people who are experiencing the topic you’re covering. If people are willing to speak with you, find out about the community they live in, figure out the cost of their average expenses and how their environment affects their standard of living. Talking to real people will bring your data to life.
Localize your angle.
If you aren’t covering poverty in your own community, find reporters who live in that area and use them as a source for gaining a deeper understanding of public opinion within that community.
It is important for audiences to understand poverty is happening where they live, not just in other parts of the country.
While national politics can feel distant to audiences, local politics focuses on how resources can be delivered and distributed within a community. The poverty rate of a community directly impacts local government services such as the police, schools, hospitals and any other form of social services.
Understand the terminology.
Learn how to speak the language. Poverty is relevant to several beats. Become an expert on your beat to understand its relationship with poverty. For example, government spending involves complicated language. You have to know the difference between funds that are “awarded” vs. funds that are “allocated,” or what a “cost-plus contract” is. If you don’t know what these terms mean, then you won’t be able to understand the impact they may have on communities below the poverty line.
Understanding terminology is the first step to asking the right questions, especially when you’re interviewing local experts. Communicate in the expert’s language, so they can give you feedback in the appropriate context.
Narrow your focus.
Poverty is a complex issue. Reporters can’t cover every element of poverty in one story. Find one or two specific areas to focus on and commit to in-depth reporting. Here’s Yale School of Medicine Science Writer, Kathleen Raven, explaining how she approached reporting a story on a healthcare clinic in Greene County, Georgia:
Studies have proven that there is a connection between poverty, crime and mass incarceration, education, health and other regularly-covered beats. Find ways to incorporate poverty-related narratives into other beats rather than covering these stories by themselves.
This enables reporters to provide in-depth coverage on poverty within a specific topic area while still remaining holistic in their overall approach. Journalists don’t have to narrow their poverty coverage to specific beats, but it is a helpful tool to stay concise in their reporting.
Incorporate multimedia elements.
If you’re writing a written article, take your reporting to another level by adding multimedia elements. Create a story where your readers can not only read about poverty, but give them an opportunity to see and hear what poverty feels like through photos, graphics, video and audio components.
Read this Chattanooga Times Free Press series on poverty called “The Poverty Puzzle.” Notice how the stories are full of photos, infographics and data visualizations that explain what’s happening beyond the words written on the page. Using multimedia elements allows the audience to connect with what’s happening in a story and makes their experience more tangible.
Connect the dots.
While reporting on poverty, it’s easy to fall into the habit of reporting facts without pulling all the pieces together. Focus on relating public support to policy initiatives that could impact low income residents. This will demonstrate a direct connection on how the public affects poverty, positively or negatively, by their actions.
One of your responsibilities as a reporter is to separate persistent poverty, which is experienced over a longer period of time, and episodic poverty that is onset by temporary economic downturns. By outlining poverty’s many shapes, its past forms and its future trajectory helps audiences understand how it permeates into many aspects of life.
Time it up.
Like all news, no matter the topic, newsworthiness shapes the public’s perception on an issue. When people are experiencing a collective worry about the economy and community welfare, people’s attention is more receptive to reading on topics. The timing and significance of poverty is determined by the overall state of the economy. Concern about how families are faring during these times of uncertainty is on the minds of the public.
When timing is off for an article, it dispels a feeling of urgency and breeds complacency in an audience. Reporters can help facilitate change by giving voice to issues and raising questions that other people may be too afraid to address.
Widen your audience.
Audiences are drawn to stories they can relate to. People experiencing poverty is a small part of the audience you should be trying to reach. Stories on poverty should be relevant to everyone.
“Readers who are not poor can relate especially to stories in which they could imagine themselves if their luck ran out, or if they were born into different circumstances,” said Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr.
Income and class will continue to influence both local and national politics in America.
Adding solutions to a story can take many forms, such as including links to resources, contact information of the sources included in the piece, highlighting ways people can become involved and including information about upcoming events. From analyzing data to sharing solutions journalists have an opportunity to make an impact through their reporting on poverty. Allow these tips to guide you into creating quality content that is relevant to your audience and accurately conveys how poverty affects your community.
Kelsey Coffey and Lillie Beck graduated in fall 2020 with journalism degrees from the University of Georgia.
Here are key definitions, facts and figures to orient yourself in poverty journalism.
Why should journalists cover poverty?
People experiencing poverty have death rates twice the ratio found for people living on incomes above the poverty level.
Racial minorities experience poverty and economic disenfranchisement at a higher rate than white people.
Poverty affects a community’s potential for economic development,.
Racial minority students living in poverty are less likely to earn a high school diploma or attend college than white students.
People living in poverty are disproportionately exposed to violent crime and traumatic injuries.
Earning an income below the poverty level puts individuals at a higher risk for developing chronic diseases.
How is poverty calculated?
According to the United States Census Bureau, the poverty threshold is defined as “the dollar amounts used to determine poverty status,” which is adjusted for inflation every year. Poverty thresholds are the same throughout the United States and do not vary by state or county. Thresholds do vary by the specific family sizes and the ages of those in the family unit.
The Census Bureau states, “incomes of all related family members that live together are added up to determine poverty status.” Once a family’s income is determined to be less than the poverty threshold for that family, everyone in that family unit is considered living in poverty. Poverty status cannot be determined for those in jail, children under 15 in foster care, or people living in nursing homes, college dormitories, military barracks or unconventional housing.
The Census Bureau uses several factors to determine if an income is within poverty status. These factors include earnings, unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation, social security, supplemental security income, public assistance, veterans’ payments, child support and many other factors. For a complete list of these factors, visit the Census Bureau’s website.
Top myths about poverty
Myth 1: People living in poverty are fully to blame or have no responsibility.
Both are wrong because many factors are beyond their control.
Myth 2: Poverty is a permanent condition.
It is not. Jobs, government assistance and global economic trends can influence a person’s economic status from one month to the next.
Myth 3: Most people living in poverty don’t work. If someone has full-employment, they aren’t living in poverty.
Incorrect. Actually, many people living in poverty do have jobs. People can work multiple minimum-wage jobs and still not make enough to be above the poverty threshold.
The word “full-employment” implies comfort, but the lack of a living wage and inadequate health care coverage leads to many fully employed people continuing to live in poverty.
Myth 4: People who are experiencing poverty are more inclined to have a certain set of stereotypical values, political beliefs and education.
Poverty casts a wide net and affects people from all walks of life. It’s impossible to know if someone is living in poverty without knowing their specific, personal financial situation.
Lillie Beck graduated with a journalism degree in fall 2020 from the University of Georgia.
To see why covering poverty is so important, check out this video:
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.
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.
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.
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.
This database looks at the capacity of individuals and households to “absorb, endure, and recover from the health, social, and economic impacts of a disaster,” while examining risk factors, such as poverty. Journalists will find this data useful when examining how major events can affect poverty and health care.
This publication looks at the health and well-being of America’s infants, children and adolescents. The publication includes information and data about children in poverty, examining the connection of health and well-being of children living in low-income families.
This publication examines “a global subnational map of the prevalence of underweight children that can be used by a wide user community in interdisciplinary studies of health, poverty and the environment.”
This publication shows infant mortality rate estimates that can be used in the studies of health, poverty and the environment. It includes 234 countries and territories, giving it a global look into the issue.
This publication aims to “further increase the effectiveness of development cooperation in improving the health of poor people as a means of reducing poverty and achieving the health-related Millennium Development Goals.” It is a set of policy recommendations and provides directions on ways of “supporting a pro-poor health approach in partner countries.”
The Healthy People initiative by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services aims to set “data-driven national objectives to improve health and well-being over the next decade.” The 2020 topic areas include economic stability, education, health and health care, neighborhood and built environment, and social and community context.
The National Health Care for the Homeless Council works to end homelessness by ensuring health care and housing for all by “uniting thousands of health care professionals, people with lived experience of homelessness, and advocates in homeless health care.”
The National Academy for State Health Policy hosts their Annual State Health Policy Conference. The conference gives informative sessions covering crucial health care issues, discussions from state health policy experts, and offers solutions and innovative ideas.
The Association of Health Care Journalists hosts an annual Health Journalism Conference. The conference consists of hearing from journalists and health care experts, participating in how-to sessions and taking advantage of networking opportunities.
Shania Shelton is a fourth-year journalism major at the University of Georgia.
Poverty creates challenges for children and students of any age. A lack of resources, time from parents and mental, physical and emotional strain of living in poverty can create barriers to quality education.
Covering the intersection of poverty and education gives insight into the challenges these students face.
Here’s a list of databases, studies, conferences and institutions, with information to help you form the right questions.
If you’re feeling stuck, use the resources below to help answer these questions. They might help you get started on a story or expand on an idea.
What challenges do students face in your region?
What are the demographics of students in your region?
What is the retention and graduation rate in your region?
What percentage of families in your region live below the poverty line?
This data collection allows journalists to search schools and districts for data and special reports related to enrollment demographics, SAT & ACT, student retention, discipline, etc. among public schools in the United States.
This dataset looks at education statistics in different indicators, such as various countries. This will help journalists get a wider view of education and what it may look like in different capacities and locations.
In this publication, journalists will find information related to the effects of poverty on school children. This paper by M.D. Ushadevi analyzes the database in education to provide information on the intersection of education with poverty. Journalists will find this helpful because they are able to monitor and consolidate poverty data among school children, serving as an initial step to address poverty and education.
This publication by the U.S. Department of Education examines “common constraints of neighborhood data used for educational research and proposes the use of school-centered neighborhood poverty estimates based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) and estimation techniques borrowed from spatial statistics.” Journalists will find this useful by having a publication that dives deep into how school and neighborhood poverty intersect with education.
The Global Partnership for Education is a global fund dedicated to “transforming education in lower-income countries,” and they “work to deliver quality education so that every girl and boy can have hope, opportunity and agency.” Journalists will find this institution useful for exploring global initiatives related to education and poverty.
The U.S. Department of Education collects data on America’s schools and establishes policies on federal financial aid for education. Journalists will find this institution useful for analyzing data and finding information related to schools and students in the U.S.
The Association for Childhood Education International hosts the Global Summit on Childhood every other year, where they design ways to facilitate “global sharing of minds and resources in their mission to benefit the education and protection of children everywhere.”
Shania Shelton is a fourth year journalism major at the University of Georgia.
This data will bring insight to journalists about data on the monthly labor force, work experience, income, noncash benefits and migration. This will be important for background data to help journalists become more knowledgeable on poverty and trends.
This database looks at aggregated data from published sources including crime, justice and sociodemographic variables. This is important for journalists exploring crime and mass incarceration statistics and trends.
This dataset looks at the effect of income inequality on violent crime. This will be important for journalists who want to examine the effects of crime, while using a case study of Mexico’s drug war to explain the data.
In this publication, journalists will find information related to police corruption and how it is linked to processes of development, such as crime, violence and poverty. The main purpose is to “explore and clarify the relations between police corruption and the more fundamental welfare-shaping processes in poor and semi-poor countries,” researchers Jens Chr. Andvig and Odd-Helge Fjeldstad say in the paper. This publication will be useful for journalists covering poverty in developing countries especially.
This publication examines U.S. data from 1965 to 2016 to identify the effect of poverty on crime. The authors, Mohammed Imran, Mosharrof Hosen, Mohammad Ashraful Ferdous Chowdhury, find a positive co-integrating relationship between poverty and property crime. This publication and findings will be useful for journalists looking for the relationship between poverty and crime rates in America.
This publication by the Bureau of Justice Statistics examines the “violent victimization experiences of persons living in households at various levels of poverty, focusing on type of violence, victim’s race or Hispanic origin, and location of residence.” It will be useful for journalists looking for information on rates of crime on those in lower income households.
Journalists will find this study useful for examining the effects of income inequalities with violent criminality in young adulthood. This study looks at “parental income trajectories during childhood and subsequent risks of self-harm and violent criminality in young adulthood.” The study found “the longer a child lived in poorer circumstances, the higher their subsequent risks for self-harm and violent criminality, and vice versa for time spent living in affluent conditions.”
The Poverty, Violence, and Governance Lab at Stanford University is a laboratory that partners with “policy-makers and community leaders to evaluate programs and policies aimed at containing violence and crime, reducing human rights abuses by law enforcement agents, and improving the quality and accountability of the police and criminal justice systems.” Journalists will find their research aimed at providing solutions to lawlessness and violence useful for reporting, as well as their evaluations of current programs and policies.
Innovations for Poverty Action is a research and policy nonprofit that “discovers and promotes effective solutions to global problems.” Their aim is to improve the lives of people living in poverty, and they conduct research related to poverty in various countries, crime, health, etc.
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:
Stories produced by community journalists, regional reporters and national media demonstrate the value of data-driven reporting when it comes to reporting on poverty.
Here are two examples of award-winning data-driven reporting.
Inside California’s Housing Crisis: Deceit, Disrepair and Death Inside a Southern California Rental Empire
Aaron Mendelson, for the LAist
What’s the story: Winner of an Online Journalism Award for “Investigative Data Journalism, Small/Medium Newsroom,” this story used mountains of data — including eviction records, state business data, court filings and depositions — to lead an investigation into the negligent and questionable operations of a landlord in Los Angeles County. What was uncovered included tragic stories from people living under dangerous conditions, many of which resulted in health concerns or fatalities. In addition, this reporting uncovered a lack of oversight on these poorly managed properties at a state level and how a vicious cycle of evictions keeps people experiencing poverty in poverty, while landlords get rich.
Why it works: The story is data-driven, but relies on narratives from people on the frontlines of this issue to tell the full story. There are multimedia elements to the reporting including data visualization, graphic elements, photos, videos and a full audio story to accompany the written piece. It’s extremely comprehensive and data heavy with a variety of sources, but the information is laid out in a digestible format. The story is compelling because the wrongdoing and systemic issues are laid out in a factual way.
How to do it: It’s likely that there are people in any given county in the U.S. experiencing dangerous or inadequate living conditions, and the COVID-19 pandemic paired with natural disasters this year has only made this worse. Check out resources from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab and see where your county stands on eviction levels (Note: data is from 2016). Access public records regarding property ownership from your county tax assessor’s office and look at average rental costs in your area and map out any prevalent property managers with bad reviews. Consider submitting open records or FOIA requests for code enforcement reports. Ask for courtesy visuals from sources if necessary. Most importantly, look for trends or patterns and use experts to help with the reporting process.
As Rising Heat Bakes U.S. Cities, The Poor Often Feel It Most
Meg Anderson and Sean McMinn, for NPR
What’s the story: For a series on “Heat and Health in American Cities,” National Public Radio reporters analyzed correlations between the location of low-income neighborhoods and rising temperatures, specifically in major U.S. cities. Reporting focuses on people living in poverty in urban areas and how rising temperatures will continue to put them at a disadvantage when it comes to health-related risks and social vulnerability.
Why it works: There’s data visualization that extends past the stories focus area of Baltimore, Maryland, pulling in a large audience. The story relies on narratives from people experiencing this problem first hand supported by empirical evidence. Professionals sourced in this story also provide information that support the concerns outlined by the data. Because the story is in both a written and audio format, it’s easy to read.
How to do it: This story applied thermal data from NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey to develop maps of major U.S. cities, overlapping that data with economic reports for median household incomes. There’s data for all 50 states regarding rising temperatures, air pollution and environmental risk factors, for example, that can be applied to a larger story or used to start you on your reporting process. It’s important to make connections before starting the reporting process to avoid bias. This story received an honorable mention for the Investigative Reporters & Editors Philip Meyer award.