Period Poverty is an important issue in Athens that doesn’t get the coverage it deserves. This simple fact is what encouraged me to cover the Period Project at UGA, and more importantly, its co-president, Rachel Johnson, for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I wanted it to be a more personal story, not just about the organization, but more importantly about the people behind it that ultimately allow it to function.
An important part of the fight against menstrual inequities is the people who are passionate enough about the issue, either because of personal experiences or because of their close proximity to them, to truly make a difference. With Johnson, for example, though she had never experienced period poverty personally, her privilege is what ultimately encouraged her to pour in so much of her time and resources to ensure that everyone could enjoy the same luxuries that she knew as a little kid. Her story provided a different perspective of the issue, and thus was intriguing to me as I continued to interview her.
In order to find out more about her story and what led her to the Period Project, I asked her a variety of questions about her background — where she grew up, what her family life was like, etc. — and how she first came in contact with the organization. I quickly learned that it was her co-president, Areeba Hasmi, that introduced her to the group and the issue of menstrual inequity. This led me to my second interview for supporting information, where I asked Hashmi to recall how she met Johnson, what their experiences have been like together in the organization and their overall goal as co-presidents. I wanted the piece to highlight not just the Period Project, but the individuals that make it up and what in their life stories brought them to this moment. It’s often the most personal articles that show the people behind the big issues that resonate the closest, and thus provoke the most emotion and change. —Dawn Sawyer
The goal of this piece was to shed light on not just the work Rachel Johnson contributes to Period Project but who she is as a person. Working with my partner on this, we wanted to give insight to who Johnson is, her work within Period Project and how she’s worked up until this point.
I relied on “New Books for Keeps executive director seeks to grow nonprofit for youth literacy” as my exemplar when approaching this piece. I found the structure to be similar to our goals in writing this piece: focusing on one organization and one person heading the initiative. The piece gave me a little more confidence in how to approach this topic and most importantly how to report on it (and also how to not gush over the profile subject).
We started with an initial Zoom interview with Johnson to get to know her better. This turned into an extensive 30-minute conversation where we ended up getting more answers to our questions than anticipated (not necessarily a bad thing).
We, of course, had follow-up questions, which we were able to ask in-person at Period Project’s meetings and packing events. I attended one of Period Project’s general body meetings to ask additional follow-ups and consult our secondary sources. Here, I was able to beef up the piece with commentary from those who work closely beside Johnson in the Period Project.
For the video portion, I attended Period Project’s November packing party. The purpose of the video is to not just showcase the packing event, but see Johnson in action and in her leadership position.
I’ve worked on profile pieces before, but this one really challenged me in the sense I’ve never profiled someone my age, which, oddly enough, is intimidating for me. Overall, this piece taught me more about the importance of follow-ups and how those additional questions can really make or break your piece, giving you new information you didn’t have from that first initial interview. —Sydney Hood
Growing up, I was taught that food was medicine. My mother would try her best to purchase clean, organic foods for me and my brothers so we can grow up strong, healthy and happy. I value food as a way to bring people together as it offers a moment people share at the same time, but experience it completely differently.
When I came to the University of Georgia, I found it hard to source fresh, local produce on campus as a student with only a car and limited time. When I discovered on Instagram a club on campus called Farmers Market Friends that aimed to bridge the food insecurity gap while also offering students locally grown produce, I wanted to cover it and tell others about their story.
For The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, I knew this story was going to be important and many eyes were going to see it. I quite literally stalked the club’s Instagram to find out as much as I can about it. I found who the original founders were and direct-messaged them individually. Reese MacMillian and Abraham Lebos were the two I contacted first. I told them my idea for the story and how this would be featured in the AJC. They were delighted and responsive to my messages. They both told me that they have since graduated from UGA and are taking a gap year to pursue their medical school dreams.
They pointed me in the direction of Erin Faircloth and Naveen Bateman, the current co-presidents of the club. They told me they had so much faith in the club’s future because it was in Erin and Naveen’s hands, so I reached out to them. I asked if I could set up an interview at the next market they were having and they agreed.
The next week I grabbed my professor’s camera and headed to Tate Plaza, where I was fully prepared to have a photoshoot for this club. It started sprinkling, but I met Faircloth and Bateman anyways. I introduced myself and spoke with each of them for about 15 minutes about the logistics of the club, how they came to be a part of it and what their vision of the club was.
In my Reporting & Writing class, we learned the art of interviewing, and I fully dove into these interviews trying to get the best quality quotes for my article. After the interviews, I wrote the first draft of my story and struggled to find a memorable quote. I met with Professor Johnston to find ways to poke at deeper questions and how to interview not for quotes, but for the heart of the story.
With deeper questions, my own camera and a sunny day, I visited the market yet again and this time observed the market through the lens. I have also loved taking photos but was never taught how to, so the night before I studied powerpoints Professor Johnston sent to us running through the basics of profile photography. I went through The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Seattle Times’ Instagrams for photos that intrigued me and I followed the photographers. I looked up their online blogs and portfolios and studied how they shot through the lens and tried to find ways to be creative and have fun with it.
I took around 100 photos that day and ended up loving around 20.
I also reminded myself of the club’s mission: to fight food insecurity, provide fresh produce to students on campus and help families through the FarmRx program. According to “Covering poverty: What to avoid and how to get it right,” a guide featured in the Covering Poverty toolkit, when reporting on heavy topics like food insecurity, the best advice was to prioritize journalism that is “with” and “for” people, not “about” people. This meant I wasn’t just covering the club and the issues they’re tackling but rather the people, the mission and the outcome of their efforts.
After talking with Bateman and Faircloth one more time to get a deeper understanding of their passions for this club, I learned so much about their personalities and what it took to lead a club like this. What I observed was leadership and how they smiled at every person that came through or passed by. They all laughed together and the friendship between the club members spilled over into their love for the mission of the club.
I went home and added my observations and more quotes into the story. The story of a group of smiling friends, fresh produce and the families that benefit from this club was complete. I messaged them and told them their story was sent to the AJC, and they seemed excited to read it. Reese messaged me weekly asking when the story would be released because of how cool this project was, even saying if it makes the print paper version, he will hang it up on his wall.
In reporting on Community Christmas and other companies for the story, I first started by doing research on different businesses and organizations that were either involved with Toys for Tots or other toy donation events for the holidays. With Community Christmas in particular, I gathered preliminary information on the organization using an article published last year by the Echo. This helped me develop follow-up questions for their current events, and it also provided me with the names of a few key people within the organization that I could contact for the story. I then went to their website to gather information on their mission statement and objectives, and the people that made up the organization to show readers the true heart of their project and where their passion originated from. One of my goals was to include not just the facts of what each organization did, but the purpose and motivation behind these kind acts as well.
After researching each of the different organizations, I contacted the key sources for each company. Though there were some non-responders and many who said they were no longer involved with Toys for Tots or other donating events, the process allowed me to practice the necessary skill of cold calling. While it can be discouraging at times, I quickly learned that it’s simply a part of the process of being a journalist, and ultimately just makes one more appreciative of the calls that do go through.
Once I finished the interviewing portion, I began to place quotes and information into the story. I never like writing an article from scratch, so I always try to lay out beforehand where I want certain information and how I want to open and close the story. Doing this prior to inserting the information that I gathered helped me write the article more effectively and in a time-efficient manner.
Overall, this story was a pleasure to work on. I gained insight into the researching and information gathering aspect of journalism and how to conduct myself in interviews and speak to a variety of sources. I enjoyed learning about what Oglethorpe County does to help those struggling during the holiday season, and I believe my skills as a journalist definitely benefited from this experience. —Dawn Sawyer
The process of writing a holiday giving round-up story for the Oglethorpe Echo seemed straightforward: find out what organizations in Oglethorpe County are doing, and basically summarize and consolidate information about their efforts. Straightforward, until I realized how difficult it is to find that information. It’s difficult enough that there aren’t many resources on the internet to turn to, but even more difficult when none of your leads return your phone calls.
This was the predicament I found myself in, but luckily I was able to hunt down new leads and develop a few informative sections for the story.
I started with the Hunger Bowl, an event sponsored annually by the Northeast Georgia Food Bank. Oglethorpe County organizations were eligible to participate in the Hunger Bowl, and Oglethorpe County residents in need benefit from the Hunger Bowl.
Additionally, I had the chance to highlight water bill forgiveness in this article. This promotion was new to me, as I had never heard of this type of forgiveness before. I was excited to write about it and inform people about the opportunity to pinch a few pennies this winter.
Overall, this service journalism piece was important because it served as the conduit for Oglethorpe County residents to find out where to direct their generosity this holiday season. The Covering Poverty toolkit and website were helpful to me as I worked to contact sources. Before each phone call, I prepared myself with the reporting tips. Although I didn’t actually get to talk to many residents, it was still good practice to call people and prepare myself for an interview on the fly.
The contributions of the other team members combined with my sections to produce a very informative piece. I’m proud of the work we did for the Echo and I hope it proved helpful to people in the community. — Julianna Russ
I had two different stories that I was trying to find for the holiday round-up story: The Christmas Marketplace by the chamber of commerce and the toy drive by the Georgia State Patrol. For the latter, I got in touch with the state patrol and they pointed me toward the specific unit that does the toy drive. I was able to talk with someone there, but they said at that point — in late October — they had not been able to confirm whether or not it was happening this year.
Luckily, I found more success with the Christmas Marketplace. Linda Parish, the head of the chamber of commerce who organizes the market, was easy to contact. She immediately responded to my emails and sent me her phone number for more ease of communication. We found a date for me to drive to Lexington where her antiques and crafts store was located, and I conducted a 15-minute interview with her. She was enthusiastic about the holiday round-up story and wanted me to make sure that I put her contact information in the article so people could reach out to her about the marketplace. After the interview, I knew writing my part of the article would be easy. I was able to contribute more by writing the intro of the article and then, of course, the fact checking that we had to do. Overall, I would say this process went rather smoothly and it was really great to see the final piece published in the Echo! —Jack Rhodes
When I was brainstorming someone to feature for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s new holiday package, “Everyday Heroes,” I couldn’t stop thinking about Esther Kim. I met her in early September when I was writing a story for the UGA Honors College magazine about her work with The Backpack Project of Athens. Her story stuck with me. Professor Lori Johnston asked us to suggest people to feature, so I put her name in the running. I was thrilled to hear that the AJC accepted the pitch.
One of the articles featured in a Covering Poverty newsletter detailed the importance of avoiding a hero arch when reporting about service, and that struck me. How could I possibly avoid glamorizing her in the piece when “Everyday Heroes” is literally the title of the series? The Covering Poverty instructions about this situation were incredibly helpful, and I referred to them often to ensure that I was telling her story in an authentic way. The Covering Poverty website also laid a strong foundation for my understanding of how to discuss vulnerable populations in a conscientious way. I utilized the Tip Sheet often and referred to the reporting tips when I considered whether or not to include a particular phrase. It proved very informative throughout the process, and I am grateful for such a wide wealth of resources.
As I interviewed her, I made sure to ask questions related to The Backpack Project and her service work. I also asked her questions about herself. It was clear in speaking to her that service is a lifestyle for her, not simply a hobby or a resume line. Her family history of missionary work informs a lot of the work she does at UGA. She is extremely proud of the work she does with TBP Athens, and the organization’s metrics prove it to be the real deal. Kim sent us statistics regarding TBP’s membership, the amount of meals they have provided since 2019, and other things like that. We included it in the story to paint a better picture of TBP’s reach in the Athens community.
Writing this story for the AJC and being able to feature the work that Kim is doing for TBP was a valuable learning experience. Not only did Jack and I dig into her role in the organization, but also her personal history with service. In doing so, we discovered what drives her to continue that work every day, and our story aims to share that with the broader community. —Julianna Russ
I teamed up with Julianna Russ for the profile story on Esther Kim, an executive director at Backpack Project of Athens. This was all part of a greater story that the AJC is producing that highlights individuals who are impacting their communities in a positive way.
After reading stories that the AJC had published in the past, I realized that we were given an opportunity to shine a light on a good cause. This was exemplified in a story I read by the AJC which highlighted a bike camp for kids with special needs in Alpharetta. As someone who volunteers with special-needs kids on a regular basis, this struck a chord with me and inspired me to try and create the same sort of emotion provoking impact in the story that I was looking to write.
Our first interview with Kim went great. She touched on her own purpose behind doing the Backpack Project, gave us insight into what her role looks like, provided numerous anecdotes from her past, along with many other insights that made the story much easier to write. Even when it came to getting a second source that process was relatively smooth. Julianna and I called up one of the other people that Kim works with, and he immediately answered the phone and provided us with impactful and much-needed quotes to bolster the story.
I definitely had moments that could have been much better when reporting this story. I was never able to find time to get the B-roll for the video element. Looking back on the past few weeks, it was a great lesson for me and showed me the importance of being able to adapt and keep pushing forward no matter what is thrown my way. It’s a lesson that I’m sure will help me in future endeavors as a journalist and other facets of life. —Jack Rhodes
I first heard about Fresh Express through my friend, who mentioned there was a food pantry on campus that handed out fresh produce. I thought it was an interesting development, but I didn’t think much of it until Professor Johnston explained what we would be doing for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I found the organization’s homepage online and decided it would be a unique service to feature.
Once Professor Johnston approved the organization and sent us the name of the person in charge, Claire Mistretta, Sarah and I reached out to her. She seemed enthusiastic about interviewing for the story, and we were able to schedule a time to meet with her. I had the chance to interview Calvin Rausch, who chose Mistretta for the role. Speaking to Rausch was helpful in offering a more complete view of Mistretta and the impact of Fresh Express on the University of Georgia community. It was particularly informative to hear Rausch talk about how students are able to access the resource anonymously. She said students may not want others to know they’re food insecure or struggling with access, so Fresh Express allows the Student Government Association to serve students in a respectful way that doesn’t broadcast their potential need. Although it’s anonymous, Rausch said she sometimes recognizes the Fresh Express bag on campus and feels good that they were able to serve another student.
Before writing this story, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t overgeneralizing or making blanket statements about students who use the Fresh Express resource. To help inform my interview with Raush and while writing the story, I read “Covering Poverty: What to avoid and how to get it right,” an article listed in the site’s essential reading story. This article made me think more critically about the way I write about issues relating to poverty when it comes to both Mistretta’s story and in the other stories I’m working on at school. After reading the article, I was careful about not relying on stereotypes or vague words to describe the experience of students using the resource. It’s impossible to know what each individual situation is like, so it would have been wrong to make assumptions about a student’s economic situation just because they use the resource.
Although we weren’t able to speak with students who use Fresh Express’ services, I think we had a good variety of sources who could speak on Mistretta and Fresh Express’ impact in the community in a way that respected the students’ anonymity and highlighted Mistretta’s passion for the program. –Olivia Wakim
I arranged an interview with Claire Mistretta to get a sense of her character and why she has chosen to be an executive director for Fresh Express. I interviewed Mistretta at Joe Frank Harris Commons, where Fresh Express is located. She showed me inside the office, which is where they store fresh and nonperishable food. I took portraits of Mistretta and shots of the produce refrigerator. I took photos of details inside the office, like a barcode that students can scan in order to request a pickup, making the process easy and efficient.
I interviewed Taylor Cain, assistant dean of students, over the phone to get a second-person perspective of Mistretta’s inspiring values and work ethic. Cain knows Mistretta through the Student Government Association and has seen her step up to the leadership role successfully. Speaking with Cain augmented the story as she provided anecdotes involving Mistretta on the topic of being fearless and skilled to create a significant change. These are characteristics that are best noticed and discussed by a credible source that’s not the profile subject. Cain’s time working with student leaders (almost a decade) boosts her credibility in statements upon what traits have made Mistretta stand out as a leader.
I wanted to be sure that there was an element of overcoming obstacles in this story, because that’s what Fresh Express does for students at UGA. Mistretta managed potential challenges in communicating with campus auxiliary services and other organizations, being able to convince them to fund Fresh Express. —Sarah Donehoo
Read about their experiences culling through a database of more than 750 title lending operations in Georgia as they tried to verify that each was still in operation, their hours and their address, using online research, Google maps and cold calling the businesses.
Their work, over about a month, contributed to findings in the story including:
“The Current and ProPublica identified roughly 500 title pawn stores, which span the majority of Georgia’s 159 counties, including at least a dozen locations in Atlanta and Savannah, as well as in rural areas in and around Ellijay and Vidalia.”
“Title lenders are disproportionately located in communities of color and low-income areas, according to an analysis by The Current and ProPublica. Roughly three-quarters are in ZIP codes with incomes below the state’s median income.”
Working on the database was a different experience for me. It was a tedious process, but necessary for the advancement of the story. This experience taught me that much effort and work goes into investigative reporting. In one incident, someone asked for my personal information such as the car model, year, name and how much I want for the title. She interrupted me when I tried to verify the store’s location. I got a call back 5 minutes later. I was uncomfortable, so I could only imagine how real customers around my age feel. —Brieanna Smith
My data cleaning experience for this project was less eventful than I expected it to be. An overwhelming majority of the title lending locations I was assigned are no longer in service and have since transformed into other out-of-the-box business ventures. Some honorable mentions I can recall are a seafood market, an indoor cycling studio, a massage parlor, a law firm office and a smoke shop. A handful of locations remained title lending businesses, but were listed under different names. One company with several locations all across the state of Georgia changed names completely, as proven by the automatic web address change if you tried to type in the original website. —Janelle Ward
As I began calling the numbers of title loan shops, the first thing that I noticed was the sales presence of the agents who answered. I asked every business the same question which is what their hours were. At several locations, especially TitleMax businesses, I was asked, “So are you wanting to lease your car?” right after my first question instead of a statement like “Is there anything else that I can help you with?” I’m not claiming that this is good or bad, simply that it is an indicator that the business’ focus is sharply upon securing a potential sale and being tenacious in potential client interactions. I was called back twice. Both times were from locations where I got an answering machine response when I first called. In both instances I was called back within five minutes, and yes, offered a title lease plan. —Sarah Donehoo
The ratio of female-to-male workers I spoke with stood out to me in this assignment. In my personal notes, I included the name of the person I spoke with and their tone of voice with me (among other things). While I was shocked that the majority of my list consisted of female workers (I would give an estimate of 90%), I was struck at the amount of people on the other end of the line who sounded absolutely miserable at their job. I spoke with maybe five to 10 people who sounded somewhat happy. There was one man I spoke with whose voice was a dead-ringer for Ross Geller’s signature depressing way of saying “Hi.” I made a lot of my calls early in the morning, so I think timing played a big factor in how people responded to me (I am not the friendliest in the morning either, so I understand). I find the pattern of voice tones from these people funny because I simply was not expecting this to stand out to me at all, even though I am the type to overthink a person’s tone when speaking to me. — Sydney Hood
The process of calling the 70 or so title lending companies went fairly smoothly for me. Most of the time the people answering the phone were dismissive once they found out that I was just looking for their hours and location. I also experienced some people lying about their hours. There were a couple times where the person on the phone would tell me they closed 30 minutes before they actually did. Either way, I found that the title lending workers in the area that I called were often not trying to get me in the store and instead just trying to get through the work day. — Jack Rhodes
COVID-19 appears to have changed the way some of the businesses operate. One location requires that customers schedule appointments through the phone before coming into the office and another said they shrunk their hours because of COVID-19. Several of the businesses continue filing loans past normal business hours, and many sounded like they are flexible to whatever hours suit the customer’s schedule the best. One voicemail said to text the provided number if none of the set hours suited the customer. The businesses were accommodating and flexible. —Olivia Wakim
After the first 10 calls, a pattern begins to emerge. Someone picks up the phone. They read out the name of their company, introduce themselves and ask how they can help. The variability in conversation comes after I say, “Hello, I was calling to see your business hours throughout the week.” Most employees simply recite the hours of their branch back to me, some hesitate to remember the varying hours causing the call to go on an extra 30 seconds. After the employee reads out the hours, I say thank you in an attempt to end the conversation. With most calls it’s enough to get off the line. The calls to TitleMax Title Pawns, however, were always more inquisitive.
Out of the 74 calls I made, 33 of them were to varying TitleMax Title Pawns locations. I remember after my first handful of calls thinking these title lending companies had their scripts down to a science. The special thing about TitleMax Title Pawns, is they go above and beyond the standard script. On my 25th call to TitleMax Title Pawns, a woman answered the phone. She introduced herself, I asked about the hours, she recited them back to me, I began to say thank you, but before I could she asked, “What else can I help you with today Jennifer?” I wondered how they knew my mother’s name. After the initial shock I registered that there was a possibility this company had been tracking my calls or had somehow inputted my number into their system. Still, I didn’t know how it could be that they called me by my mother’s name. Before hanging up, the woman asked if it would be OK if she called me back in a week if I hadn’t yet come in. This was a part of their script I was familiar with as she was the third person who requested my permission to follow up. I told her I would be in contact if I wanted to further pursue a loan and then thanked her for her time. —Hayley Croke
This was my first experience verifying information in a large database. While it seemed daunting at first, starting was the hardest part. I increased my call efficiency by systematizing my questions. On every call — which took no longer than four minutes — I asked for their address, hours of operations, and what materials I would need to start a title loan application. By reading off my script, I felt the process became much more manageable. It’s been such a privilege to witness and assist what goes on behind the scenes of a large-scale investigative news project. —Foster Steinbeck
I called about 75 title loan businesses over the course of the month, and found that many had gone out of business. Some of the buildings were bought and are owned by larger title loan companies. When I called with energy in my voice inquiring about the “hours of service,” employees seemed surprised. I had one person ask what “hours of service” meant. When I adjusted my tone and wording to monotone and simple, employees were less hesitant to answer my questions. As part of the research process, I located most building addresses on Google Street View. I called one business that appeared to be a small side building next to a house. An older man picked up the phone and inquired about the year of my car, the size of loan I needed and what service I wanted. I repeatedly said I was not sure what I needed at the moment and asked for the business hours. When I mentioned I wanted the hours so I could go in person, the man said he has run the business from his home for over 35 years, so he doesn’t have set hours. I then hung up the phone, and he called me back twice within 15 minutes. —Carlie Gambino
This process helped me learn what title lending is and what it requires, which left me with more questions than answers. When I first started calling, I was surprised by how close each business was to other title lending companies. I frequently found myself calling different companies within several miles of each other. I also found that many of the title lending companies had closed since 2018 or were operating as different businesses. An interesting note is several of the companies I called were now operating as used car dealerships or pawn shops. I found this compelling as title lending companies primarily make their money from used cars and it made me curious about what led to the ultimate discontinuation of their title lending services.
It was also interesting to note the differences in attitudes the person answering the phone had depending on which company I was calling. Typically, at smaller, independent companies the people were nice but seemed tired or distracted. They would give me the information I asked for but not follow up with any questions. However, at larger companies, the person who answered the phone was excitable and asked several follow-up questions after I asked for the hours of operation. They were pushing for my name, what type of loan I needed, and asking when I would be coming in. Additionally, several companies were not forthcoming with the hours they operated. Some of the individuals seemed like they genuinely did not know the hours of operation, but others just wanted to start the process on the phone, right then. Overall, this was an interesting process and I enjoyed getting to start a project from the beginning. I liked doing the hands-on work and gathering the data and then looking into it to see if anything is truly there. I am excited for the next steps in this process and to see where this project takes us. —Allison Caso
I started at the University of Georgia in fall 2017 and over the past five years I’ve attended countless farmers markets, arts festivals and pop-up shops. I grew up in Wisconsin where farmer’s markets were a regular part of my weekend. Stands would show up on street corners, around banks and at my summer league swim meets, never with a shortage of large and healthy-looking vegetables and produce. When I saw that Athens had a similar farm-to-table culture, I felt right at home.
It wasn’t until I started graduate school in the Health and Medical Journalism program and stripped down to a much stricter budget that I started to think about the cost of the clearly superior, at least in my mind, fruits and vegetables compared to what was sitting on the Kroger shelves. There are ongoing conversations across the country and in Athens about health equity, and I wondered how access to healthy food played into that conversation.
Around the time that I was thinking about these questions, the Georgia state SNAP program increased their benefits. In October 2021 the benefits increased by $36/month per household, meaning that many Athens families had more money each month to spend on their household needs. But how important was it for people, and children, to eat fresh fruits and vegetables regularly?
I reached out to nutritional scientist Sina Gallo from the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences. Gallo specializes in nutrition in children, particularly vitamin-D which can come from sunlight or from fruits and vegetables. We spoke about the benefits both short and long-term for healthy food consumption. Gallo said that not only is it important for kids to eat healthy for their day-to-day health, but it can help prevent chronic diseases that would put medical and financial stress on them later in life, as well as on the healthcare system. Eating healthy could be considered preventative medicine, not just something your mom tells you to do at the dinner table.
I thought back to the farmer’s markets. Were they actually accessible to low-income families that use SNAP benefits, or was it just a bunch of college kids like me who wanted to eat something other than Ramen or Chick-fil-a?
I found Wholesome Wave Georgia, a nonprofit that partners with farmer’s markets around the state to match SNAP benefits to combat food insecurity, childhood and adult obesity, and diet-related illness. I spoke with the manager of the ‘Fresh for Less’ program, Alex Duncan, that incentivizes families to use their SNAP benefits at a farmer’s market instead of the grocery store by doubling their purchase power. Duncan says they saw a 56% increase in the number of families that were using their program in 2020, a great success in her eyes.
After spending weekends at farmer’s markets and weeks talking with people that use SNAP and benefit from them, I pitched the story to Covering Poverty. I was partnered with another student, and we combined our research and storytelling for a piece that was published in the Athens Banner-Herald in April.
I first caught wind of the underutilization of SNAP funds while working on a different story. I was compiling pictures at the Timothy Baptist Church’s Food Pantry for the Journalism Writing Lab’s service journalism piece documenting local resources for homeless individuals. I talked with one of the intake volunteers. She told me how a big part of her work outside the pantry is connecting people to SNAP resources because not enough people are aware of its availability. And when I got to talking with local farmers’ markets about Wholesome Wave’ Georgia’s Fresh for Less program, I saw the connection immediately. I interviewed a deputy commissioner in the Georgia Department of Family and Child Services about SNAP’s reach across the state. While the department does not track the total number of people eligible, I obtained their SNAP data, showing how only 15,000 people in Athens-Clarke County are registered for SNAP benefits. Working on this story reinforced the importance of in-person reporting, that a reporter’s physical presence can queue them into facts and information they would be ignorant of otherwise.
Cathrine Gyldensted is an investigative journalist, author and expert on solutions journalism, a holistic approach that centers on responses to issues rather than the problems themselves. Her book, “From Mirrors to Movers,” is a practical guide to the five elements of solutions journalism, where she discusses moving away from using a victimizing lens when writing about people experiencing hardship.
Covering Poverty asked Gyldensted about how journalists can avoid bias and let their sources guide the story.
Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.
CP: You write about how your interview with somebody who was experiencing homelessness made you shift away from a victimizing narrative. Can you tell me about when you made that shift?
CG: It is a pivotal moment in this work. And it’s the reason why I was steering away from the classical methods that I had been taught, and that I had mastered.
I was based in the U.S. from 2007 to 2011 as a correspondent, and in 2008, we had a global recession that started here in the U.S. My editors back home (at Danish Broadcasting) wanted me to do a radio piece reporting from a shelter in Washington, D.C., called Martha’s Table. And I had interviews with people working there, the director of the shelter, and of course, also people directly influenced by the recession, people who live there. A woman in her 50s was a particularly good interview in terms of being very reflective and very thoughtful on what has happened to her. And she was talking to me about how hard it had been to lose her job first and then not being able to pay her bills, and then to also lose her home. And now she was living in that shelter. So that was a great interview, I thought, sitting there with my recorder, because she was willing to be so honest.
But then suddenly, she said, “But I’ve also learned something.” And I remember thinking, “Should I pursue that lead?” Or should I just be happy with the part of the interview I already had? But I asked her, “What have you learned?”
And then out came these fascinating, thoughtful, moving answers, like that she had been on a personal journey, and now understood that she was internally stronger than she thought she was, and had worked with her own pride and had asked for help and gotten it from strangers. And the last thing she said was that she had gotten closer to her son through this hardship. So suddenly, the interview had this whole new dimension that has to do with you could say, inspiration, resources and learning. And not just how hard everything was, and how terrible everything was. And the angle was about people experiencing hardship during the recession. But she’s telling me something else. So how do I stay true to that person’s story? And can I still be able to keep that angle?
My editor said, “I don’t care — just keep the facts and the latest numbers from the latest report on the recession and homeless numbers in the U.S. And use the interview so it’s representative.” So I worked on getting pieces from the victim part of the interview, but also two pieces from the more meaningful and inspirational part.
It would have been much easier to just stay in that well-known victim narrative, because it doesn’t really point anywhere else than what is expected. But I was able to end the story with one of the pieces from the more inspirational part. And the response from listeners the day after it was broadcast was pretty remarkable. And this was before social media, and I got 10 or 11 emails from listeners saying things like, “This made me stop and listen, and it was meaningful, and I was moved.”
That collective experience made me realize that I had violated a foundational principle and why I wanted to be a journalist: to be accurate. But I wasn’t accurate in a psychological sense. Because if you see sources through a specific lens, like a bad guy, a crook, politician with evil intent, or a homeless person, that’s the victim, then you carry this bias with you. And that’s going to influence the questions you ask and how you frame people. From then onward, I really just tried to work with those biases and blind angles.
What areas and topics could journalists focus on in the interview process that would help them shift away from the narrative that the people they’re covering are victims?
Before heading out to the interviews of homeless people I would first of all realize some of these things and ask myself: What rings true to you? What makes sense to you? And what was the starting lens that I would see this person through? And write that down. And then I would ask myself: What am I missing when I see the person like this? And then write that down. And then just decide to ask questions that’s going to activate the missing pieces.
But it’s important to have the truth, which is also hardship. And then expand the interview to possible inspiration, learning, strength and meaning. But I would just ask myself: What am I possibly missing when I see the person through this lens? And then write down some questions that would activate or harness that missing information.
Can you also talk about how constructive journalism/solutions journalism applies to stories about homelessness and poverty, as well?
I think that’s really a fundamental way to expand our reporting through the questions we ask because it’s such a foundational thing in journalism, and therefore we harness information and generate people’s thinking on topics. And when we have these answers, we put them in our stories, and then it generates reflection in society. So I think it’s a very fundamental place to start. And number two, you might have another kind of pile of information that’s gonna distort the angle you thought you had, so I would determine the angle later based on the interviews.
So let your sources drive your narrative.
Yeah. Because what happens when we have the angle beforehand? We pick and choose the sources that are going to confirm that angle.
Is that a conversation that you could bring up with your editor? How would you do that?
My experience is that the more my editor trusts me, the more free range I get.
If you can argue along the lines of, you know, what creates quality journalism, then you would probably reach the heart of many editors. But what they need to feel secure on is that you come back with something that they can use.
But it does take some standing up to the usual dynamics of how news and news work is done, and propose it in another way. This Dutch online media called De Correspondent, who does it the bottom-up style, where the journalists would write an article saying, “I’m thinking about writing about homelessness. What do you think the story is? I think the story is this, but what do you, my readers, think that the story is?” And they had a lot of input and a very active community of readers because of this approach. And then the reporter writes another story based on the feedback from their users saying, I thought the story was A but now I got this qualified input. So it’s not only going out and getting all the information and then writing the end result. They’re sharing the learning curve of their reporters and of the topic.
Is there anything else that you feel like we didn’t talk about that is important for Covering Poverty readers to know about this topic?
One of the elements under that constructive journalistic umbrella is a very practical little tool: Zoom out from the story topic and look at the data. Are we looking at progress or setbacks on the topic? If it’s homelessness, look at the data from the last 30 years. And make sure that you apply that factual thing into your story. And of course, if it is a setback, then it’s a setback. If it’s progress, you should also put that in the story. Because if you can report on homelessness in Athens, there might be progress somewhere else in the U.S. on homelessness, and that would be an interesting detail to add. It’s not going to kill your story in Athens, but it’s going to spark some interest in what they are doing elsewhere that is going well. And that’s a follow-up story and a positive outlier. And that Zooming out process makes you realize that.
Kyra Posey is a graduate student studying journalism at the University of Georgia.
Reporters seek to report with sensitivity and care to avoid perpetuating stereotypes, and while discussing issues related to disability and poverty, there are a few ways to ensure you avoid reporting vapid inspiration stories.
New York Times reporting fellow Amanda Morris remembers the time when Starbucks opened a Signing Store in 2018 to provide employment opportunities for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Her friends sent her articles on the subject, remarking how “cool” it was, she writes in an article for the Times.
“As a hard-of-hearing woman, I saw it differently: Although I was happy to learn that Starbucks was trying to be more inclusive, to me, hiring people with disabilities isn’t a big news story — and neither is a corporation making one store accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing customers. I felt that the real story was how some of those workers had master’s degrees, yet they had trouble finding jobs elsewhere because of their disability,” she writes for the Times. She went on to write about this topic in a two-part series for NPR.
These stories, often called “inspiration porn” as coined by Australian disability activist Stella Young, might inspire pity, share a moral message, and might objectify disabled people. Though well-intentioned, these stories “reduce disabled people’s lives into simplistic narratives about overcoming barriers to do ordinary things” and depict their disability as the major part of their identity, Morris writes.
“People with disabilities are so trained over the years that they see their disability label become so much of their identity,” says Joe Sarra, an advocate with Georgia Advocacy Office, which aims to advocate for people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. “And of course it is, but it shouldn’t be the first thing. That shouldn’t be what is the first thing that people talk about or what comes to mind.”
Stories that depict people with disabilities doing ordinary things as extraordinary might create a feeling of pity for people with disabilities. In a 2014 TEDx talk, activist Young said stories like this intend to motivate nondisabled people, so they can sit back and think, “however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person.”
These stories also often overlook greater systemic and societal forces that create barriers for people with disabilities. These feel-good stories ignore the social failings that are affecting people with disabilities.
Doug Crandell, a member of the public service faculty with the Institute on Human Development and Disability at the University of Georgia, says people like to read and watch feel-good stories, such as someone opening a college acceptance letter or participating in a 100-yard dash, because it’s difficult to learn about those social failings.
“I think it’s important to us as Americans, because we kind of know we don’t make good public policy,” Crandell says. “It’s a lot about this reckoning moment in our culture, and who’s in control and who gets the narrative. And I think that makes us feel really comfortable when we see that inspiration stuff, because we don’t have to question public policy.”
Steps to ensure better disability coverage
It is important to note that there is no surefire checklist to follow because “inspiration porn” is subjective, but employing some best practices can aid your reporting.
Andrew Pulrang for Forbes writes about practices to employ to avoid writing inspiration porn, and he writes that stories about disability should always include ideas, impressions, and/or direct quotations from people with disabilities. “If meaningful inclusion of disabled people isn’t possible, then don’t do the story.”
People with disabilities should also be a fundamental part of the storytelling process. Crandell oversees the Tell the Valued Story project from UGA’s Institute on Human Development and Disability, which aims to collaborate with the media and state agencies to eradicate stereotypes about people with disabilities. A staff of six story auditors with lived experience and who are trained in social role valorization provide feedback on stories, articles, videos and agency communications to ensure that people with disabilities are portrayed with respect and “a focus on the person, not labels,” according to the project’s website. Through their experience and expertise, story auditors can help state organizations ensure that they are avoiding stereotypes.
If you are reporting on a disabled person’s triumph over difficult circumstances, “make sure to address what is causing those circumstances, what it means to other disabled people, and what changes might be made so disabled people don’t have to struggle quite so much,” Pulrang writes. “Give readers some broader systemic change to work for.”
Look for the larger societal forces that might create barriers for people with disabilities, and make that the focus of your story. The aforementioned story on how some Deaf people with master’s degrees had trouble finding jobs is a good example of this. By highlighting the social failings that create barriers for people with disabilities, you can create a conversation that critiques those failings to bring potential solutions.
Refer to a disability only when it’s relevant to the story, and ask sources how they want to be described. Everybody’s preference is different: for example, Crandell has used “people-first” language, and has traditionally spoken about disability with the phrase, “person with (their disability).” It is important to always let your source tell you how they would like to be referred to.
“Younger folks are saying, ‘I want to be known by my identity first,’ Crandell says. “And that’s been a real challenge for me. There’s a young woman who’s one of our story auditors, and we had this great discussion. And she says, ‘I am not a woman with autism, I’m an autistic.’ And that’s completely, completely different from people-first language.”
When reporting on the intersection of disability and poverty, aim to know about the systems that might be creating barriers for people who are experiencing poverty. The relationship between poverty and disability is complicated: people with disabilities are more likely to become impoverished, and people living in poverty are more likely to have or acquire a disability.
Crandell recommends knowing about your source’s story and current involvement in public systems and in residential programs.
“Particularly if somebody is what we call ‘segregated’ into residential programs, like group homes and facilities, there you could not have resources — in fact, many times just your personal resources, like your phone, your iPad, or whatever might be taken even if you have one. So the coverage should know: where does the person’s story sit in public services?”
Kyra Posey is a graduate student studying journalism at the University of Georgia.
Note: This story was published with grant funding from the UGA Institute on Human Development and Disability.
The relationship between poverty and disability is complicated. People with disabilities are more likely to become impoverished, and people living in poverty are more likely to have or acquire a disability. There are nuances in this relationship, and it’s important to begin educating yourself when beginning your reporting.
Stereotypes about people with disabilities persist in our media. You can best serve the community you’re writing about by taking care to avoid stereotypes and misconceptions in your reporting.
Here’s a list of databases, reports and studies, institutions and guidance from news organizations to help you form the right questions in your reporting.
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 about disability and poverty.
How many Americans have disabilities?
How is the federal government protecting people with disabilities?
What language should I use when reporting on people with disabilities?
How do I avoid stereotyping or continuing bias in my stories about people with disabilities?
Are there any recommendations or guides for reporting on people with disabilities?
What financial challenges affect people with disabilities?
This research finds that a household containing an adult with a disability that limits their ability to work requires, on average, 28% more income to obtain the same standard of living as a similar household without a member with a disability. This report also examines what the U.S. is currently doing to address these extra costs and names policy implications this research might have.
Financial Inequality: Disability, Race and Poverty in America.By the National Disability Institute. Using data from the 2015 American Community Survey, this report explores the relationship between disability and race, examining the poverty rates, level of education and employment percentages among people with disabilities.
The Financial Challenges of Disability.By the National Disability Institute. This graphic shows some of the financial realities of people with disabilities, and points to the need for solutions that advance financial stability for people with disabilities.
Has the Promise Been Kept? Federal Enforcement of Disability Rights Laws (Part 1 & Part 2). These reports examine whether federal agencies tasked with enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a law which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, have done so adequately. These reports assess how federal agencies have implemented and enforced the ADA.
Guidance for News Coverage
Disability Language Style Guide from the National Center on Disability and Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
This style guide covers dozens of words and terms commonly used when referring to disability, and provides guidance on which terms to avoid and which terms are acceptable in news coverage.
Media Guides List from the National Center on Disability and Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
This page provides links to guides from numerous organizations about effective ways to talk about disability in news coverage. Guides come from The Carter Center, the National Disability Rights Network and more.
Through a broad examination of word choice, this piece shows how reporting and word choice can either inspire compassion or “lead to othering by reinforcing unconscious bias.” Understanding and accepting this idea is especially necessary in coverage of people with disabilities.
This toolkit, created in 2022, was produced by Hannah Wise of The New York Times ”as a starting point for journalists or news organizations looking to improve coverage of disability and the accessibility of news products.” Wise notes that more than 61 million Americans live with disabilities and “newsrooms are woefully unprepared to produce journalism that represents the people that make up this community and their needs.” She created a living document (it’s open for community comments), as she describes it, focused on improving coverage and making journalism more accessible.
This piece, written by The New York Times’ inaugural disability reporting fellow, addresses how one of the best ways to improve disability reporting is to talk to more disabled people. Author Amanda Morris shares the ways she reports on disabilities in non problematic ways, such as picking stories that are actually newsworthy and serve disabled audiences.
The Associated Press changed its style guide in 2022 to capitalize the ‘d’ in Deaf in some cases. From the Associated Press Stylebook newsletter: “Many deaf people who use sign language have a deeply ingrained sense of culture and community built around the experience of deafness and sign language, and use the uppercase form Deaf to signify that culture. The uppercase is acceptable, if used by the person or group, in descriptions such as the cultural Deaf community, Deaf education, Deaf culture, etc.” When using AP Style, deaf should still be lower case when referring to the audiological condition of total or major hearing loss, when relevant to the story.
Joe Shapiro from NPR shared his personal tips on how to report on disability and its intersection with poverty with Covering Poverty reporter Jacqueline GaNun. Shapiro stressed the importance of reporting on disability and has reported on the topic for more than 20 years.
Ryan Prior has been nationally recognized for his writing on disability, health and chronic illness. He spent the last few years covering COVID-19 for CNN, especially its intersection with disability. That coverage grew into a book called “The Long Haul,” which is about long COVID-19, the myriad lingering health effects people have after a coronavirus infection. As a guest on “The Lead” podcast, Prior discussed how to find compelling health stories and write about disability.
A part of the U.S. Census Bureau, the American Community Survey collects nationwide data every year on the social, economic, and housing characteristics. You can see specific data about disability in the United States, including the percentage of people with disabilities among people surveyed.
National Council on Disability. This council is an independent federal agency that advises the president, Congress, and other federal agencies regarding policies, programs and practices that affect people with disabilities. The council regularly releases reports and recommendations about policies for people with disabilities, which might serve as a starting point to better understand how the federal government makes laws to protect people with disabilities.
National Disability Institute. This institute aims to empower people with disabilities for a better financial future, with multiple projects and programs centered around that goal. This institute also releases reports which examine the financial status and financial literacy of people with disabilities.
International Social Role Valorization Association.Social Role Valorization (SRV) is a “set of ideas useful for making positive change in the lives of people disadvantaged because of their status in society.” The International Social Role Valorization Association aims to promote SRV development, education and leadership, and the website has useful articles on how SRV can be applied to support people with disabilities.
Kyra Posey is a graduate student studying journalism at the University of Georgia.