Google searches and consultations with the Guidestar nonprofit database helped me find groups within my area of focus. From emergency shelters in the City of Atlanta to a youth shelter in Marietta to an affordable housing group in Roswell, I began making phone calls. I received a lot of voicemails. Follow-up emails proved useful, and after a while I gathered a useful sample of anecdotes and experiences that informed my story.
Before I reported this piece, I didn’t know that certain types of housing carry technical definitions. For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Continuum of Care Program defines transitional housing as providing “interim stability” until an individual or family can achieve a permanent home. Per HUD guidelines, people living in transitional housing must maintain a lease in their own name. The Center for Family Resources is the liaison for the Marietta/Cobb County Continuum of Care and follows federal rules to receive funding for itself and its housing partners in the area, such as MUST Ministries.
I also learned about the hotel voucher program implemented earlier this year to people experiencing homelessness in Atlanta. The American Rescue Plan passed this spring provided 202 emergency vouchers to Atlanta’s housing authority. It created vacancies at Our House’s shelter downtown, prompting the group to expand its eligibility criteria to house more families. Asking my sources about housing distinctions and programs related to their missions helped with accuracy once I reached the writing stage.
While every group and all my sources had their own stories, trends did appear. Namely, each nonprofit cut back on volunteers, rearranged how they accepted and housed clients and kept a keen eye on regulations created and updated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, it was important for me to include human emotion alongside discussions of safety protocols. All of my sources expressed fatigue regarding their work over the past 18 months and deep concern for the people they serve. I tried to select quotes that highlighted those emotional details.
William Newlin is a graduate student at the University of Georgia with work appearing in Georgia Health News, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Red & Black.
For this story on COVID care costs, I felt it was key to focus on resources and solutions. The article is a fact-based resource for people concerned or struggling with the cost of COVID, whether it be tests, vaccines or associated health care costs in general.
My first step was to get as much information as I could to understand the problem and determine what information was key. I consulted these questions on the Covering Poverty website and gathered information on unusually high COVID care costs, populations struggling with vaccine intake and solutions being presented nationally.
I found that the Kaiser Family Foundation — one of Covering Poverty’s essential data resources— is an excellent source for COVID-related statistics. I used this key point from a survey in September 2021 to inform my research and reporting process: American adults under the age of 65 without health insurance are stuck at a 54% vaccination rate, one of the lowest of any group.
Understanding my intended audience in this way was key in my writing process. I tried to break down the most important information into three different sections that were digestible and readable. Many aspects of the healthcare system are notoriously inaccessible to people living in poverty, Because this article is supposed to be a resource for people who might be sceptical of the health care system, or unsure of how to navigate the system, I wanted to use clear terminology.
Athens is home to many nonprofit organizations, but this is the first I saw in my two years of living here that was specifically dedicated to improving youth literacy. After hearing of the organization’s success over the past few years, I was intrigued to learn more about it and help spread word that it exists.
I stopped by the Books for Keeps warehouse to interview Justin Bray and take photos of volunteers setting up for the nonprofit’s annual book fair. I asked Bray questions during his break from manning the warehouse’s loading dock, picking up piles of books donated by members of the community.
I also interviewed Books for Keeps founder, Melaney Davis, over the phone, for insight on Books for Keeps’ beginnings and how the organization has grown in the almost decade it has existed. She gave me the contact information for my final source, Leslie Hale, who was even more knowledgeable of Justin and his work with the organization.
Leslie was executive director of Books for Keeps for eight years and gave me great information on what her work entailed and how she grew the nonprofit in that time. I felt like I could complete the story after speaking with her.
There was so much information I wanted to include, but had to cut for the sake of length. I knew, from the reporting I had gathered, that I would predominantly write in chronological order, and since profiles tend to be more longform and fluid, there was more room for creativity and almost “flowery” writing. The information about the education beat on the Covering Poverty website was a great starting point for me and my research. It caused me to brainstorm and consider the many angles of which I could have taken the story.
Janelle Ward is a senior at the University of Georgia.
With such a significant percentage of Athens-Clarke County not vaccinated toward the beginning of the academic year, a service journalism piece with vaccine locations in East Athens and other important information was much needed. East Athens is a community heavily consisting of marginalized people of color who normally lack access to resources available in wealthier communities.
The Covering Poverty site, particularly the health care beat guide, offered helpful tips on how to report the story. The guide contains descriptive questions that helped me brainstorm and determine the direction I wanted to pursue with the piece.
I used a map to locate pharmacies and clinics in the East Athens area, double checking my research using the full list of coronavirus vaccine distribution locations on the Athens-Clarke County website. I visited the website of each location I included in the piece to gather details on the vaccination process, including whether appointments were required and whether minors needed an adult present during the vaccination.
Given what I’ve learned so far about covering poverty, the information explaining why this story was necessary was probably the most important. I used data from Justice Map to show the negative correlation between the percentage of residents of color and annual income in East Athens.
Janelle Ward is a senior at the University of Georgia.
Many news outlets tell stories about people living in poverty, which provides many chances to miss important details which need to be told.
To empower readers with the tools to uncover those details, Covering Poverty spoke with Greg Jaffe, a national reporter with The Washington Post and finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. Jaffe was nominated “for deeply reported stories that powerfully depict the suffering and dislocation endured by Americans who lost their jobs after the sudden collapse of South Florida’s tourist economy in the pandemic,” according to pulitzer.org. Jaffe also shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for his work on a Wall Street Journal series about defense spending.
Question 1: Does the story help readers understand why this person is in poverty?
Similar questions to consider: Does the story tell readers about how a person came into poverty, or is it just telling readers about a moment in a character’s life?
To really understand people, you need to understand the progress of their story, including what they experienced, how they got there, and a story that feels honest, Jaffe said.
“Everybody makes mistakes, so it’s important to not judge people for those mistakes but also not shy away from telling the full story,” he said.
Understanding how a person came into poverty is essential to fully understand a person’s story. This includes a person’s past, their present and any historical context that keeps them in poverty.
Reporting that fails to explain how people, especially when used as characters in a story, came into poverty do not accurately represent the individuals who trusted journalists with their stories.
Question 2: What context could be missing?
Similar questions to consider: Does the story discuss historical or economic context, or tie the story into a larger relevant issue? Could that context tell a more complete story of what’s happening to the characters?
Considering broader contexts can help readers better understand how the story represents large-scale issues. Plus, knowing the context can help readers understand why the story is timely.
“It’s good to have some sort of news peg that you can say to your editor: This is why we’re telling this story now,” Jaffe said.
When he reported on people living in the Star Motel in Kissimmee, Florida, he told the story of how the pandemic was drastically worsening the lives of residents.
“The pandemic had heaped crisis on top of crisis,” he said.
Question 3: Does this story try to show a complete picture of its characters?
Similar question to consider: Do you see multiple sides of the characters?
Journalists have to overcome biases when covering poverty. Two of the biggest biases are judging people’s mistakes and underestimating the stress that poverty causes, so it’s important to discern whether a story spend too much time talking about characters’ mistakes.
Jaffe said journalists can ask a source, “Why did you quit this job after six months?” as they sit by and think, “I wouldn’t have done that. I would have stuck with that McDonald’s job until I had another job. I wouldn’t have gone out drinking and missed work. I wouldn’t have smoke weed.”
“There are so many stresses in people’s lives,” he said. “People in poverty smoke weed because sometimes it’s the only escape. We tend to judge them too harshly for these things.”
On the other hand, Jaffe said some stories ennoble people affected by poverty. Stories that are one-sided in conveying that they did nothing wrong and bad things just happened to them also should be avoided.
“But it’s never a simple story,” he said. “People make mistakes and we shouldn’t judge them, but we shouldn’t shy away from putting them in the story.”
For example, The New York Times story “When Dasani Left Home” follows the story of Dasani, a girl who separates from her family to try to escape from poverty. The story talks about some of Dasani’s best moments, and some of her lowest moments as she goes through her time at private school.
“And that shows the value of understanding people in all of their complexity,” Jaffe said. “That piece didn’t shy away from writing about the mistakes that Dasani made, but it puts them into a broader context. So you got to understand what she had to overcome and why she did the things that she did.”
He describes Times reporter Andrea Elliott’s storytelling as “sympathetic and honest” because she captured what Dasani had to overcome to become a remarkable person.
Telling a more complete story of a person allows the reader to better understand them.
“When you embrace the complexity of the person, it’s easier to have empathy for people who are different,” Jaffe said.
Kyra Posey is a graduate student studying journalism at the University of Georgia.
Community engagement is an important topic to cover. With the pandemic leaving some people feeling trapped inside and alone, this story allows residents to become aware of events in their community, which would help them fight those feelings.
The Covering Poverty site helped me realize how I can reach out to these organizations and ask questions about their causes without making them feel ostracized and exploited.
The organizations they work with can deal with sensitive matters and the Writing Across Differences page helped me work through that. On this page, there was a section titled “Be Sensitive to Trauma,” which allowed me to realize how to ask personal questions. For example, Jadon’s Run is an event featured in my story. However, the story behind the event deals with infant death. I asked questions carefully and allowed interviewees to take their time answering.
Overall, the Covering Poverty project site is helpful for a wide range of stories. I’m glad to be a part of this initiative.
Liset Cruz is a senior at the University of Georgia. She has worked for NBC News, GPB News, and The Red & Black.
Our reporters produce service journalism pieces and report on issues related to poverty through our partnerships with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Athens Banner-Herald. Below, read how they reported their stories to see how these journalists take multiple different approaches to reporting and storytelling.
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.
Reporters Dawn Sawyer, Julianna Russ and Jack Rhodes share their experience of reporting on different ways that the citizens of Oglethorpe County give back to their community during the holiday season.
Step one in reporting the Atlanta Journal-Constitution story “For local nonprofits, need and support swells,” was to define our focus. A 2021 report from the Giving USA Foundation indicated that charities had an uptick in giving in 2020 as compared with 2019, particularly in human service organizations such as shelters, food services and affordable housing groups. It was important to check this trend on a local level to see how much COVID-19 disruptions impacted vulnerable communities in metro Atlanta and how well nonprofits maintained needed support systems.
We looked at Charity Navigator to find representative nonprofits in several of the top AJC coverage areas: Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties. We contacted four local groups with different service areas (housing, food and financial services), as well as two larger statewide groups: Habitat for Humanity and United Way. A diverse sample of organizations was key to see how the nationwide trend broke down based on nonprofits’ missions and level of resources.
We interviewed leaders at the six organizations about the start of the pandemic, the increase in need, the increase in support and the outlook for the rest of this year. Each group shared impressive data and documents, which we reviewed for relevance and accuracy.
For a feature story, it was important for us to synthesize the trends across the organizations to provide an overall narrative for readers but not oversimplify the message. From Dwight Reighard at MUST Ministries in Marietta to Laura Drake at the Southeast Gwinnett co-op, varied anecdotes and personal experiences created an intimacy that balanced our inclusion of data. That was important given the human fears and struggles at the core of this story. Finally, we edited the story several times for clarity, removing repetitive sections that didn’t move the narrative along.
Double-check data – both at the national and local levels – by looking at documents such as the Giving USA report and the individual nonprofit’s annual reports from 2020.
Be cognizant of word choice when writing about services, particularly connotations around food services, affordable housing and financial support. It was important to remain human-centric at all times.
Look at the beat guides around topics such as housing and health care for the services that were covered in this article.
Editors and content directors say a focused newsroom, prioritizing context and an equipped staff are necessary to ensure that their organization covers poverty and low-income communities well.
The effects of poverty reach far and wide into educational systems, courts and legal systems, housing, social services and throughout many more corners of life. Poverty intersects with environmental concerns, collective mental health, and the success or failure of local businesses.
“We are all affected by the adverse effects of poverty,” said Caitlyn Stroh-Page, executive editor at the Athens Banner-Herald.
The Banner-Herald received a grant from Report for America in 2021 to add a reporter and visual journalist focused on issues of equity, equality, diversity and inclusivity. Writer DJ Simmons and visual journalist Kayla Renie have covered stories about homeless camps, new nonprofits that support children in low-income communities and local residents known for their outreach efforts.
It’s also oftentimes difficult to determine who is experiencing poverty in our communities. In Athens, Georgia census statistics show that about one third of residents live in federally defined poverty.
“In our community, a third of our population is either at the poverty line or below the poverty line, so we’re not serving a third of our community if we aren’t covering people who are in poverty. Those are our readers,” Stroh-Page said.
And in order to serve a publication’s community, it’s important that coverage of people in poverty is done through a realistic lens, with the reader in mind.
“Those people that we know who are our neighbors, and who come from those communities, they’re also a part of the conversation,” said R.L. Nave, director of content at Reckon South, a news brand dedicated to covering stories that aren’t normally found in traditional media.
If editors and newsroom leaders are intentional about prioritizing poverty coverage, a larger segment of their audience will be served. Editors can use these five action items to ensure that low-income communities are being covered ethically and professionally.
Be in the Community
To center your newsroom around strong community journalism, focus on building and maintaining professional relationships with a diverse set of community leaders. Regularly seek feedback from community members about what matters to them and what stories they would find valuable.
“I think the first thing that our reporters do is actually speak to somebody that lives in the community they’re covering,” said Josephine Bennett, director of news at Georgia Public Broadcasting. “If you gain trust in communities, where you’re not just parachuting in, then you can really get a sense of what that community is going through.”
Stroh-Page advises avoiding fly-by journalism and instead opting for deep-rooted community journalism. She explains the importance of sharing the human element of often complex issues. She focuses on leading a newsroom that covers poverty in a rich way, instead of a passing way.
“There’s a human to every story,” Stroh-Page said.
Focus Your Newsroom
With certain editorial priorities, editors can help focus how the newsroom covers people living in poverty. Stroh-Page suggests placing a strong emphasis on solutions journalism and challenging staff to report on the response to social issues, not just the issues themselves.
When considering how natural disasters, such as the recent Hurricane Ida, affects its readers and people in poverty, Reckon South considers what guides and resources will actually help its readers. Whenever the newsroom takes a solutions journalism approach, it engages voices in the affected community.
The newsroom recently went through an exercise where it put together a research group of 20 southerners across political and ideological spectrums as well as across different races, ethnicities and genders, and worked to determine whether Reckon South’s stories would work for any of the real individuals of the group.
“Who is the real human being that the story is for?” Nave said. “And a lot of times, if we can’t figure out who that person is, then maybe it’s not a working story.”
This exercise, along with the lens that its news should serve its “underdog” audience of people who haven’t had a voice in traditional media, help the newsroom stay focused in its poverty coverage and beyond.
When reporters begin reporting on a story about poverty or housing issues, editors can emphasize taking a step back and considering the wider context of the story.
Through collaboration with the Poynter Institute, Street Sense Media has created a guide for covering the homelessness crisis.
When Los Angeles Times housing reporter Liam Dillon begins reporting a story, he takes a step back to consider how individual anecdotes tie in to broader fact-based data, a broader conversation in the region, or a wider context.
For example, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, he heard multiple anecdotes about tenants being illegally evicted from their homes. To add context, he used data from the Los Angeles Police Department to determine whether these anecdotes represented a wider problem of landlord-tenant disputes surging after eviction protections went into place. He found that reported disputes happened in the lowest income and poorest communities in Los Angeles.
“When you focus narrowly on a particular project and you do these one-off stories, you really miss the forest through the trees,” Dillon said. “And I really think that writing about housing issues and affordability benefits way more people from a wider scope. Connect to historical narratives, history about governmental and private race practices that prevented people from being able to access housing, and you’re able to write about that in ways that are still acting on the housing market today.”
Covering neighborhoods and communities that aren’t usually covered also better serve a newsroom’s audience and ensure a wide scope of poverty coverage.
“Even in fairly well-funded newsrooms, neighborhood coverage has gone away,” Nave said. “It’s even worse in rural states where, for some newspapers, it’s a question of whether they can cover communities and neighborhoods in the cities where they are, but also about getting out 50 miles from where the newsroom actually is.”
After evaluating communities which needed better coverage, Reckon South assigned a reporter to spend a lot of time on covering Arkansas.
“Offer a product nobody else is offering,” Nave said. “Once you undergo self reflection, and say that we can own coverage of these particular communities, it’ll probably pay double dividends.”
Bennett, with GPB, also advises reporting the stories that nobody else is talking about.
“Go after those stories, because it used to be that there were reporters crawling out of the woodwork 20 years ago to cover those things,” she said. “There’s nobody now.”
In neighborhood coverage, editors should also emphasize understanding the past.
“Step back and understand what happened, and what was the history of this neighborhood,” Dillon said. “What are the broader affordability issues, and how would this affect existing residents?”
Be Aware of Staff Needs
The goal is to have a newsroom staffed with a diverse set of journalists who work with a high level of empathy and integrity. When hiring new employees, Stroh-Page said she looks for candidates who are intentional, empathetic, have good conversation skills, are committed to covering all communities in an equal fashion and are aware of systemic current issues.
Another important aspect is an ability to interact with sensitivity and understanding with guarded communities.
But some editors also acknowledge the toll these stories take on reporters and visual journalists.
“It’s hard because you take on the burden of the stories you’re telling all the time,” Stroh-Page said.
Bennett makes empathetic leadership a priority. She’s attended webinars on trauma and reporting after she began to notice burnout in the newsroom. When she notices that a reporter might be struggling with burnout and a heavy workload, she allows them to take a day off that doesn’t count as vacation time. She also calls her reporters to check in with their workload.
Editors can support their staff by encouraging them to take time off and set boundaries for work and personal time. Often, a healthy workplace culture is created when editors and newsroom leaders publicly do these things for themselves, modeling healthy boundaries.
This could mean routinely and visibly taking time off, using the schedule send feature on emails to avoid sending messages on nights or weekends, and sticking to set hours for non-emergency correspondence.
“I always tell them: if I see you struggling, it’s much better for you to have leave than for us to go to this place where you’re producing nothing,” Bennett said. “I think it’s about being observant, staying in touch with your staff and talking to them.”
Kyra Posey is a graduate student studying journalism at the University of Georgia. Taylor Gerlach contributed to this story.
In order to explore the world of child care for my Atlanta Journal-Constitution story, How to find affordable child care, I had to talk directly with state leaders who work in the industry. I first reached out to the Department of Early Childcare and Development and the Georgia Association of Childcare Research and Referral Agencies. From there, leaders such as Pam Tatum, president and CEO of Quality Care for Children, and DECAL’s chief communications officer, Reg Griffin, put me in touch with more industry contacts.
Initially I interviewed sources about what first steps they thought families should take to find affordable child care. As I learned about the different programs and information and spoke with multiple sources, it was important to keep the information clear and comprehensive.
For an explainer story, it was important to double check the information so that readers and users wouldn’t run into trouble as they followed the guidance.
Sources also used specific terms to refer to different types of child care such as “licensed” and “quality rated.” I asked them to define the terms and later verified those definitions as part of the fact checking process, which is recommended in Covering Poverty toolkit’s piece, The Tip Sheet.
Data specificto Georgia’s affordable childcare situation was crucial. While DECAL’s data was slightly older, it was the most recently verified source. The data gave a comprehensive look at how much childcare could cost in different areas of the state.
Prior to this piece, I had never covered child care before and I had never written an explainer. Having worked on this piece, I learned that explainers are important because they can provide verified and accessible information to individuals who may not know where to start. Having done my research beforehand on the Covering Poverty site, I knew I needed to immerse myself in the industry first. I didn’t want to make assumptions that could lead to confusion and errors. I wanted this piece to be as accurate and as helpful as possible.
Anila Yoganathan is a graduate of the University of Georgia. Her byline appears on the Associated Press website, on The Atlanta-Journal Constitution website, and in The Red & Black.