This story is the result of an idea that evolved throughout the reporting process. I was initially assigned to work on a story about children with disabilities who are living in nursing homes. As I dug deeper and interviewed people, a related but different story emerged, one about children in residential treatment facilities and the shortcomings of Georgia’s mental health care system as a whole.
The first step in the process was reading the Covering Poverty disability beat guide. The datasets, language guides and information about the nuances of disability and poverty provided me with a foundation I relied on throughout interviewing and writing.
I interviewed Zolinda Stoneman, the director of the University of Georgia’s Institute on Human Development and Disability. The institute’s grant funded this reporting project. Our talk gave me a more comprehensive picture of the history of mental health care and institutionalization in Georgia, including the 1999 Supreme Court Olmstead decision. Olmstead ruled it unconstitutional to segregate people with disabilities.
Stoneman recommended another source: the Children’s Freedom Initiative, an organization founded by the nonprofit Georgia Advocacy Office. My interview with advocate Joe Sarra provided me with a wealth of information and context about the state’s mental health care system.
I asked Sarra if he knew of any families that would be willing to share their story. Initially, still pursuing the idea about children in nursing homes, I asked about families with children who had spent time in those facilities. Sarra put me in touch with Kelli Lewis, the mom of two boys with special needs. Neither had spent time in a nursing home but both had spent cumulative years in state residential psychiatric facilities.
The article hinges on the story of Lewis’ sons, mainly Ahav, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. She talked candidly about her experience as a mother caring for her sons and the gaps in the system that mean they don’t get adequate care. After talking with her, I wrote my first draft and fact-checked it.
I knew data was important for the article, and it was fairly simple to find statistics on the number of children in Georgia’s care system and facts about the state Medicaid program.
One of the key steps in the writing and editing process was to ensure the story met the AP Stylebook’s standards for reporting about disabilities; the AP Stylebook updated and expanded its guidance in 2021. I made changes to some of the wording to reflect those standards. For example, I changed “struggling with his own mental illnesses” to “experiencing his own mental illnesses” in order to not perpetuate stereotypes that disabilities are something negative to be overcome.
This experience deepened my interviewing skills, particularly when talking with sources about sensitive conditions that affect their daily lives. It reinforced the necessity of having empathy to ensure people are portrayed in a way that is fair and honest and doesn’t contribute to harmful stereotypes.
Jacqueline GaNun is a fourth-year journalism major 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.
According to the data from the Poverty Solutions Initiative at the University of Michigan, the poverty rate for people in single women households are higher than the overall poverty rate. (Graphic/Lillie Beck)
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: