The Kitchen-Table Connection

How to find—and serve—readers beyond Washington

Toward the end of last year, The Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery advised her readers that “a surprisingly broad consensus is forming around the actions required to stabilize borrowing and ease fears of a European-style debt crisis in the United States.” That consensus, she reported, had formed around a package of options for cutting the deficit, which included smaller Social Security checks and higher Medicare premiums. But: A consensus of whom? Beltway opinion makers? Reporters that record what they say? Or the people who repeatedly tell pollsters they don’t like such ideas at all? “Poll: Hands Off Medicare, Social Security” (Wall Street Journal/NBC); “Poll Finds Wariness About Cutting Entitlements” (The New York Times/CBS News). There are reasons and stories behind such polling, which news organizations could and should explore in depth.

One thing they would likely find is a substantial population close to the edge—older women who barely survive on a monthly Social Security benefit of around $1,100; seniors who struggle to pay more than 30 percent of their medical expenses out of pocket because Medicare doesn’t cover everything; fifty-somethings displaced from the workforce and counting the days until they qualify for early retirement, willing to take a 20 percent reduction in their benefits for the rest of their lives. This is not an ideological argument but a journalistic one: readers need context to fairly consider whatever problems Social Security and Medicare have, and much of it needs to be gathered at America’s kitchen tables, not just in Washington.

Back in March, Charles Krauthammer wrote in The Washington Post that Social Security was “back-of-an envelope solvable: Raise the retirement age, tweak the indexing formula (from wage inflation to price inflation) and means-test so that Warren Buffett’s check gets redirected to a senior in need.” Simple, huh? This is indeed one way to look at it. But the effects of such “tweaks” need to be told in people terms.

This kind of shoe-leather reporting might also impress readers. We live in a time when media folk talk a great deal about engagement, yet there often is a disconnect between them and the broad public they supposedly serve. Stories on how ordinary people earn their money, how they spend it, what they think their economic future holds, can connect. Trudy Lieberman—who covers the coverage of health care and retirement security on—recently interviewed the veteran social-issues reporter Don Barlett about this kind of kitchen-table work. When Barlett and his longtime reporting partner, Jim Steele, set out twenty years ago to report on what was happening to men and women who had become victims of one of the first waves of post-war economic restructuring, they spent months talking to people whose jobs were gone for good—flower sellers, fishermen, factory workers who once made shoes. When their series “America: What Went Wrong?” started up in The Philadelphia Inquirer, customers lined up around the Inquirer’s building waiting for a chance to buy the newspaper. What made the series connect? “It brought all the pieces together,” Barlett tells Lieberman. “The public saw themselves in it. One phrase we heard over and over was ‘I thought this was happening only to me.’‚ÄČ”

Social Security and Medicare are too important to leave to the elites. Few have the luxury of time that Barlett and Steele did. Yet it’s too easy to blame a changing media environment for chaining reporters to their computers. A while back, Deb Schultz, a volunteer at Delaware’s ELDERinfo agency, e-mailed Lieberman, asking why there wasn’t coverage of the problems her clients face. She invited Lieberman to attend some of her group’s counseling sessions during Medicare’s open enrollment period: “You’d see a broad spectrum of people and their plights. I wish more reporters and media people would take the time to get this exposure.” Not a bad idea.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.