Poverty should be in reporters’ crosshairs this coming year, as it will be a central issue in the presidential campaign, at least for certain candidates. John Edwards visited a street in South Carolina that still has outhouses. Barack Obama spoke in Clarendon County in the same state, where one of the first lawsuits that led to Brown v. Board of Education was filed. He said, “We’re going to have to reclaim in our own lives the belief that I am my brother’s keeper.” How can a reporter cover that most persistent of problems, poverty, today without making it boring and predictable, or guilt-tripping readers and turning them off? Do you focus on one injustice—say, a corrupt housing authority—or try to connect the dots and cover all of the reasons, both individual and systemic, that poverty is entrenched in certain places in America? Mary Ellen Schoonmaker, an editorial-board member at The Record in northern New Jersey, asked Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., a political writer who has his eye on poverty, to suggest some ways to return it to front-page status at our news organizations.
How can local reporters, who are not on the trail with John Edwards or anyone else, link what some of the candidates are saying about poverty to coverage in their own back yards?
People talk all the time about media bias. I actually think there’s a structural bias in the media against the poor. Newspapers are built to cover the wealthy and the famous much more than they are built to cover the working class or the poor. There are entire business sections devoted to what the people running big companies do. There are whole sections that focus on gossip about celebrities and rich sports figures. There are good reasons why all these sections exist, but taken together, this is a very large commitment on the part of journalists to a particular slice of society. There is no part of the newspaper routinely devoted to the coverage of the problems of poor people, or struggling working-class—or even middle-class—people. So anyone who cares about covering these matters knows he or she has to fight this structural issue. That said, a lot of these stories are very compelling stories. Jim Wallis, the progressive evangelical, invented a whole category of voters from a visit to a Burger King where he saw a mom working behind the counter while two of her kids were doing their homework. He called her a “Burger King mom.” She was doing everything society said she should because we don’t provide universal childcare, and because people in lower-end service jobs don’t have flexibility with their time—there were her kids doing their homework. I think the stories of folks like that are very compelling to readers. I think stories illustrating what these numbers about the lack of health-care coverage mean, or what the imposition of higher co-pays or insurance costs mean to actual people, are compelling stories. I have been a political reporter for a long time, and this critique applies as much to me as to anyone else. We probably don’t do enough to take these abstract issues and explain them in light of people’s actual experiences. And I think that can be done at every newspaper in the country, and indeed reporters on local papers may be in a position to do a better job of this than those of us so focused on the horse race of the presidential election.
Given this “structural bias,” what can one reporter—or one editor—do to fight it?
Journalism is rooted in the faith that a single reporter can make a difference. It often happens in the case of stories about political or financial corruption and in stories calling attention to serious public problems that have been ignored. I think it’s possible for a reporter to encourage a community to give more thought to issues related to poverty, and perhaps to think about them differently. It’s important to make a case that there is a “but for the grace of God go I” aspect to many of these stories. 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. And because many people these days who aren’t poor feel under various financial pressures, there are ways to link their situations to the situations of the poor.