A New York Times columnist on tackling poverty—and pushback

There aren’t many reporters on the poverty beat these days, or even journalists who look with any regularity at how those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder live. Eduardo Porter’s weekly New York Times column, “Economic Scene,” is one space where poverty continues to receive regular, thoughtful consideration. Porter’s column—which “explores the world’s most urgent economic challenges,” per its tag line—stands out for its smart blending of wonky data, academic research, and insights into how real people live and respond to the remedies intended to improve their lot. His work, which often challenges conventional wisdom about the poor, is a model for how to make these subjects interesting and relevant to large audiences.

I recently sat down with Porter to talk about his work. What follows is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

How did you come to do the kind of journalism you do now?

I came to journalism in an odd way. I studied physics and worked for a Mexican wire service owned by the government and then edited a Brazilian magazine that was equivalent of Fortune. Then The Wall Street Journal hired me [in 2000] to write about Latinos in the US. The Wall Street Journal saw this as mostly a business beat—stories about how, say, Proctor and Gamble could sell its wares to this untapped population, how it could enter this new market. I was more interested in immigration, and I pushed stories about the cultural interaction between Anglo America and the new population of Spanish-speaking, brown Catholics who often had fairly low incomes.

How did you change the direction of what you were writing?

I was hired by the Times in 2004 to write more broadly about the economy. I was drawn to write on issues like inequality, demographic change, the increasing female labor supply, work-family balance—all that was really interesting to me.

Was there any one thing that gave you the empathy to write about these topics?

I grew up in Mexico City with a very un-American view of the role of government. I was educated in the western European tradition, which believes in the state as a legitimate instrument to make things better for its citizens, a state that has power to check excesses and the externalities in the market economy. That has always been very close to my thinking.

Why aren’t more reporters writing about poverty?

Journalists don’t write about it to a large extent because the general population, politicians, and policy makers don’t really care enough about it. The poor are disenfranchised. They hold no political power and so the political system sees little political gain in addressing their plight, which to be fair has been proven to be very difficult to solve.

How often do you write about it?

I wrote four stories about poverty since November. Why did I start and keep going? I had a wonderful conversation with Abhijit Banerjee at Poverty Action Lab at MIT. It looks at government interventions—what works and what doesn’t work. They do very high quality studies with randomized testing. He was working on research that found the conventional wisdom about poverty interventions—giving poor people help led to bad behavior—was false. I decided to pay more attention, which drew me to the welfare reform law, which is premised on that conventional wisdom.

What were the stories you wrote?

One looked at why welfare does not corrupt the poor as commonly believed. Another discussed a Republican summit in North Carolina early this year to talk about poverty. A third showed why it’s easy to ignore the poor, and the fourth was about a report from the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, Washington think tanks that tried to find common ground between the left and the right on poverty solutions.

What’s an example of a column that really popped and got a lot of attention?

One in which I was positing that the profit motive may not work in healthcare. I was comparing care provided at for-profit versus not-for-profit hospitals. It really pissed off Rush Limbough. I also got some pushback on the ground because the research I used was old. I thought it was in line with what I was arguing. It was a good study by top-of-the-line researchers. The point I was making was behavior is affected by financial incentives and the relationship between behavior and incentives is unaffected by the age of the study. When the right wing grabs you, your pieces do well.

What was your takeaway from this?

When people don’t like what you are saying, you get pushback. They push back. So what? I was making an argument that was quite solid.

How do our beliefs inform our reporting?

I respect the American tradition of keeping our priors in check and giving readers an honest assessment of what something is about. But the idea journalists are a clean slate is stupid and is a disservice to readers.

How so?

Journalists are people. We all have beliefs. Journalism is an act of editing and curating reality. What you put in first, the sentence selection, who you call and who you don’t call—all that affects the story you’re telling.

Given how we all approach stories bringing our own underlying beliefs, how should we help readers?

Readers need transparency. The best you can do is help them understand the reality that you’re rendering, give them a sense of why you are talking to this person and not another, or why this fact is further down in a story. This also includes sharing what you know about the person you’re quoting and his or her motivations. I don’t give equal time to climate change deniers because from my reading of the science, I’ve concluded they are absolutely wrong.

To what extent do you let your feelings show?

It depends on what you are covering. Are you writing something more like Paul Krugman’s critique of austerity or reporting on the Fed’s Open Market Committee meeting? When I am assessing a Republican attempt to develop an anti-poverty strategy, I think my analysis must include my thoughts about how this fits within their general policy framework, which includes a lot of tax cuts for the rich. Is it consistent? It is legitimate, I believe, to critically assess their motivations.

Would the public be better served if journalists writing about healthcare, poverty, climate change or any other tough subject loosened up from journalistic convention

Yes. Strive to offer analysis and understanding. I have an overriding concern about what the hell happened in the United States over these 40 years. I try to answer that question. I remember when I was a kid I sensed the US was exceptional. Everyone had strong water pressure in the faucet and grass well mowed. Now the US looks more like Mexico when I was a kid. The US seemed to be a much more egalitarian place, at least if you were white.

How do numbers and data fit into your reporting?

Numbers are my first port of call. I’m not very people-y. I’m very number-y. I would like to see journalists use more data to supplement the people part. It is not a deep tradition in journalism to bring numbers to bear. Your nut graph is more powerful if you have numbers to support your thesis. They make your story more solid and protect you from criticism.

Can you give an example of a piece that took off because numbers were used effectively?

The income inequality story acquired salience because of the work of Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty. The entire line of reporting about income concentration started with data that Saez and Piketty drew from historical tax returns in the US showing that the accumulation of income at the top was higher than at any time since the Gilded Age.

Many stories about poverty and healthcare start with a brief, predictable anecdote. How do we move beyond this approach?

One of the nice things about being a columnist is that I’m not shackled to that format. In starting a story you want to slap readers as fast as possible, draw them to the proposition you are writing about. For example, a paradox you are going to pull apart or a proposition about something that’s new or crazy. In one piece I asked about why Republicans hate Obamacare and got to my thesis quickly—what explains this hatred.

Would you abandon anecdotes?

No. There’s a place for narrative in journalism. The Wall Street Journal was really good at it. A few years ago Rick Wartzman found a woman on the minimum wage for 30 years. He weaved her story together with the political history of the minimum wage. His story was not a vignette or a one sentence lede. It presented the life of someone on the minimum wage. It was super compelling.

Where do anecdotes go wrong in covering poverty or healthcare?

They don’t work well when one anecdote is brought in as an emblem of an issue or problem but doesn’t add to our understanding. It is brought in as a little snapshot; it’s schematic, no nuance, no further truth than the person or family is poor and has budget constraints. What’s the point if you don’t render their lives more completely with subtlety and nuance that might not fit your thesis?

If not anecdotes, what do you use?

In my case what draws readers in is a really compelling idea. For instance, Republicans oppose Obamacare because they fear it might work, or to take another example, one column started with this: “There’s clearly something wrong with pharmaceutical innovation.” I sweat every column intensely every week. I sit before a blank screen and I suffer, so I don’t have a good rule. I go into a story because I have an idea and have talked to people and have had a lot of conversations. I ask myself what’s the story about in 10 words. Sometimes I draw from history or use a question.

How do you keep the Medicaid expansion story fresh?

You keep writing about it. Just keep hammering at the consequences of not doing expansion. Compare states where expansion has happened and where it has not. What happens when states don’t expand? Keep thinking about new angles. Look at the new data. That would be my M.O. Does it say something interesting or revisit an old issue? Are there hard-to-see consequences we are not thinking about that might affect maternity care, or bring about educational problems for children? Keep an open mind about where to look.

What is an example of a healthcare story that is undercovered?

Consolidations in healthcare. It’s going on, it’s continuing, important, and problematic. Government policy is pushing the wrong way. The FTC is becoming more aggressive, and that’s a good thing, but there’s a tension in the policy because the Affordable Care Act actually encourages consolidation by promoting ACOs [Accountable Care Organizations] that are meant to take charge of a patient’s entire medical life. The ACA, which is meant to control costs may fail at this task because of the increasing power of healthcare institutions.

How should reporters be covering this topic?

Follow the mergers. Hospitals are swallowing up medical practices, buying technology, bringing diagnostic testing in-house. Essentially they are trying to become one-stop healthcare Goliaths

What other healthcare stories should reporters be following?

They should keep a critical eye on Obamacare. It’s super-important to keep a very, very close watch. We really have no idea how it will work in the long run. Will it control prices or not control them? Will adverse selection in insurance policies kick in with younger healthier people opting out? It’s a big, complicated, Rube Goldberg device.

What do you want readers to take away from your stories?

I want to draw attention to what I know. One important part of this is to build awareness about how we live in a society where there’s a lot of unacknowledged dysfunction. We should understand this dysfunction, or otherwise I fear society collapses. When I write, I try to bring these defects to the fore. I see this approach as not undermining capitalism but as a way to save it from itself.

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.