The great remove

How journalism got so out of touch with the people it covers

Photograph by William Mebane

To become a journalist, Rajaa Elidrissi knew she would need a strategy. Growing up in a low-income household in Elmhurst, Queens, she started collecting clips at age 13. “I went to a high school that was not a high-ranking high school, and I was pretty aware that it was really hard to get into a good college,” she explains. After graduating in 2016 with an anthropology degree from Wesleyan University, she knew she needed to be practical—she couldn’t afford to take an unpaid internship; she had to start working—and looked for where the jobs were. That year, the jobs were in video. Currently a producer for CNBC, Elidrissi is on a secure track, for now at least. But if the industry should pivot away from video any time soon, she’s ready. “I see a lot of jobs for social media editors,” she says, so she’s started studying content analytics tools. She knows she has to stay smart and keep moving if she wants to continue as a journalist.

Elidrissi’s calculus is familiar to me—coming from a low-income background, I entered journalism by looking for where the jobs were. I graduated from a blue-collar public high school in Appalachian Virginia, and attended a conservative Christian college because, with scholarships, it’s where I could afford to go. To get a job out of college, I deliberately built a skill set to supplement a résumé deficient in elite degrees or high-profile internships, and became a social media editor—Elidrissi’s backup career—and eventually, a staff writer. From where I sit, I don’t know many national journalists who have a background like mine. In fact, the industry sometimes seems designed to keep us out of newsrooms altogether.

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Differences do separate me from Elidrissi. My parents aren’t immigrants, and I don’t belong to a cultural or religious minority; overall, society placed fewer obstacles in my path. But speaking with her provided a moment of real catharsis. Anyone coming from a low-income background runs similar mental calculations: How do we get into journalism? And if we do get in, how do we afford to stay in?

My conversations with Elidrissi and other sources for this piece are the only conversations of their kind I’ve had since I entered journalism full time—honest conversations about class, ambition, and storytelling. Perhaps that’s a function of the career. Journalists aren’t supposed to become the story, and talking about your background can veer into navel-gazing. But journalists aren’t automatons, either. Whether you cover pop culture or poverty, your background shapes your path into your chosen field. And if your background includes poverty, that path contains boulders.

 

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The first hurdle was paying for college. So I studied very hard. I got scholarships. I worked two or three jobs to pay the bills while I was in college,” says Sarah Smarsh, a Kansas-based independent journalist who has been covering class, inequality, and red-state politics for 17 years. Smarsh comes from a working-class family, and she knew that just making it to college signaled the start of a longer battle. “I didn’t know anyone in a newsroom who was picking me out of the pile for an internship,” she says. “I convinced newsrooms to bring me in as an intern.”

“I would say the second hurdle was social capital,” she adds. “Even though I made it to college, I still didn’t possess social capital.”

Like Smarsh, I knew I had to earn scholarships, and once in college, I quickly learned that my Walmart wardrobe set me apart in all the wrong ways. To achieve social mobility, the poor must culturally assimilate. You have to dress a certain way, speak a certain way, and get to know certain people. The third is impossible unless you accomplish the first two goals. Even if you manage all three, you may not experience true social mobility. Assimilation may grant you a certain degree of social capital, but social capital does not inevitably bestow its financial equivalent. Real capital—wealth—remains the surest way to survive journalism’s fluctuations. But by entering journalism at all, low-income people agree to extend their precarity for an indefinite term.

Smarsh felt that precarity keenly when she went freelance six years ago. “I had no savings and no family financial cushion to lean on. I didn’t have a bread-winning husband,” she explains. “It was just me, and literally nothing in a bank account. Hustling. Sending pitches. Being uninsured.”

 

‘The only people who get to rage about poverty and economic hardship are people who are not experiencing it.’

 

Possession of a “cushion”—wealth, again—can become necessary to stay in the field. “I try to open doors as much as I can for other women of color and other journalists of color,” New York Times journalist and MacArthur Fellow Nikole Hannah-Jones recently told the Women’s Media Center. “For an unemployed journalist who has had seven or 10 interviews and nothing pans out, I don’t think I can rightly tell that person not to leave the industry . . . . And it’s hard to tell people to stay in a field that’s not valuing them, where they are having a hard time finding full-time work. That’s a precarious position.”

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To shore up their positions, some would-be journalists go on to advanced degrees. A lack of social capital means a need to take on debt, just to get to square one. “As a black woman, I didn’t have a choice not to go to J-school—and that’s a sentiment shared among many of my classmates. Journalism is an industry rife with nepotism, where career trajectories are determined more often by the people that you know rather than the quality of your work,” notes Slate’s Rachelle Hampton. After paying her way through journalism school at the University of Kansas, Smarsh also took on debt to earn an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University. “That might seem foolish to someone who even grew up middle-class, because of the risk inherent in taking on such debt to enter a field that hardly assures the sort of income that’s going to pay it off,” she says. “For me, in the context of poverty, it was like I had nothing to lose.”

 

Getting that first job is a partial victory. There are bills to pay afterwards, and collectors don’t care about your prose. But let’s say you get that first job, and then a second. And let’s say, for argument’s sake, you keep going, and now you’re based in a national newsroom or some other big-name outlet. It doesn’t even matter if you cover poverty. You could cover pop culture, or review books, or turn numbers into charts. You’ll still be an outlier, working a newsroom that may consistently miss the class angle to stories, if it covers class at all.

A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project found that in 52 major newsrooms, poverty accounted for less than 1 percent of coverage every year from 2007 to 2012. “Journalists are drawn more to people making things happen than those struggling to pay bills; poverty is not considered a beat; neither advertisers nor readers are likely to demand more coverage, so neither will editors; and poverty stories are almost always enterprise work, requiring extra time and commitment,” Dan Froomkin wrote for the Nieman Center. Journalists who cover class exclusively, or as part of an intersecting beat like gender or racial justice, tell me they sometimes have to convince editors that their stories are even newsworthy.

“I have heard so many times: Where’s the surprise?” Gary Rivlin, author of Broke, USA, says. In Rivlin’s telling, editors frequently want a sensationalistic angle if they’re interested in the story at all. “I try to tell stories of payday lending. The only way to sell a story of payday lending was a contrarian take that said, well, it’s actually a good thing. The only problem is that it’s not a good thing. It’s a rip-off.”

Other journalists say they’ve had similar difficulties placing pieces on class and poverty. Smarsh tells me she’s woven a class sensibility into her work since her first days in a newsroom more than 15 years ago. “When I started being more pointed and overt about class, even five years ago, I had a hell of a time getting the pieces picked up,” she says. “And interestingly, I found that what editors at top US outlets turned down, almost inevitably a top British outlet would pick up.”

“It became such a pattern that I did develop a little bit of a theory that the UK has centuries on us, as a society or as a political unit, in reckoning with the concept of class and in finding a language to discuss it,” she adds. “We are in a country that has been telling itself, falsely and hypocritically, since its very foundation, that this is a country where your economic origins do not determine the outcome of your life.”

Smarsh’s statement seems obvious: I know from life and from reporting that American society is boldly, unrepentantly rigged against its most marginalized members. But this fact, while clear to me, may not be to everyone else. America is wedded to the myth of its own greatness. It insists it has created a meritocracy, which it sustains through the power of assertion. This has a knock-on effect: Journalists inhabit a skewed society, and not all of them realize it. The industry therefore suffers from structural inequalities that reflect its surroundings. Women, people of color, and people with disabilities are relatively absent from newsroom leadership for the same reasons they are relatively absent everywhere. These absences impact coverage in every respect, and poverty reporting is not exempt.

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed and Fear of Falling, tells me that even with decades of experience, she’s always found it difficult to convince editors to cover poverty. And when outlets do assign a piece, financial hardship can complicate the reporting process. “I got an assignment from The New York Times in 2009 to write a series of essays about the effects of the recession on people who were already economically struggling,” she explains, “because at that time, the typical Times article was about people who had to drop their private pilates class.” So Ehrenreich hit the road, collecting stories from working-class Americans across the country—only to encounter a financial roadblock.

“I realized I was not going to make enough money from my payments from the Times to cover my expenses,” she continues. “My next great realization was that the only people who get to rage about poverty and economic hardship are people who are not experiencing it, who have some kind of buffer and savings.” Ehrenreich later launched the Economic Hardship Reporting Project to fill in this funding gap and support working-class journalists covering poverty in America.

But nearly a decade later, the national press still frequently stumbles over poverty, and the related issue of class. “Well, I’ve said enough about the subject of sexual harassment, and how the focus has lingered so much on activists and media people, and that’s not where the rampant sexual harassment is going on,” Ehrenreich says. “It’s important to cover and bring to light; the world is a better place without Harvey Weinstein. But it leaves out these stories of housekeepers and agricultural workers.”  

Jenni Monet, an independent journalist who covers indigenous stories, got her start working in a tiny newsroom in the Four Corners region, where covering Navajo tribal events was part of the daily beat. She’s noticed differences between local and national newsrooms when it comes to writing about class. “My entire career has been trying to convince editors to cover Native stories in a way that isn’t poverty porn,” she says.

“It wasn’t until I started working in places like New York City [that] I started to see the extreme disconnect that exists,” she adds. “It’s realizing the enormous amount of explaining involved.”

Those failures became particularly clear during the 2016 coverage of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation’s protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline. “Here you have the largest indigenous-led movement of our modern time,” says Monet. It started with an environmental agenda deeply rooted in race-based politics that dealt with segregation, that dealt with cyclical poverty based on government decisions that have gravely affected tribal communities for decades.

 

Whether you cover pop culture or poverty, your background shapes your path into your chosen field. And if your background includes poverty, that path contains boulders.

 

“And guess how the media responded?” Monet asks. “At first, they didn’t show up. When they finally did, it was all novelty-based. Look at this camp, they have teepees and kitchens and they cook and it’s cute!” Standing Rock, as Monet recounts it, was a missed opportunity for the national press, an inevitable failure for such a whitewashed industry, whose coverage of the intersection of race and poverty is uneven at best.

But sometimes newsrooms can get it right. Matthew Desmond’s 2017 New York Times article on the mortgage-interest deduction is a superlative example: Desmond’s reportage both flips a popular narrative—that entitlements mostly benefit the poor—and examines the way one benefit for home ownership reinforces structural inequalities. “Differences in homeownership rates remain the prime driver of the nation’s racial wealth gap,” he writes. “If black and Hispanic families owned homes at rates similar to whites, the racial wealth gap would be reduced by almost a third.” Readers came away from Desmond’s piece better understanding how class inequality reinforces racial inequality, and it’s because he presents context.

When pieces lack context, they provide incomplete accounts that can reinforce damaging stereotypes. NPR’s 2017 investigation into fraudulent graduation rates at Washington, DC’s Ballou High School focused heavily on the school’s high truancy rate, but restricted mention of poverty to an anonymous student’s brief quotes and a few passing references to “traumatic events” in students’ lives. Ballou, of course, is a predominantly black school in a predominantly black neighborhood. The school’s problems can be traced directly to segregation, gentrification, broken-windows policing, and education reform; each problem or policy binds a knot where race ties into class. “I think the national press does have a strain of language around economic inequality,” says Jamilah King, who covers race and justice for Mother Jones magazine. “We don’t necessarily do a good job of marrying that with racial justice.”

 

Journalists who aren’t from low-income backgrounds aren’t necessarily hostile to the poor, but class prejudice can manifest as a form of blindness. Based on my own experiences and the experiences others related to me for this piece, simple ignorance is much more common. It’s more that certain experiences, like poverty, are opaque to people who have not lived them. 

In the lead-up to the 2016 election, journalism’s class blindness showed everywhere: Story after story reinforced Trump’s self-appointed role as the champion of white working-class America. The vast majority of Trump voters, as we now well know, boasted an income of $50,000 or higher. Suburban America is Trump Country. Though there have been some corrective pieces, the average Trump Country profile still stars low-income whites—who, shock of shocks, still support their candidate, no matter the swing in the news cycle. These profiles don’t produce any real news, and they don’t bring readers any closer to understanding the reasons for Trump’s victory, more than a year later.

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For once, it’s not so difficult to convince editors to cover poor people. But that Trumpian focus can also narrow coverage. While there’s value in understanding how Obama counties became Trump counties, these stories form one narrative thread in a broader story about the consequences of de-unionization, extractive capitalism, and ingrained racial prejudice.

Meanwhile, the other true stories of working-class America struggle to break through the noise. “When Trump was first elected, there was a lot of talk and discussion in the media at large, but also inside newsrooms, about what we should do to better cover the white middle and white working class,” says King. “I think that’s sort of misguided. Obviously, white folks are not the only working-class folks.”

Coverage of the working class skews powerfully to Trump, partly because the president spews so much chum into the news cycle. But a reactive press cannot necessarily fulfill its function as the fourth estate. No story springs fully formed from the ether. Stories have histories, and their lineages can overlap with each other in meaningful ways. Consider the electoral weakness of the Democratic Party: This is a multifaceted story. De-unionization is one of those facets—and it, in turn, is linked to a decline in mining and manufacturing jobs. It’s easy to criticize in hindsight, but it seems fair to say that if de-unionization had received more national attention—if it had been linked, repeatedly, to economic losses and to organized labor’s status as an electoral engine for Democrats—perhaps the press would have anticipated Hillary Clinton’s Rust Belt woes.

Post-Trump, national interest in unions increased. A recent statewide teacher walkout in West Virginia received coverage on CNN and headlines in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major outlets. It’s not yet clear if walkouts in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona will benefit from the same attention, and there’s still a disparity visible in which labor stories receive national coverage, and which do not.

Labor stories are instructive because they’re about working people, who can also be low-income. It’s hard to see how this will change as long as Trump is the most popular hook. The stories of the poor possess their own texture and weight. Poverty is a series of surprises, most of them horrible; life, for the poor, means careening from one plot twist to another while the world looks straight through you.

It shouldn’t be this way, and in journalism, at least, the solutions are obvious. Pay a living wage. Openly advertise your jobs—and send the entry-level listings to state schools as well as the Ivy League. Reconsider keeping your entire staff in an expensive coastal city. Don’t limit class, or the various beats in its category, to election-year hits or special investigations. These stories deserve everyday attention for what they tell us about the cracks in America’s façade. Make it easier for poor folks to enter your world, and we’ll even tell those stories for you. We’re resilient, after all, and we make damn good journalists.

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Sarah Jones is a staff writer for The New Republic. She earned degrees from Cedarville University and Goldsmiths, University of London, and grew up in rural Washington County, Virginia.