When Poverty Isn’t News

My brother’s Neiman Reports article It Can’t Happen Here: Why is there so little coverage of Americans who are struggling with poverty? throws down the gauntlet:

Nearly 50 million people—about one in six Americans—live in poverty, defined as income below $23,021 a year for a family of four. And yet most news organizations largely ignore the issue. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism indexed stories in 52 major mainstream news outlets from 2007 through the first half of 2012 and, according to Mark Jurkowitz, the project’s associate director, “in no year did poverty coverage even come close to accounting for as little as one percent of the news hole. It’s fair to say that when you look at that particular topic, it’s negligible.”

This clearly has intrigued NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan who writes A New Focus on Poverty Raises a Question About Times Coverage. And the NY Times is surely better than many on this issue.

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5 Responses to When Poverty Isn’t News

  1. “Mark Rank, a social welfare professor at Washington University in St. Louis, argues that poverty reporters also sometimes fall into a trap familiar to political reporters: giving both sides of the issue equal weight.”

    Since when did balanced reporting become a “trap?”

    • See “false equivalence“:

      The essence of the false-equivalence mindset is the reflexive assumption that “reality” is halfway between whatever two contending sides assert. Maybe that reflects early immersion in the Goldilocks saga. (“This one is too big. That one is too small. This one is just right!”) Maybe it’s a holdover from the age of Walter Cronkite. Perhaps it’s the D.C. worthy-person’s mantra, familiar from conferences and talk shows, that “partisans on both sides” are the main threat to progress. Whatever. We see it all around us now.

      Bonus: Views Still Differ on Shape of Planet.

      Thus, if it is in fact the case that the enormous weight of the research points in one direction, it may not be the case that both sides deserve equal time. Here’s the paragraph that follows the one you quoted:

      There’s the conservative argument that poverty is largely a function of “people just screwing up, just not having the motivation,” Rank says. The other argument, which Rank says is supported by the preponderance of research, is that poverty is the result of structural failings, most commonly, not enough jobs.

      I don’t know the poverty literature myself, but if Rank’s summary is correct then his conclusion, which you quoted, is reasonable.

      • Michael, this argument could be extended to every single debate about any and all social policies (where hard science is not at issue).

        Should journalists only report to the public what Paul Krugman has to say on economic issues? Krugman thinks everything out of his own mouth is supported by a “preponderance of studies”, just like Rank, so you’re saying that’s good enough for journalists to downplay opposing points of view? I’m sure Krugman, like Rank, thinks so. Just as there are conservative economists who think journalists would do well to ignore Krugman and Rank.

        You say, “I don’t know the poverty literature myself,” fine. But you’re informed enough to know that nobody has all the answers to poverty, no more than anyone has all the answers to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or whether music should be freely copied. We’re not talking about evolution, global warming, or the higgs boson. To say it’s ok for journalists to “pick a side” on an issue like poverty, which is essentially a social issue of wealth distribution, is grossly improper.

        • But the claim, as I understood it, was not whether people had the answer to poverty (that’s easy: the answer to poverty is money), but rather whether poverty was something with causes that are tractable, or was fundamentally due to defects in human nature. If it is the case that research suggests strongly that (even a substantial amount of) poverty is a result of social choices, then poverty and its causes becomes a much more fit subject for reportage than if poverty is due mainly to, say, weakness of will or bad personal choices. It also should influence the type of reportage.

          I understand the quoted passage to speak to the question of whether coverage makes sense, and whether in that coverage reporters should be looking for social causes or just telling hard luck stories (which comports more with the individual work ethic story).

          As for Krugman, he argues that we should score economic prognosticators and advisers to some significant extent on how good or bad their predictions have been, and should give more attention to the people who have a good track record over those with a bad one. It’s very clear the press does not do that. It wants political weighing that approximates either the electorate, or the publisher’s club (depending on the news outlet).

          • “that’s easy: the answer to poverty is money”

            Respectfully, you should fall back on your previous statement that you are unfamiliar with the literature. Off the cuff anecdotes: there are dozens (if not hundreds) of former professional athletes who earned tens of millions and are now impoverished. More than a few lottery winners in the same boat. Odds are you know someone in your own life with a similar story.

            It is fair to say that the causes are both systemic and, for lack of a better word, cultural. Only an idiot would deny that all else equal, more jobs would result in less poverty. At the same time, only an idiot would deny that even during periods of low unemployment and plentiful jobs, the US has a population of chronically poor.

            IMHO the fact is reporters are reluctant to touch the “third rail” of there being cultural patterns that lead to poverty, and others that lead to wealth. They know it’s true, but are simply afraid to discuss it.

            Reporters don’t want to touch the issue due to its racial or judgmental overtones. The left is unwilling to pass judgment on cultural behaviors. The Democratic party is unwilling to acknowledge or discuss the possibility that the structure of some entitlement programs may actually encourage poverty.

            Want a taste of what the media won’t touch?

            Cultural acceptance: Out of wedlock births 1980: 18.4%. 2010: 40.8%
            Racial/cultural trend: Take a look at table 16 and draw your own conclusions.

            Out-of-wedlock births leading to and exacerbating poverty is indisputable (although for the right book deal, I’m sure Krugman could dispute it….). Having sex and failing to avail oneself of free birth control is not a personal choice? It is a “systemic” problem caused by a lack of jobs? Puh-leese.

            It’s not just out of wed lock births. There are a ton of issues. It’s choices made about consumption versus savings. In my line of work I see the apartments of very poor people, yet somehow they have 52″ flat-screen TVs, the latest smart phone, and adorn their vehicles with accessories worth more than the vehicle itself. Cultural norms, cultural norms.

            The unwillingness to touch these issues is not limited to journalists. Anybody that speaks up is pounded down. Bill Cosby? He’s an Uncle Tom, don’t you know:

            Reporters look at instances like Cosby, and say, it ain’t worth it to honestly discuss poverty. Much easier to stick to egg head academics like Rank who simply blame the “man.” Safe.

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