Why Newspapers Don’t Cover News about Poverty

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April 25, 2011; Source: Spotlight on Poverty (San Francisco Chronicle) | San Francisco Chronicle reporter Kevin Fagan has a message for the press: “Considering the unparalleled wealth of this nation, we live in awful times for far too many people, and they show little sign of getting better soon. As a journalist, I feel there has never been a more critical time for reporting on poverty and its byproducts of homelessness and despair.”

Fagan notes a worsening wealth divide in the U.S. He writes: “The average CEO made about 40 times more than the average worker when I became a professional reporter three decades ago. Today that ratio is about 350 to one. Today, the wealthiest one percent of Americans gets a quarter of the nation’s income. When I became a reporter, they got a tenth.”

Media coverage needs to examine not just the plutocrats who are doing just splendidly, but on the households at the low end of the economic scale.

Why doesn’t it happen? Fagan suggests that the subject of poverty is “messy” and is “automatically freighted with left-and-right wing arguments that paint the economic landscape in black and white terms and sling contrasting statistics and anecdote-driven contentions to prove their points.” He also says that stories about poverty take time, with the complexity of both people’s stories and “the labyrinthine governmental and non-profit world designed to help them . . . tak(ing) the effort of a spelunker crawling through caverns with a candle.”

How does Fagan’s perspective fit into the nonprofit sector and more specifically into nonprofit journalism? Though nonprofit journalism has been heralded by many as the savior of quality journalism over the past few years, it still faces tough challenges.

If it takes time and resources to develop and explain stories about poverty, those are luxuries in short supply in the underfinanced world of nonprofits. Such stories also create controversies of several kinds, sometimes because they lead to criticisms of foundations’ ideas about poverty-reduction (and we’re all so loathe to criticize our philanthropic funders), and sometimes because they spur partisan sloganeering.

Maybe the most important reason is that the poor are not popular. Presidential candidates and many nonprofits increasingly avoid the topic of the poor in favor of the challenges facing the middle class. It may be time for nonprofits like NPQ to push for straightforward coverage of poverty and the nonprofit sector’s distinctive roles in facing up to the problem, maybe now more than ever in the wake of the never-ending recession.—Rick Cohen

  • Michael Fragale

    I know, from first hand experience, exactly what Mr Fagan addresses herin. I am one of the P… people and even though I try, I can get no one to notice or even reply and, nevermind even acknowledge ideas that I promote or offer assistance that I ask for. It’s as though I don’t exist. The lack of any response is most disheartening and reminds me of India’s Caste system and the social pariah and how they must have felt. It’s humbling but, if I accept it, it may reward me as well with humility and honor.”forgive them,they know not what they do”

  • Philip Brookes

    The media covers whatever they can get the readers to buy. And our human nature tends to focus much more on our own interests than other peoples’. Hence the media tend to focus on two main things:
    1. Things close to home – if it’s in our city, state or country we’re more interested in it than if it’s thousands of miles away, distant from us. Thus the number of news reports on different topics tends to be inversely proportional to their distance from us.
    2. Things that may be a risk to us – our finances, our jobs, our debt, our Government, our political or economic stability. Human nature tends to take more of an interest in ourselves and our immediate family, friends and neighbours, again in inverse proportion to their proximity – the closer people are, the more interest we take.
    Fortunately with the advent of social media, and a growing social ‘conscience’, more and more people are sharing and listening to the stories and issues of poverty – but if we want the mainstream media to devote additional time, energy, and space to issues of poverty, we need to find a way to ensure that it can be paired with their readership goals.
    I don’t believe the mainstream media are unwilling to cover poverty. It just hasn’t yet made business sense for them. Let’s get creative and find ways to make it more compelling for them.

  • Dulcie

    The InterDependent covers poverty in the developing world, with a focus on what the UN is doing to alleviate such social ills.

    The ID is published by a nonprofit, UNA-USA.