Why Newspapers Don’t Cover News about Poverty

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