In a new Nieman Reports article, Dan Froomkin argues that the media pay insufficient attention to poverty. Discussing Froomkin’s piece, Margaret Sullivan, the Public Editor of the New York Times, notes: “observers like Mr. Froomkin praise the quality of The Times’s journalism on poverty and inequality issues but cite the need for more resources and greater emphasis.”
Of course, the quantity of poverty coverage is important, but the quality of that coverage, including in the Times, needs to be a more central concern. By quality I really mean the framing, substance and content of coverage. Too often, coverage focuses on the characteristics and behavior of “the poor” in negative or stereotypical ways that sharply differentiate them from working- and middle-class people.
In considering the quality of the media’s coverage of poverty, the meticulous research of Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens provides an essential starting point. In Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy, published in 1999, Gilens documented the “racialization” of media images of poverty from the mid-1960s through the 1990s. As he puts it, “changes in the complexion of poverty coverage stemmed from the news media’s increasingly negative discourse on poverty and welfare and its consistent tendency to associate African Americans with the least sympathetic aspects of poverty.” He then showed how these “racial distortions in the media’s coverage of poverty are largely responsible for public misperceptions of the poor,” misperceptions that influenced anti-poverty policy. In short, Gilens’ work suggests that the quality of poverty coverage was a bigger problem than quantity, at least through the 1990s.
Similarly, in a just published paper, "Framing the Poor: Media Coverage and U.S. Poverty Policy, 1960-2008", Max Rose and Frank Baumgartner find a big increase in the Times’ coverage of poverty leading up to the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996. That Act established the (now woefully underperforming) Temporary Assistance block grant, sharply cut Supplemental Security for children with severe disabilities, and barred many immigrants with lawful permanent residence in the United States from means-tested benefits available to citizens. Based on an analysis of the frames used by the Times’ in their coverage of poverty between 1960-2008 they concluded that: "Media discussion of poverty has shifted from arguments that focus on the structural causes of poverty or the social costs of having large numbers of poor to portrayals of the poor as cheaters and chiselers and of welfare programs doing more harm than good. As the frames have shifted, policies have followed.”
In a later post, I’ll summarize some of the critiques I’ve made of the quality of the NYT’s coverage of poverty over the last year or so. But as a start, here are links to some of these posts:
- on Nicholas Kristof’s misleading commentary on Supplemental Security for disabled children: here and here;
- on problems with Jason DeParle’s reporting on family structure and inequality: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5;
- on what I call the “disorganized single-mother” meme in a series of NYT pieces;
- “Does the NYT Know that Much of the Working Class is Not White?”;
- on the odd and not uncommon use of the term “poverty roll” by the NYT to refer to people with incomes below the poverty line.
In fairness to Froomkin: his article provides some good ideas on how to improve the substance and quality of poverty coverage, particularly from Mimi Corcoran of the Open Society Institute and Calvin Sims of the Ford Foundation.
And in fairness to the NYT: They often do get it right. A great recent example is Stephen Greenhouse’s “Low Pay at Weight Watchers Stirs Protest as Stars Rake It In,” which documents growing dissension among Weight Watchers’ poorly compensated and mostly female rank-and-file labor force. Another example of the kind of reporting it would be great to see more of in the NYT is Susan Saulny’s “After Recession, More Young Adults Are Living on Street.” Although homeless youth account for only a small portion of economically insecure young people, Saulny tells the story in a sensitive and responsible way that links it to the larger economic struggles of young people today and their parents. Finally, Public Editor Sullivan deserves kudos for her post pointing out problems in Kristof’s commentary on Supplemental Security for disabled children.