Covering Poverty: What to Avoid and How to Get It Right
A tip sheet from Journalist’s Resource to help journalists think more deeply about how they select and cover stories.
Even before Donald Trump’s election victory took newsrooms nationwide by surprise, audiences criticized journalists as being disconnected from the communities they cover, especially poor and working-class communities.
For many reporters, there’s not much time during the work week for building sources and exploring neighborhoods, because their job responsibilities have grown so much in recent decades. But journalists themselves have changed as the field has evolved into an elite profession that draws well-educated men and women, many of whom come from middle-class families, went to the same colleges, and move in the same social circles. Almost half the writers and editors at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, for example, attended elite colleges, and 20 percent graduated from Ivy League schools, a 2018 study published in the Journal of Expertise shows.
This tip sheet, from two journalists who grew up poor and still have strong ties to the working class, is meant to help newsrooms do a better job covering poverty and people with limited resources.
Heather Bryant, the founder of Project Facet who also was a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University in 2017, has written about socioeconomic diversity in journalism and her experiences growing up in rural poverty as the daughter of a frequently incarcerated single parent. She also has written about the negative responses she has gotten when other journalists learn her husband is a garbage truck driver.
Denise-Marie Ordway, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and 2015 fellow of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, was raised on food stamps in a Florida trailer park by a mother who didn’t make it past the sixth grade. As a young woman, Ordway married an undocumented immigrant from Central America and forged ties within central Florida’s migrant farmworker community. Now the managing editor of Journalist’s Resource, she’s raising five kids with her current partner, a tow truck driver.
Together, Bryant and Ordway created this tip sheet to get journalists to think more deeply about how they select and cover stories, who their audience is and how current journalistic practices can limit lower-income individuals’ ability to access the news.
“Most news coverage isn’t created with people experiencing poverty in mind—as part of the audience,” Bryant says. “Impoverished people are often separated from other subject groups that are affected by policies and participation in civic and community life.”
She adds: “When people in economic hardship are included, their socioeconomic status is typically the reason for their inclusion and the central framing of their identity or it’s used inaccurately as a shorthand for things including race, geography, education level, or employment status. And finally, the depiction of people experiencing poverty is problematic in ways that are often exploitive, dehumanizing, or insulting.”
These tips aren’t meant to be exhaustive. But they’re a starting place for tackling some of the biggest and most common problems.
What to Avoid: Representing people experiencing poverty as one of three character types: the victim, the criminal, or the exception.
Generally speaking, news coverage tends to exclude people experiencing economic hardship as though they don’t participate in the same societal, political, and economic systems as everyone else, Bryant says. “They are, instead, most often depicted as the victims of some force or policy; the criminal element that the rest of society has to fear and punish; or the ‘exceptional poor person’ who walks miles to work or school, has multiple jobs or good grades or has managed to do something to be worthy of help or an escape from their economic situation,” she says. “The first character makes it difficult to report on poverty as a circumstance that can be changed by policy or practice. The second character enforces stereotypes that inhibits the good will and effort to develop those policies and practices. The third is a moral measuring stick used to set aside policy and practice and attribute economic hardship to personal attributes and effort rather than the complex circumstances that result at the convergence of cultural, economic, and political priorities.”
How to Get It Right: Seek out sources who are experiencing poverty for all kinds of stories—not just stories about poverty.
Just as a reporter should seek out a diversity of sources—including racial and sexual minorities—they also should try to incorporate the opinions and experiences of people from different income levels. “Poverty does not exist in a vacuum,” Bryant says. “Much in the way we are having more conversations about implicit bias around race and gender, consider also the potential for the moral judgments frequently associated with people experiencing poverty and how that can affect inclusion and framing.”
What to Avoid: Making broad statements about what “everyone” thinks or does, especially when those statements likely don’t apply to individuals of all income levels.
“Journalists often make statements that intentionally or unintentionally signal that their work isn’t meant to be read, viewed, or heard by people of limited means,” Ordway says. “For example, when a reporter says or implies that everyone is excited about an expensive new product or that a small increase in the price of something isn’t a big deal, that sends a message to lower-income people. Also, think about this: If ‘everybody’ is supposedly excited, disappointed, or shocked about something and I don’t feel that way, does that mean I’m ‘nobody?’—or that your news organization thinks I’m nobody?”
Ordway points to this lede from a New York Times’ story about the death of designer Kate Spade as an example of journalists incorrectly assuming everyone has the same experiences: “Buying a Kate Spade handbag was a coming-of-age ritual for a generation of American women.”
How to Get It Right: Think carefully about how you approach a story and the messages you’re sending to people with limited incomes.
When you’re covering any topic, ask yourselves these questions: Am I making class-based assumptions? Is this approach or the language I’m using going to offend, demean, or be relatable to people who are currently experiencing poverty or have experienced it in the past? Am I covering this topic as though lower-income individuals are reading, listening, or watching? Am I treating lower-income people as though they are an equally important part of my audience?
“Journalists cover topics they consider newsworthy and these decisions are influenced by their own life experiences and socioeconomic backgrounds,” Ordway explains. “Newsrooms rushed to report on Starbucks replacing straws with a new type of lid for their drinks and that story displayed prominently on many news sites. Do newsrooms also rush to cover changes at businesses frequented mostly by lower-income people? If Save-A-Lot, a discount grocery store with locations throughout the United States, suddenly stopped giving shoppers free cardboard boxes to use to carry their groceries to the car as a way to reduce environmental waste, would the national news media cover that? Local newspapers report on the opening of a new Trader Joe’s. How often do they cover plans for a new Big Lots, which is something I’d be more excited about?”
What to Avoid: Neglecting to consider that your audience includes people experiencing economic hardship.
Says Bryant: “Journalists have to balance respective audiences with two focal points—people within a circumstance that require information in order to navigate those circumstances and the people with the political, economic, or social capital to affect change of those circumstances. News coverage of poverty and related issues most frequently targets the latter and neglects the former, abandoning opportunities to empower individuals with information and ill-serving those in power by omitting more accurate and essential stories about the lived experience of poverty.”
How to Get It Right: Consider prioritizing journalism for and with people over coverage about people.
“It’s essential when reporting on historically marginalized or vulnerable communities that we always ask ourselves who we are speaking to when we are reporting out a story and reflect on whether our approach or presentation exploits, dehumanizes, or disempowers them as active agents of their own stories,” Bryant says. For a quick example, look up stories with the phrase “the poor” in the headline and ask yourself who that story was created for and who received the most useful information from that story.
What to Avoid: Using words such as poverty-ridden and poverty-stricken, which are vague and rely on stereotypes.
“These words make poverty sound like a disease or affliction,” Ordway says. “And, really, what do they mean? If I say something occurred in a poverty-ridden area, am I describing something that happened in a place with high crime? A neighborhood where a lot of roofs need patching? A region where a certain proportion of residents qualify for government assistance? What information are you trying to convey? Not only are these words vague, they are demeaning and promote stereotypes.”
How to Get It Right: Use words that clearly convey the specific information you want to share.
When describing a community, tell your audience what you see and hear. Rely on concrete statistics instead of labels or catch phrases. “I know from experience that what most of my journalist colleagues consider ‘low income’ is not what I’d consider to be low income,” Ordway says. “But if you say, for example, that 80 percent of the adults living in this area earn $12,000 a year or less, we’re all on the same page.”
What to Avoid: Unnecessarily using big words and making obscure references.
Being poor doesn’t mean being uneducated and it certainly doesn’t prevent someone from having an impressive vocabulary. However, a lot of poor people don’t have advanced degrees or the vast vocabularies many journalists do. “When journalists rely on big words and jargon or make obscure historical and literary references, they make it unnecessarily difficult for everyone to understand and get the same access to the news,” Ordway says. “This habit also discourages people who don’t have the same knowledge base from seeking out the news.”
How to Get It Right: Present the news as though it’s important for everyone to understand the information you’re providing.
You don’t have to “dumb down” your writing to make it more accessible and understandable. In fact, writing clearly can be challenging. You have to have a strong grasp of the issues you’re covering in order to write about them in a straightforward way. You can’t simply parrot back the explanations and descriptions offered by government officials and academics.
What to Avoid: Associating poverty with certain habits, lifestyle choices, or TV shows.
“Stories that include people experiencing hardship often tiptoe, if not outright stride, into ‘poverty-porn’ territory with excessive dissection or description of personal habits like smoking, coffee or soda drinking, watching certain kinds of TV shows, or food choices—especially fast food,” Bryant says. “These short-hands are often used as a way of conveying just how bad or desperate things are rather than the extraordinarily common practices they are. This also includes an exaggerated focus on pronunciation, word choice, and delivery.”
(Journalist Sarah Smarsh, who writes about class and rural America, has also spoken about how reporters edit quotes in a way that plays to their personal biases. Check out her tips on covering rural America.)
How to Get It Right: Include details that have meaning to the person you are reporting on.
“Details that establish scenes and circumstances are important, but stories that dwell on details that point to stereotype and not the fuller range of a person’s life only contribute to dehumanizing rather than creating a connection between the audience and the person,” Bryant explains. “Pay attention to whether you only have visuals that are moody or stark or include surroundings that read as poor, messy, cheap, or low quality. Strive to be equal in your fidelity to exact speech and description of delivery in all of your reporting.”
Ordway adds: “I’ve read a few stories featuring low-income families that point out how dirty and poorly clothed the children playing outside are. Do any of us allow our kids to play outside in their best outfits? All kids who play outside get dirty—rich or poor. I often wonder if journalists from higher-income backgrounds point out details like these in their stories simply because they seem unusual to them. Maybe they didn’t spend their childhoods playing in the dirt and the trees like I did because they had tennis practice or piano lessons or something else to occupy their time. It’s so important for journalists to think carefully about the details they include in their stories and how they represent people of limited means, because these stories are guiding how other people view them and their place in society.”
What to Avoid: Only depicting poverty as despair.
“Life while in poverty is not exclusively lived in despair the same way a life with means is not exclusively easy or joyful,” Bryant says. “Sometimes stories can’t cover this range because of a specific focus or scope. But if your newsroom’s aggregate coverage of poverty focuses extensively on tragedy, you are missing part of the story.”
How to Get It Right: Help audiences understand that people living in poverty are multidimensional, as are their experiences.
“One of the best pieces of advice I give to less experienced journalists is: Spend a lot of time with people who are very different from you—people who might even make you a little uncomfortable,” Ordway says. “This is good advice for journalists at all levels because it encourages them to learn more about those with different life experiences. Think of the insights a reporter from the middle class might get from hanging out with a person who uses food stamps to afford groceries, someone else who qualifies but refuses to accept government benefits, a senior citizen who has been poor his whole life, a Millennial who is experiencing financial hardship for the first time, and an individual who has taken a vow of poverty.”