How Big Media Ignores the Poor

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Steve Rendall, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting

In a recent report, the media watchdog FAIR looked at six months of campaign coverage (from Jan.1 to June 23, 2012) by eight major news outlets and counted campaign-related stories that addressed the subject of poverty in a substantive way. The study found scant mention of the issue, despite the high poverty rates reached during the economic downturn. We caught up with FAIR senior analyst Steve Rendall to find out why.

Rebecca Wharton: Your study shows that the mainstream media makes little mention of poverty in its election coverage. Just how little?

Steve Rendall: On average, just .2 percent of campaign stories discussed poverty in any substantive way. And this is at a time when poverty is hovering at historic highs. To understand how scant the coverage was, PBS’s NewsHour led all outlets with .8 percent of its campaign stories addressing poverty. That amounted to a single story on the NewsHour. ABC World News, NBC Nightly News, NPR’s All Things Considered, and Newsweek ran no campaign stories substantively discussing poverty.

Wharton: Why doesn’t poverty register as a campaign issue, either with the candidates or the journalists covering them?

Rendall: We don’t address why poverty doesn’t register with candidates. But as a media critic I would advise journalists to follow the money. Poor people have no political access: they are not major campaign donors and they don’t have political action committees. One of the few groups advocating for the poor, ACORN, was destroyed by right-wing propagandists, abetted by mainstream corporate media in 2009/2010. The GOP hasn’t worried much about the poor since the Progressive Era. For the past three decades or so, the Democratic Party has increasingly seen an association with the poor as a political liability.

Poverty doesn’t register with journalists for many reasons. For one, poverty isn’t deemed newsworthy in general, as past FAIR studies have shown. After Hurricane Katrina prompted several bigfoot journalists to declare that they were going to dedicate themselves to more coverage of poverty and race, poverty coverage increased on the evening network news from an average of two seconds of each 22 minute newscast to four seconds.

Many journalists don’t like the poverty story because it doesn’t have the shape of a story. There’s no solution and therefore no resolution. I’m afraid many accept the notion that “the poor will always be with us,” its implication being that there is nothing we can do about it.

There is also the commercial aversion to stories that are seen as “downers.” Advertisers are not eager to have their products presented side by side with stories they view as depressing and intractable.

But there’s an additional reason that journalists are not reporting on poverty in this campaign, and it’s because the candidates are not talking about it. Oddly, as we have heard from many journalists, they don’t think it’s their place to raise issues that have not already been raised by the candidates. This is a misunderstanding of the role of journalism.

Wharton: Have any of the candidates, Republican or Democrat, talked about poverty?

Rendall: President Obama generally avoids talking about the poor and strangely sometimes refers to the poor as “those struggling into the middle class.” In the period covered by our study, which included the GOP primaries, the few flurries of poverty mentions (as opposed to substantive discussions) occurred when Mitt Romney remarked that he didn’t worry about the poor because there was a safety net for them, and when Newt Gingrich proposed that poor kids might work for free cleaning the toilets in their public schools.

There has been no real discussion of poverty as far as I know since our study, unless you count Romney’s description of 47 percent of Americans as freeloaders. Of course, most of the 47 percent don’t live in poverty — some are even millionaires — but the poor do make up a substantial number of the 47 percent that Romney was dismissing.

Wharton: Your study looked at mainstream media outlets including CBS Evening News, ABC World News, NBC Nightly News, PBS NewsHour and NPR’s All Things Considered, and the print editions of The New York Times, The Washington Post and Newsweek. Are blogs and independent outlets doing any better in your estimation? Can the independent press have an effect on what the bigger outlets deem newsworthy?

Rendall: Yes, independent media are doing a much better job, political magazines as well as blogs more narrowly focused on poverty and class issues are out there swinging away. But I’m afraid the keen interest the independent media have in poverty isn’t trickling up to big corporate media.

Wharton: Are there any specific outlets you’d suggest our readers turn to for substantive coverage of the issue?

Rendall: Greg Kaufmann at The Nation is doing an excellent job. And The Progressive, In These Times, Left Turn — a broad swath of progressive magazines — cover the poor far more and better than do corporate media. There are also good blogs that cover poverty — Poverty News Blog, which covers poverty here and abroad, and Neil deMause’s blog, which covers the issue nationally and locally in New York City.

Wharton: What would you like to hear — from both the candidates and the media — about poverty?

Rendall: As long as we’re dreaming, how about competing proposals on the nature of a new New Deal/War on Poverty? Short of that, as least some movement from the Democratic Party to acknowledge that there are people suffering more than the middle class, and some movement on poverty, which is at the root of other societal issues, including education, crime, and productivity. But I’m afraid that as long as our politics depends on huge amounts of money, it will be hard to get politicians to focus on people who don’t have any.

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  • luisadg

    the silent and suffering poor – who will listen to them, or give them a voice?

  • Tracy Kruzic Taub

    The answer as to why the media don’t talk about the poor may be that people have a deeply imbedded psychological aversion to the idea of being poor. About 25 years ago, I took one of those intensive “find yourself” weekend course, the kind where people are meditatively entranced to identify their subconscious, driving ideas and fears. The number one fear among participants was overwhelmingly the fear of being homeless. Consider that in the VP debate, when the candidates were asked to talk about their Catholicism, Biden only touched upon the Catholic social justice tenet of the preferential option for the poor, even though this was a very weak spot for Ryan, given that Catholic bishops denounced Ryan’s economic policies exactly on these grounds. Discussing poverty in grim detail might be considered political poison, given the visceral negative reaction it conjures up in people.

  • Dorothy Petrie

    Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party does talk about poverty and has proposed a Green New Deal. Perhaps one of our problems is that we think that there are only two candidates for president…

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  • Vickey Scott

    The Shriver Poverty Law Center also has very interesting stories, as well as stats, on poverty. As well, a record of poverty related bills with each Member of Congress’ record there, by State. Want to see who really cares about us?

  • Vickey Scott

    We all must for “there but for the grace of God, go I”.

  • DL

    VOTE JILL STEIN for PRESIDENT — SHE and her VP Candidate will!!!!

  • retired but still alert

    I happened to watch the Vice Presidential Debate between Vice President Biden and Congressman Ryan. After the debate I stayed to hear how the panel of commentators would interpret what I had just see. Donna Brazile, a Democrat, gave the debate to Joe Biden. Asked how she would score the debate, Nicole Wallis, a known businesswoman, gave Biden a “C” and Ryan an “A”. I never thought the jokes about Joe were fair. I would say it was the Media that took the opportunity to slant the debate to show their pro-business bias. That’s no surprise for anyone who pays attention to the so called impartial reporting done today or the fact that the major networks are owned and operated by large corporate interests. The next morning I was surprised that CBS gave the debate to Biden. Perhaps that was because Jennifer Graham was there to comment. Fox, quite naturally polled their faithful Republicans and gave it to Ryan. That brings me to how news is reported, badly, and with no regard for truth or accuracy. Most commentators know when a candidate tells a lie but they don’t interrupt that person to say so. Its as if it doesn’t matter what you say as long as its newsworthy. Both Romney and Ryan tell lies with impunity and seeming support from the Media. Is that because the Media likes to comment on Joe’s refusal to let a lie pass or because they would rather accuse Joe of being impolite. The Media’s agenda appears clear. They are bound to the commercial interests that pay their salaries and write their contracts.

  • Betty

    So many of us have Costco or B.J.’s memberships. If each of us just bought soups/canned veggies/peanut butter, or whatever, for food pantries it would be a help. The church of a friend of mine collects those things and drives them over to the nearby INN…all I have to do is to remember them when I shop. (Even the local grocery has specials which would be appropriate.)

  • James

    Simple, TV news stations sell commercials and the poor are not their target group.

  • cdb

    What grace of what god? That mentality just continues to perpetuate the idea of a god favoring some and ignoring others… makes me sick when people say such things….why oh why do people not see the arrogant self-importance of such statements as this.

  • puma

    Cash donations enable food banks to buy fresh foods in bulk at a discount.

  • edward

    You speak the truth.

  • Terri EC Mom5

    Has anyone ever been involved in a poverty simulation? It is unbelievably accurate and eye opening for those who have never been in poverty. I would suggest anyone who cares about the issue to look for a poverty simulation or have their local college or church group look into hosting a poverty simulation then invite local politicians community welfare providers and business people to participate. The simulation has a discussion group at the end which is usually amazing.