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…

  • Guest
  • 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.

  • Anonymous

    It’s interesting that I here in many news reports the middle class is shrinking. Yet, there is very little follow up in what that means. Sure, a few move up but the vast majority falling out of middle class status have entered poverty. You’d think the powers that be would concern themselves more with this. The true engines of commerce are the middle class.

  • MrLightRail

    Creflo Dollar would disagree with you.

  • Deadrodentyping Blogspot

    You might be onto something. Most Americans call themselves “middle class”, even though they are not by pretty much any definition.

  • Kenan Heise
  • Kenan Heise

    “American journalism needs to be a
    door through which we can walk to hear the voices and hear the words of the
    many and not just a public relations machine for the wealthy, corporate and
    politically connected. Rather, its commitment should be to the poor, the middle
    class, workers, minorities, women as equals, the disabled, the off-beat, and
    those left behind—not just to those who we have been taught are ‘the important
    From the introduction to HE WRITES ABOUT US: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A CHICAGO JOURNALIST by Kenan Heise (Marion Street Press, 2015) Available on the Internet.

  • Anonymous

    Liberal media, especially since the 1990s, does a very inadequate job of covering poverty. What we now see is a stunning degree of (middle class) ignorance about this issue, to the harm of both the poor and the nation. I assume one major problem is that lib media have an interest in promoting the (new) Dem Party, which is strikingly anti-poor.

  • Anonymous

    Well, that’s what the “shrinking of the middle class” means — people are steadily being pushed out of the middle class, into poverty. America has made some shockingly bad choices in recent decades. Think: From FDR to Reagan, the US had implemented policies and programs that took the country to its height of wealth and productivity. Then we changed our minds, and began reversing course with Reagan, ending those policies and programs. While ending actual welfare, the US was also shipping out a huge number of jobs. In the real world, not everyone can work (health, etc.), and there aren’t jobs for all who urgently need one. This means a growing number of people who have no incomes. It’s impossible to get a job once you no longer have a home address, phone, bus fare. You’re just out. More people are pushed into poverty, with no way back out.

    Results: When Reagan was first elected, launching the long campaign against our poor, the US was rated at #1 in overall quality of life. By the time Obama was elected, this had already plunged to #43, and the US can no longer adequately compete in the modern world market. We’re sinking. Our own modern history shows why it’s impossible to save, much less rebuild, the middle class without shoring up the poor. We won’t do that.

    What all this means: US corporate powers are now international entities. They no longer have to depend on US workers or consumers. America itself is steadily being turned into another source of super-cheap third world labor, making products for US corporations, and those products are sold in the more successful nations.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, and the conservative media has done such a fabulous job of covering poverty because Mittens and company are sooo concerned about the 47%. Not!! Medicare, Social Security and unionization of the working class has done more to fight poverty than any program supported by conservatives and their hacks at Pox news. The very things they so disdain.

  • Anonymous

    No. I’m one of those who tried the real thing. The shortcoming to simulation: When you’re thrown into poverty, you’re faced with the reality that there is almost no way back out. Once you no longer have a home address, phone, bus fare, you’re just out. You can’t get a job. What you miss from simulation is experiencing the terror of living on the streets, knowing the odds are against ever being able to climb back up. You’ll die on the streets or in jail. It really is like being in hell. On top of all of that, the US has spent over 30 years re-educating Americans about poverty, via media. Middle classers no longer grasp that the homeless are ordinary (equal) human beings, fellow citizens in very real distress.Americans regard the very poor more like rats or pigeons. “Don’t Feed the Homeless.” So, with the fear, it’s a profoundly degrading experience.

    Incidentally, how can one invite “community welfare providers” to any doing? It’s not clear what you mean. Welfare had always referred to General Assistance and AFDC aid. There is no actual welfare today. The last welfare aid check was issued back in the 1990s. If referring to (for example) food stamps, these aren’t for the jobless poor and many of the unemployable (health, etc.). Food stamps today are only for the working poor, the elderly poor and the disabled. For our very poor, there are only dumpsters, jail cells or morgues.

  • Anonymous

    And today’s liberal media are focused only on middle class consumers and campaign donors, just like the Democrats in Congress.

  • Anonymous

    These things are very important for low-wage workers, especially those with children. This aid excludes our very poor, however. If you get a can of soup, but have no can opener, spoon, kettle, stove, it doesn’t help. I’m really not sure if middle classers understand just how tough (brutal) we got on the poor. Many churches have tried to provide food/meals, but congregations and neighborhoods demanded the end of those programs.

  • JonThomas

    When you say liberal, am I safe in assuming that you mean the right-leaning middle of the political spectrum?

    Even Reagan is liberal (and left) compared to today’s right.

  • JonThomas

    The problem is with the labels. Liberal media, simply said, is not.

  • JonThomas

    Well said… if a person is still thinking in terms of national allegiance, their thinking is completely in the control of those who manipulate public opinion.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you! Biden has actually done an extraordinary amount of good work as VP, virtually all of which has been disregarded by media. He has been portrayed as inept, a bumbler, and he is just the opposite. As for media: That’s an interesting, but long, story. Starting with Reagan, US media was attacked hard by corporate interests. In a nutshell: If you want the ad revenues to maintain any form of media, you have to comply with the corporate agenda. I won’t say they lie, but they do leave out a great deal of vital information.

    The situation is just as bad with most of the liberal media, which have virtually censored out coverage of our poverty crisis. We also see it regarding the 2016 election, seemingly under the whip of the (neoliberal) Clintons. It’s strange to actually need to tell people — esp. those who consider themselves well-informed about politics — that the 2016 Dem Party candidate is VP Joe Biden. (Note: He will be launching his campaign in late summer.) Any Dem pol can challenge him for the nomination, of course.

  • Anonymous

    The last I saw (please fill me in if I’m wrong), the Green Party dropped any discussion of actual poverty. The closest they now come to the issue is low wage workers.
    The annual income of min. wage workers is roughly $15k. The annual
    incomes of former welfare recipients (AFDC, one child) was roughly $4k. Americans said that $4k was excessive, enabling the poor to live so comfortably that they had no incentive to find jobs. We do know that a huge number of people are now jobless and impoverished, with no way back up. To my knowledge, the response of the Green Party (regarding our actual poverty crisis) is similar to that of the People’s Budget: trickle down economics.

  • Anonymous

    Absolutely. It’s as if some part of the middle class brain believes that if they condemn the poor, they will somehow be immune from poverty. It’s like a superstition. Somehow, we don’t seem to be aware, as Americans, that we have been subjected to over 30 years of a propaganda campaign against the poor. It makes sense. If we stopped blaming the poor, we put ourselves at risk of recognizing that our current, deregulated corporate system is a dangerous failure. If we actually looked at poverty — the causes and conditions — there is the risk that enough decent people would speak up and demand poverty relief for these people. That means less money for war and to cover the costs of corporate tax cuts/handouts.

  • Anonymous

    Yep. Even though the income level of those who are actually “middle class” was fairly recently lowered, people confuse “middle class” with anyone who is fortunate enough to have a job. We’ve been in the process of phasing out the middle class for years, largely (ironically) via our policies against the poor. Slowly, steadily, the US itself is being transformed into another third world labor state, producing goods for our leading corporations, which are then sold in the more successful nations. The fact that we NEED to adjust to: US corporations have gone international, and are no longer dependent on US workers or consumers.

  • Anonymous

    The last time I checked the Green Party platform, their only response to our poverty crisis is to call for more of the same. That is, keep calling for job creation, as we’ve been doing for decades. Well, you can’t be a loaf of bread with promises of eventual jobs. You can’t get a job without a home address, phone, bus fare. Not everyone can work (health, etc.), and there aren’t jobs for all. The US shipped out a huge number of jobs since the 1980s, ended actual welfare in the 1990s. Trickle down can’t solve the poverty crisis.

  • Anonymous

    No, you misunderstand. What it means is that most of could become homeless and impoverished. We desperately want to believe that if we just work hard enough, we’ll be OK. That’s no longer true. The last I heard, there are 7 jobs for every 10 people who need one. While that’s an improvement, what do you think happens to the three who are left out? Most low-wage workers (and we’ve been transitioning to low wage jobs for years) are a single illness, a single job loss, from losing everything, with no way back up. The homeless don’t fall out of the sky. These WERE ordinary, hard-working people who became ill/were bumped out of their jobs, and weren’t able to get another before running out of rent money.

  • Anonymous

    Curious: What do readers here think we should do about the jobless poor and many of the unemployable?

  • Anonymous

    Labels are the coin of the realm with certain parts of the media world don’t you know. Try as I might to listen for cogent arguments from one side of the issue or the other I inevitably hear failed arguments devolving into name-calling. Or as you put it labeling and poor labeling at that. There is liberal media but you are correct in that it does not exist in the mainstream. Our buddy Fabian is caught up in the mislabeling.

  • Anonymous

    Strengthening workers’ rights would be good place to start. Shoring up all parts of the social safety net. Raising the minimum wage. Better mental health care would help with the 30% or so of the homeless that may never find they way back into the economy. Cut the Defense budget. I know it is an anathema to some but it is truly the most wasteful part of our government. That and they are responsible for creating a lot of our homeless by ill serving our veterans.

  • JonThomas

    Personally, I would like to see an entire new paradigm… but in the short term, that is an unlikely prospect.

    For now, I can only refer to the Biblical example…and I realize that many people do not accept the Bible as a legitimate authority for precedent, but I would hope that an ear would be lent to consideration of certain principles…

    In the Bible, under the Governing system devised by God, there were provisions for the poor. First off, it was explained that considerations should be given those whose actions were for basic human needs. A poor person who stole food was not to be killed (the general punishment for theft.) However, to promote self-sufficiency, that person was to reimburse the victim beyond the value of the food which was taken.

    Every 50 years there was the forgiving of debts and a return of all lands to their ancestral ownership (thus providing a Government backed principle of wealth for every family and individual.)

    There were the laws governing gleaning… it was against the law to not leave a percentage of unharvested produce for the poor and disadvantaged.

    There are many other examples, but each truly provides a contrast against many so-called ‘Godly’ people today, and the real-world examples of what God instituted on Earth.

    And please keep in mind, as I pointed out, that these are simply principles. Anyone who does not understand that from a Biblical perspective, God showed it is the responsibility of Government to make provisions for the poor and disadvantaged, they are either confused, ignorant, or duplicitous. Even Jesus himself gleaned from the fields… an action that many who claim to be his followers today would want punished to the fullest extent of the law.

    Further, to really lay their hypocrisy bare… will they call Jesus lazy? He could have worked, but he ‘chose’ to be poor. He did not have a traditional job, he fore-went that path. Was he a lazy freeloader? Was anyone following his example a lazy freeloader? He was homeless and ‘had no place to lay his head.’ Should have there been laws to prevent him from visiting certain towns? He, at times, had no money. Should he have been arrested for vagrancy?

    Total paradigm shift is required…

  • Julie Wickware-Cancel

    The fact that this article is 2.5 yrs old pretty much proves the point…Is this the best they could do?