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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