Saturday, November 05, 2005

Poverty in the Media

Last Thursday I went to the forum "How The Media Portrays Poverty" organized by the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC, one in the series of events lined up for this fall (I missed the Edwards/Kemp debate last week).

The panelists were David Brooks (New York Times), Katherine Boo (New America Foundation), Jason DeParle (New York Times), David Wessel (Wall Street Journal) and Sam Fulwood (Cleveland Plain Dealer). John Edwards was both a moderator and a participant - something he balanced perfectly (which is not an easy thing to do).

There were a couple of hundred people in the audience, only about 20% young/students. Others were faculty, Democratic activists and local VIPs. Here are some of the things said there. It seems a little scattershot, but such panels are scattershot, so don't blame me....Also, I am just reporting what I remember being said there with no added opinions of my own.

Media coverage of poverty during most of the twentieth century was a story of big blips on a blank background. Great Depression in the 1930s provoked intense coverage of poverty for a limited period of time. Harrington/LBJ/R.Kennedy coverage in the sixties was the second blip. There was another one in the early eighties. In between - nothing. (Brooks)

However, in the last few years, the coverage was steady. On one hand, one can argue that steady coverage is what is needed to keep the issue alive. On the other hand, a steady diet is not exciting - a spike in reporting is needed to jolt the people out of complacence. Katrina provided such a jolt recently. (Fulwood)

The face of poverty in the 1960s was a white poor man in the hollers of Appalachia. In the early 1980s, the face of poverty was a Cadillac-driving "welfare queen", almost always Black. Today, the face of poverty is urban Black. Katrina is changing this to a face of a Black person looting.(Wessel, Fulwood)

There are two stereotypical ways of media portrayals of poverty: sentimental and sensationalist. A journalist writing a sentimental story will interview a poor person, usually a woman, who cannot do any wrong, who heroically works to keep her kids fed, clothed, educated and clean, etc. The source of her poverty is entirely societal, i.e., systemic. This portrayal is favored by liberal journalists (and readers).(Boo)

The sensationalist coverage depicts the poor as dangerous criminals, drunks and drug addicts with no scruples or morals. The main character in the story is the journalist himself, braving the dangers of the ghetto. This kind of coverage is favored by conservative reporters and readers.(Boo)

The social science has, long time ago, left such stark nature/nurture dichotomy behind (Brooks). The problem of poverty is much more complex and the blame cannot be placed squarely on either the society or the poor themselves (Edwards).

Clinton's welfare-to-work legislation was designed to change the perception of the poor. Reagan years promoted the image of the "welfare queen". Clinton wanted to make the new image of a working poor - someone who despite hard work cannot make it and, thus, deserves help. For this shift to happen, the poor should be perceived as, mostly, employed. Reviled by the Left for the harshness of the legislation, the shift in perception did not happen as Clinton wanted, and is only changing today, partially due to horrendous state of the economy of the past 5 years, partically due to the images of Katrina.(DeParle)

Clinton's welfare reform was much bigger deal for politicians and journalists than for the poor themselves. The poor just needed to somewhat reshuffle the way they get and use money - otherwise it was business as usual - trying to make ends meet day by day.(DeParle)

The vertical mobility in the USA was never as large as the American Dream myth suggests and is getting smaller every year. It is now easier to rise from rags to riches in Europe than in the USA, both due to differences in the systems and in the distance that one has to travel from rags to riches, USA having such a huge disparity between rich and poor.(Wessel)

There is no pressure by the editors on reporters to write or not write articles about poverty, but it is difficult to continuously write about a topic in which nothing important changes day-by-day and no exciting new events develop. There are so many other topics to cover and series of articles (or op-eds) on the same topic every week are a rarity these days (DeParle). But it is telling that no newspaper has a "Poverty" section or a designated poverty beat reporter (Edwards)

Most of the panelists were pessimistic about the sustained interest of the public in the topic of poverty (just like politicians stay away from it as the poor do not donate enough campaign money). The window of opportunity opened by Katrina is now closed (Fulwood). Edwards strongly disagreed - he's been travelling around the country a lot recently talking about this. Thousands turned out to listen. While they may not think about the issue of poverty every day, once the topic is broached they light up and are very interested in doing something. (Edwards)

One of the problems with media coverage of poverty is complete lack of ideas about possible solutions, while Edwards in his speeches offers realistic solutions. The media is generally fatalistic about poverty - something than can never be solved. Edwards sincerely believes that poverty is a realistically solvable issue, and his suggested plans are appealing to the public because they neither advocate for big government programs, nor give up on the problem in a libertarian/conservative fashion. It is providing opportunity, not handouts.

The problem today is not so much poverty itself (i.e., people have clothes, cars, TVs, food every day), but poverty of opportunity, i.e., no avenue to go up and join the middle class. Plus, there is a constant danger for middle-class people to drop into poverty if something happens (layoff, health problem, etc.) (Boo)

When the times are good, people are more likely to help. When the times are rough, people are likely to close their eyes and ears and let the poor drown (DeParle).

Today's economy favors brains over brawn. Moving from the farm to the city used to automatically mean a steep rise in one's financial status, but not any more. Education is the most important way to lift oneself up. This demands an early start (for which culture may be lacking in some places) in good schools (for which society is responsible). The community colleges are extremely important in helping people adjust to the new economy and availability of Internet to everyone is just as important. (Wessel)

While television provides stark images that can mobilize the viewers, it is the print media that needs to do better to provide more detailed information. Of course, all the information is readily available on the Web, and people need to be pointed to the relevant websites and taught how to use the Internet fluently.(Fulwood)

The truest statement of the evening: "It's all about him!" (Wessel). This referred to David Brooks who is even more of a pompous self-important jerk in person than he reveals in print, on radio and on TV. He actually did not say anything outrageous about poverty, but everything he said was designed to make him look good and superior. Twice he tried to be funny by putting down Edwards. A big mistake - this is Edwards' home turf. The jokes fell on deaf ears.

First he said something how he has heard the campaign speech so many times that he started believing that he was "a son of a, millowner". Not funny! Not appreciated by the audience.

Second, he tried to mock the Southern accent. Edwards warned him that the whole auditorium "talks like me".

Next week, on November 9, there will be a whole day of events, culminating in another Edwards-mediated panel:

"Katrina's Lessons: Moving Forward in the Fight Against Poverty"
Panel of five experts to discuss the lessons learned from Katrina and
to propose concrete policy solutions to address those living in
poverty. The panel will be moderated by Sen. John Edwards and includes
the following experts:

Jared Bernstein, Economic Policy Institute
Ray Boshara, New America Foundation
Anna Burger, Change to Win
Bruce Katz, Brookings Institute
William Julius Wilson, Harvard University

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