Poverty is an issue that touches many Americans. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between January 2009 and December 2011, 31.6 percent of the national population experienced poverty for at least two months, with 5.4 percent of all Americans not in poverty in 2009 being in poverty by 2011. With the recovery from the Great Recession being one of the longest and shallowest rebounds from an economic collapse in American history, many Americans have found it difficult to get back on their feet.
However, someone may not get that impression from news coverage of the situation. As reported by the Huffington Post, poverty leads media coverage less than 0.02 percent of the time — well below science (0.6 percent), education (1.2 percent), immigration (1.4 percent), business (4 percent) and politics (16 percent).
The disparity may be due to the sharp, highly polarized attitudes toward poverty that make it difficult to report on the issue without appearing to be partisan or biased.
Despite the rationale for not reporting on poverty, the absence of the issue in the national media is noticeable. According to a recent analysis by the advocacy group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, a look at the major broadcast newscasts — ABC World News, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News — between Jan. 1, 2013 and Feb. 28, 2014 showed that an average of just 2.7 seconds per every 22 minute episode discussed poverty in some shape or form.
Further, of the 54 sources used for the 23 segments that discussed poverty, only 22 were individuals actually affected by poverty.
ABC ran only three poverty-related stories over the 14-month span. CBS topped the list of coverage, with 12 segments.
Over the same period, the three news broadcasts aired 82 stories that featured the term “billionaire” — a nearly four to one difference with the poverty coverage. In practical terms, this means that the major news programs pay a significantly greater amount of attention to just 482 individuals than they do to 50 million Americans.
“There is no legitimate justification for ignoring a story affecting tens of millions of our most vulnerable, under any circumstances,” said Steve Rendall of FAIR. “But now, with GOP poverty proposals under discussion, the rationalization that journalists cannot cover the issue unless it’s first raised by politicians has been demolished. TV news is all out of excuses for ignoring poverty.”
However, quantity is only one metric for measuring the impact of the media’s reporting on poverty. NBC’s coverage, for example, centered around its insights into poverty series “In Plain Sight,” in which policies affecting the poor and the national response to the question of hunger and lack of access are addressed at length. While most of this series is available exclusively online, the on-air segments tend to be the longest and most-heavily promoted segments on the newscasts in which they appear.
This, though, is more the exception, and not the rule. Typically, poverty mentions are made in passing, as background or tangential information connected to other news stories. In an essay for Nieman Reports, Dan Froomkin argues that the lack of coverage of poverty in the American media boils down to one thing: disinterest.
“The reasons for the lack of coverage are familiar,” wrote Froomkin. “Journalists are drawn more to people making things happen than those struggling to pay bills; poverty is not considered a beat; neither advertisers nor readers are likely to demand more coverage, so neither will editors; and poverty stories are almost always enterprise work, requiring extra time and commitment. Yet persistent poverty is in some ways the ultimate accountability story — because, often, poverty happens by design.”
It’s difficult to convince a reporter to cover joblessness when he or she could cover the job cuts that caused the joblessness in the first place. It’s problematic to have a journalist cover the effect of social welfare policy when it would be easier to have him or her cover the policy. Covering poverty is difficult because it is asking the writer to focus on the effect of a problem without first considering the cause.
This does not mean that poverty is not worth reporting, though. The U.S. has one of the highest rates of poverty among major Western nations. The notion that the wealthiest nation on Earth has one in every six of its citizens living at or below the poverty threshold reflects not a lack of resources, but a lack of policy focus and attention — and this is due to a lack of public awareness to the issue.
Currently, the wealth gap between the wealthy and the rest of the populace in this country is at pre-Great Depression levels. With wealth mobility drying up — a study quoted by Froomkin, for example, indicates that the U.S. now has fewer poor people moving to higher economic levels than Western Europe — those born poor are now more likely to stay poor and have children that will grow up poor.
“[The] key unaddressed question is: Has America become a less fair society? ‘This is a major question of American life’,” Froomkin quoted Philip Bennett, managing editor of PBS’s Frontline, as asking. “’It’s part of our political divide in a really important way. [And yet it] is not receiving the kind of sustained, imaginative, aggressive coverage that it deserves. Shouldn’t journalists — and not just one or two — be organizing themselves en masse to ask that question?’”