A Poverty of Coverage: Why Aren't The Poor on The Media Agenda?

During the 20 years of FAIR's existence, there have been two periods when mainstream journalists made promises about dedicating themselves to greater coverage of poverty, racism and inequality. The first followed the Los Angeles riots of 1992 (Extra!, 7-8/92); the second was after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans (Extra!, 7-8/06).Both promises went largely unfulfilled.

Following Katrina, national news coverage of poverty increased in September 2005 before returning to a normal, almost undetectable baseline. According to the Tyndall Report, a newsletter that tracks what's covered on the nightly network news, poverty reporting increased in the eight months following Katrina from two-and-a-half seconds per night...to four seconds per night. In other words, poverty coverage in the period following the catastrophe increased from 0.2 percent to 0.3 percent of the average 22-minute nightly newscast.

A FAIR study released September 7 found that in just over three years (9/11/03 - 10/30/06) the major TV networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, broadcast only 58 stories dealing with poverty in more than a passing mention.

Why so little coverage of poverty? For one, journalists like a story to have a resolution, preferably a happy one. Often journalists see poverty as a sad, intractable fact of life, a story that never gets better and generates little interest or news.

A contemporary iteration of "the poor will always be with you" (Mark 14:7), this view reinforces reactionary views of poverty by playing into the twin assumptions that government is neither responsible for causing nor capable of alleviating poverty. If this is true, isn't it logical to conclude, as so many on the right have, that the causes for poverty lie in the poor themselves?

And a more important preference than journalist's personal tastes is at work: Advertisers don't much like stories, such as poverty, which they see as downers--or as putting people in a non-shopping mood. (That's why CBS offered to air "upbeat images or messages about the war, like patriotic views from the home front," to buffer advertisements from the reality of the Gulf War--New York Times, 2/7/91.)

In an online chat (8/28/06), Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz explained that "news outlets tend far too often to cover what politicians are talking about," neglecting things "they can't solve." Kurtz added that Katrina "highlighted the extent to which the mainstream press had stopped writing about race and big-city poverty," because "somewhere along the way those subjects were deemed to be unfashionable."

Kurtz didn't say in that chat why such stories are "deemed unfashionable." But he further illuminated why advertisers don't like poverty coverage in a review (2/19/07) of a rare poverty special hosted by Diane Sawyer on ABC's 20/20 (1/26/07). According to Kurtz, the 20/20 special, focusing on poor youth in Camden, N.J., "examined a subject that has largely vanished from the media, deemed depressing and unappealing to the affluent viewers prized by advertisers." Kurtz added that "Sawyer says she and her team had to overcome 'a feeling on the part of a lot of people that no one would watch and there was not a way to give these kids a voice.'"

Kurtz's comments reveal disturbing realities about a television news business that puts such a premium on affluent viewers that their alleged distaste for poverty coverage results in the neglect of the issue.

In the end, it shouldn't be surprising that news that is produced by powerful corporations, closely interconnected with other powerful corporate and governmental institutions, produces news that makes such powerful institutions look good. When the powerful get to tell the stories, with few exceptions, they tend to shift the responsibility for social ills away from the circle of powerful decision-makers. As blame is assigned downward, as it were, the bulk of the responsibility for social ills is laid at the feet of the least powerful--the poor, people of color and immigrants.

Commercial television news will likely continue operating on the assumptions that the poverty narrative is just not interesting and that Americans don't care about inequality. But it's worth noting that these assumptions are not accurate. A 2006 Syracuse University study revealed that more than 80 percent of Americans viewed income inequality as either a "serious problem" or "somewhat of a problem." Which makes media excuses for scant poverty coverage little more than cop-outs for neglecting the most vulnerable and powerless among us.

Steve Rendall is FAIR's Senior Analyst.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.