April 27, 2011

Journalism and Poverty

I’m working on a conference essay for the American Political Science Association. I have a question (or a bunch of them). Perhaps Rhetorica readers can help me.

Does one serve an audience by treating it as an object of reporting?

This question brought me to a stop as I was considering my topic — a case study in how a newspaper covers the poor (especially the working poor) in a town with a high percentage of its population working minimum-wage service jobs and living below the poverty line. If the primary purpose of journalism is to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing (Kovach & Rosenstiel 2007), does this suggest that such information is the same for all socio-economic levels?

What kind of journalism do the working poor need? What kind of journalism do the working poor want? What kind of journalism makes any particular group visible to the audience in the way that group understands itself? What type of journalism leads to political/economic visibility and efficacy?

To see where I’m going with this, check out these quotes from Herbert Gans from a Q&A at the Nieman Journalism Lab:

Multiperspectival news reporting is more diverse. It seeks news about other subjects that are newsworthy for the variety of audiences in the total news audience; it obtains news from many other sources, including ordinary citizens, and it reports a variety of political, ideological, and social viewpoints (or perspectives).

Here’s my favorite example. Poor audiences need business news like everyone else, but not about investing in the stock market or the latest newsworthy acts, legal or illegal, by corporate bigwigs. They need to know about the businesses in which they can afford to shop and the ones that will hire them, as well as the charitable and public agencies that can help them when they are jobless and in need.

I find the idea of journalists as representatives [of citizens] intriguing, in part because the U.S. is an upscale democracy, the politics of which is dominated by corporate campaign funders and the upper-middle-income population that votes and participates more actively than the rest.

As a result, U.S. politics does a poor job of representing the remainder of the citizenry, especially those earning below the median income and various numerical minorities.

Journalists are not elected officials and they cannot be political representatives or advocates but they can represent people in a variety of other ways, for example by turning their experiences and problems into news, and by asking politicians and other authoritative sources questions to which unrepresented and poorly represented citizens need answers.

23 Responses

  1. Taylor 

    Interesting questions. My initial impression is that Gans is referring to the sort of hyper-local, pragmatic information that one still finds in community and small-circulation newspapers/mags – e.g., classifieds, features focusing on local governance and local issues, op-eds that deal with local issues, etc.

    And this concept of locality can extend beyond geography to any communications-connected network or “community” – e.g. blog networks devoted to physics that are viewed and participated in by the community of academic physicists across the country.

    So locality, in geographic and content terms, seems to be a major factor in making journalism useful to specific groups.

    Also, I’d suggest that under-educated groups (presumably many of those in the low-income cohort you refer to) need journalism that brings them up to speed, so to speak, on the fundamentals about given issues. A poor white Wendy’s employee in Iowa might not care about the upcoming Iowa caucuses unless a journalist takes the time to explain in very simple terms why it’s important to every Iowan and/or how he can get involved. Sorry for rambling.

  2. acline 

    Taylor– Rambling is never a problem on Rhetorica 🙂 Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. Tim 

    Question: Are the poor under-represented or under-served by the reporting on poverty and the poor in America?

    Poverty, the poor, and the income gap seem to be common/recurring news topics, especially during economic downturns.


  4. acline 

    Tim… Yes, recurring topics. But that brings me back to my original question: Does one serve an audience by treating it as an object of reporting? This question has really stopped me short.

  5. Tim 

    The object of reporting is seldom served by the reporting. That may be a result of the structural biases of the news media. It is also important to keep in mind that others (not the object of reporting) often do benefit from the reporting. I consider this an important aspect of journalists as “players” in our civic/social lives; at best working for an informed, self-governing, free society and at worst working for their own political/economic/cultural interests.

  6. acline 

    Tim… Yes, this is part of what’s got me stumped. Re: “the object of reporting is seldom served by the reporting.” I think that’s true.

    What did you think about what Gans claims re: what kind of journalism poor people want?

  7. Tim 

    What Gans said rang true. For example, the information I need to understand homelessness in my community and the nation is different than the information I need to act/get involved in advocacy/charity for the homeless, which is different from the information I need if I am homeless looking for shelter, food, transportation, jobs, medical/mental health, etc.

    The news usually “brings attention” to the subject of the reporting and then “leaves it there.” That attention seldom results in a beneficial change for the individual or organization that was the object of the topic reported.

  8. Tim 

    What are your thoughts on “outspourcing” vs. “a partnership” as a great example of the news narrative not serving the faculty, students, or organizations involved?

  9. acline 

    Tim… I so sick of that outsourcing issue. My take: We were used by a faction of the faculty senate to score points against the administration. Nothing about our 1-semester experiment with Poynter (in which we are *totally* in control of the curriculum) even vaguely resembles outsourcing.

    That said, I’m generally not in favor of “outsourcing” as I understand it, i.e. buying a curriculum “off the shelf” from an outside source.

  10. Tim 

    I appreciate your position, but can you step back and evaluate the coverage, perhaps in rhetorical terms, and effect on those who were the object of the reportage.

    Or is “being used” the effect?

  11. acline 

    Tim… My experience of “being used” was a result of what happened at a senate meeting where we were asked to explain the partnership with Poynter. But the resolutions had already been written. No one actually intended to listen. The senate wanted to go on the record as being against “outsourcing” (something they charge the administration with pushing on MSU) and used us as an example. They had to willfully misinterpret our partnership in order to do that.

    AS for the press coverage, three different news orgs covered it. I was generally happy with the reporting. Is there something specific you had a question about?

    As for the rhetoric: Well, the senate cabal that chastised us made excellent use of the slippery-slope fallacy 🙂

  12. Tim 

    Question(s) re: “I was generally happy with the reporting.”


    Were you “generally happy” because the reporting reasonably represented your point of view and the other point(s) of view (more than two) of the audience who were also the object of the reporting?

    Did the reporting provide the proper context to serve audience insiders and outsiders to move from data to information and perhaps knowledge? Was wisdom imparted?

    Did the reporting context act as a container wrapping the subject in an objective point of view?

    Did the reporting accurately reflect reality or distort reality? Were distortions caused by structural and infrastructural biases?

    Did the cumulative effect serve the audience, both those who were the subject/object of the reporting and those who were not.

  13. Tim 

    Comment waiting moderation …

  14. Tim 
  15. Tim 

    To provide some context for why I think the question, “Does one serve an audience by treating it as an object of reporting?”, is so important:

    More Fun & Games With Stats

  16. You ask good questions, among them “What kind of journalism do the working poor need?” As a retired newspaper editor, I answer you by saying that the working poor need business and economic reporting that does not blindly promote the corporate agenda. Business pages today are mostly about investors and CEOs. Corporate royalty pontificate in lofty terms about the power of unfettered capitalism to heal all economic ills. Meanwhile the working poor continue to suffer and the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Corporations have targeted students, prisoners, and hospital patients as new revenue sources. Their puppets in government arrange laws to transfer public money into corporate hands via contracts to serve these three groups. The services are provided, but with profit rather than quality and safety in mind. Business and economic news should expose this for what it is – a legalized white-collar crime. News stories should also cover labor rights, working conditions, poverty-level pay, the lack of job security, and the alarming number of corporations that dodge their tax responsibilities. Much of today’s mainstream news coverage flips the old journalism adage by comforting the comfortable and, by neglect, afflicting the afflicted. Thanks for considering my thoughts.

  17. Tim 

    Afflicting the Afflicted: “contemporary journalists have twisted Dunne’s original meaning out of context”

  18. T.C. Corbitt 

    Assuming the premise that Journalism serves the purpose of giving “citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing,” then these are the questions to be answered.

    1. Does one serve an audience by treating it as an object of reporting?
    2. What kind of journalism do the working poor need?
    3. What kind of journalism do the working poor want?
    4. What kind of journalism makes any particular group visible to the audience in the way that group understands itself?
    5.What type of journalism leads to political/economic visibility and efficacy?

    1. “the object of reporting is seldom served by the reporting.” I think that’s true. -acline
    “So do I. If our goal is to progress the status of an object of reporting, then we should be on the payroll of said object’s PR department.” -TC
    2. This question rings false. Even presupposing ‘K & R’s’ premise, the ‘working poor’ have survived as a class since time immemorial and their longevity seems to have little relation to Journalism. The working poor don’t need us. Truly.
    3. Now this IS the most interesting question! As Taylor pointed out, these voids seem mostly filled by classified ads. The “charitable and public agencies,” whether broadcast or not through local papers, are without a doubt, advertised within the working poor community. Mondays are the busiest days for most welfare offices (via weekend “welfare success” stories within families on an even-keeled economic status). Again, they operate fine without Journalistic patronising.
    4. Simple answer. The Journalism of showing humanity. The premise of shared humanity must be a driving force of Journalism in an increasingly globalised world. To be melodramtic, we all share an original, emotional language. We also must explain the reasons behind a particular groups’ emotions to be effective. Example: The ‘west’ understands that certain groups hold hatred for it. We understand hate. However, we are NOT prepared to accept (or even speak of) the reasons for that hate. Therein lies the difficulty of capturing a shared humanity.
    5. At this stage, I believe we should disregard the idea of Journalism serving the working poor. They have learned well enough to maintain without our interference. Societal efficacy is only intermittently brushed by Journalists’ best efforts. Quoting LW, “The World is independent of my will.”


  19. acline 

    Mike, T.C. and Time … Good stuff! Keep the ideas coming as they occur to you. And thanks!

  20. acline 

    Tim… re: generally happy. My expectations are rather low (always when being interviewed for anything). I was generally happy that no major mistakes were made and that my side was reasonably portrayed (although my more volatile and calculated comments were never used by any news org, i.e. my attempt to call attention to what I believe is the real nature of the senate action).

    It’s difficult analyzing news coverage that you are a part of 🙂

  21. Tim 

    re: difficult

    Only if you are trying to be an “objective” analyst, but then there are also insights only available when you are part of a thing. I’m interested in insights journalists (and j-profs) have when they are part of the story, something normally avoided and considered professionally taboo.

    re: low expectations

    Something you may want to discuss with your students. Perhaps including the frustrations others have expressed.

    re: more volatile and calculated comments

    It caught my attention that two accounts repeated your contention that the issue was being “‘willfully’ mischaracterized”.

  22. acline 

    Tim… I’m going to be gone for a week beginning today. Your interest in this is encouraging me to write more specifically about it. Another week’s distance will help.

    I purposely crafted that soundbite re: “willfully” because it allowed me to call them “liars” using a term that I believed was more likely to be quoted. I’m sure my opposition heard me loud and clear 😉

  23. Tim 

    Andy … look forward to your return.