American journalism vs. the poor, a research review and analysis
Paula Reynolds Eblacas
School of Communications
University of Washington
Seattle, Washington 98195-3740
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Student paper submitted to Association for Education in Journalism and Mass
Communication, annual conference, 1999, Qualitative Studies Division.
American journalism vs. the poor, a research review and analysis
Critics argue American journalism misrepresents the poor as behaviorally-flawed
people and fails to draw a connection between poverty and the political economic
system. This has implications for public perception, behavior and policy toward
the poor. A review and analysis of the available research shows that the
misrepresentation has held true historically and contemporarily, though
contradictions are also evident. Much is missing from the available research,
including appropriate connections to other areas of mass communication
American journalism vs. the poor, a research review and analysis
In The war against the poor, sociologist Herbert J. Gans argues that America has
been waging war against poor people. The war is conducted through denial of job
and educational opportunities, sometimes through physical violence and through
other fronts. Gans focuses on the front involving labels "that stereotype,
stigmatize, and harass the poor by questioning their morality and their values"
(Gans, 1). Gans says this labeling - from the antiquated "paupers" and
"vagrants" to the contemporary "undeserving" and "underclass" - falsely blames
the poor "for the ills of the American society and economy, reinforces their
mistreatment, increases their misery, and further discourages their moving out
of poverty" (Gans, 1, 2).
While Gans implicates social scientists and politicians as participants in this
labeling, he points his finger mostly at news media. For example, he says the
term "underclass" traces its origins to economist Gunnar Myrdal's Challenge to
affluence. Time magazine brought the term into the public vocabulary,
associating it with "a large group of people who are more intractable, more
socially alien, and more hostile than almost anyone had imagined" (Gans, 31-32).
The term was then adopted by other media agencies, further establishing its
presence in our national dialogue.
Since that time, the portrayal of the underclass has become more specific.
Gans argues that the term underclass has become a behavioral definition of
poverty, connoting school dropouts who do not work, young women who have babies
out of wedlock and go on welfare, the homeless and panhandlers, alcohol and drug
addicts and "street criminals" (Gans, 2). But, more than that, the behavioral
definition confuses cause and effect, proscribing poverty as a result of these
behavior rather than these behaviors as a result of poverty.
What Gans describes as a behavioral definition, is not necessarily new, despite
that the specific terms may have changed. Jennings writes that, "Historically,
poor people have been perceived as lazy, immoral, or, to use a term historian
Michael B. Katz utilizes in one of his books, 'undeserving' ... impoverishment
has in this country been generally associated with lack of morals, sin, and
vice" (Jennings, 14).
The term underclass also specifically connotes African Americans, despite the
fact that white people falling below the federal government's poverty level is
more than two and half times the number of black people who fall below this
level (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 477).1 Hacker writes that "neither
sociologists nor journalists have shown much interest in depicting poor whites
as a 'class.' ... For whites, poverty tends to be viewed as atypical or
accidental. Among blacks, it comes closer to being seen as a natural outgrowth
of their history and culture" (Hacker, 106). According to the 1977 Time article
that Gans refers to, the group of intractable, socially alien and hostile people
consisted "mostly of impoverished urban blacks who still suffer from the
heritage of slavery" (Gans, 32).2
As recently as 1996, research has provided further evidence that media
misrepresent the poor as largely African American. In a study of poverty
coverage by Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report from 1988 through
1992, Gilens found that 62 percent of 560 people presented in pictures with
stories about poverty were African American (Gilens, 521). Data from the U.S.
Census Current Population Survey for 1990 showed that African Americans were 29
percent of the nation's poor during this time period (Gilens, 516).
Furthermore, in a random sample of ABC, CBS and NBC newscasts during 1988-1992,
Gilens found that 65.2 percent of those presented as poor were African American
While Gans makes a causal leap between portrayals of the poor and subsequent
public perception and public policy, Gilens draws upon existing media effects
and agenda-setting research to provide evidence for the causal connection:
Media content can affect the importance viewers attach to different political
issues (Iyengar and Kinder 1987; Rogers and Dearing 1988), the standards that
they employ in making political evaluations (Iyengar and Kinder 1987; Krosnick
and Kinder 1990), the causes they attribute to national problems (Iyengar 1989,
1991), and their issue positions and perceptions of political candidates
(Bartels 1993). (Gilens, 528).
Gilens specifically discusses Iyengar and Kinder's experiment which found that
when shown news broadcasts about unemployment which included depictions of
whites as unemployed, 71 percent of white subjects identified unemployment as
among the nation's three most important problems. Shown news broadcasts that
depicted black people as unemployed, 53 percent of white subjects identified
unemployment as among the nation's three most important problems (Gilens, 528).
Taken together, Gans, Jennings, Hacker, and Gilens describe a certain social
construction of poverty that may impact not only beliefs about the poor, but
also government and societal response to poverty. Gans writes that when the
poor are thought of as morally deficient, "The political chances of reviving
effective antipoverty policy are also reduced, since politicians or voters are
rarely prepared to spend public money for people who do not deserve help" (Gans,
The argument put forth by these authors is that if poverty is represented in
mass media as arising from undesirable cultural attributes, individual character
flaws, and instances of individual bad luck or bad decision making of the people
who live in poverty, rather than as a problem arising from collective economic,
political, and social policy decisions, then the policies most likely to be
introduced as well as the most likely to gain popular support will be ones which
attempt to combat poverty based upon individual factors rather than on societal
factors. Historically in America, this has largely held true as policies
directed at helping the poor often operate on the "continuing assumption that
the existing economic system needs no fundamental alterations" and that, for
example, blame "the unemployed worker for his level of skills and
unemployability" (Jennings, 22, 27). Additionally, if poverty is portrayed in
mass media as "a black problem," rather than as a problem of all Americans,
white Americans are not as likely to be concerned about poverty, as the Iyengar
and Kinder results illustrate.
This discussion raises larger questions for journalism researchers, educators
and working journalists. Many journalists would probably take exception with
the idea that they are guilty of harming or misrepresenting the poor. American
journalists often think of themselves as champions of the underdog and the
downtrodden. But, is this a realistic and accurate view for journalists to
hold, or is this just rhetoric masking journalists' true involvement in "the war
against the poor"? The purpose of this paper is to further explore this
question by examining research on journalistic coverage of poverty and the poor,
both in historical and contemporary contexts.
Before reviewing and analyzing the available research on journalism and
poverty, this paper presents a brief discussion of attempts to define poverty.
This discussion further explicates the importance of examining journalistic
coverage of poverty. The research review and analysis begins with works that
can be used to illustrate the ideological framework American mainstream
journalism operates under. This framework provides a contextual base for
considering the subsequent research presented which covers the often
contradictory response of journalism to poverty, the role of journalism in
formation of public policy concerning poverty, journalism's portrayal of
individual poverty issues such as homelessness, and journalism's role in the
creation of "monolithic poverty." The paper closes with a discussion addressing
issues and themes largely overlooked in the available research.
For much of American history, poverty has had no exact definition. Since the
1960s, though, America has had two primary definitions of poverty: the precise,
formulaic, official, "absolute" definition used by government, politicians,
various agencies, and some social scientists; and the unofficial, imprecise,
nonformulaic, "relative" definition more often invoked by advocates of the poor,
some social scientists, and the poor themselves.
The official definition originated in 1963 with Mollie Orshansky, a Department
of Agriculture employee. Using survey results of American consumption patterns,
she determined that a typical "four-person, non-farm, family consumed
approximately one third of its annual income on food" (Jennings, 11). She then
determined the income required to purchase food and multiplied that by three to
model an "Economy Food Plan." Despite the fact that the data used were from an
almost 10-year-old survey and that "by 1965 the proportion of family income
spent on food consumption was much less than one third," the Council of Economic
Advisors adopted this plan in 1964 as the "poverty level" and with slight
modifications it has been used ever since as the official measure of American
poverty (Jennings, 11).
The official definition has the serious flaw of grossly underestimating the
extent of poverty in America. For example, in 1977 "multiplying the Economy
Food Plan by a factor of 3.4 rather than three [a suggestion made by Orshansky]
... would have resulted in an additional 25 million Americans being officially
defined as living in poverty" (Jennings, 12). Even some government agencies
don't abide by the official measure. Currently, the U.S. Bureau of Census uses
an index of 125 percent of poverty level to demarcate what it calls "near
poverty level" (Jennings, 12; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 477). Food Stamp
eligibility is based on 130 percent of poverty level and Medicaid on 133 percent
The other definition of poverty is the unofficial, "relative definition," which
does not involve formulas and percentages. In 1958, Galbraith wrote that
"People are poverty-stricken when their income, even if adequate for survival,
falls markedly behind that of the community...they cannot wholly escape,
therefore, the judgment of the larger community that they are indecent"
(Galbraith, 251). Though this definition is largely psychological in nature, it
may still involve a struggle to meet minimum subsistence standards. In
addition, Greider argues that the relative poor are often disadvantaged by the
official definition of poverty. He writes that, "The unintended effect of the
federal government's so-called 'poverty line' is to obscure the existence of the
vast pool of struggling families who are above the line - the officially
'nonpoor' - and to push them out of the political equation" (Greider, 198).
The discussion of these definitions is meant to highlight the fallacy involved
in relying upon the official poverty line when considering the importance of
journalistic discourse on poverty. The poor are not a small, unimportant
segment of the population; in fact, they represent a much larger segment of the
population than the official measure would allow us to believe. Using the
Census Bureau's 125 percent cut-off, 49.3 million Americans - 18.5 percent of
the population - lived at or below the "near poverty level" as of March 1997
(U.S. Bureau of the Census, 477).4 To better appreciate that even this figure
may be low, the near poverty level for a family of four translates to an annual
income of $20,045, or about $5,000 per family member. In recent years,
Americans living at or below near poverty level has reached as high as 20
Ideological Underpinnings of American Journalism
Research on the historical intersection between poverty and journalism
highlights an ideological struggle which has taken place within journalism since
the era of the penny press. The research reveals that journalists from the
penny press era forward have remained concerned over the presence of poverty,
have continually "exposed" or "discovered" the existence of poverty, and have
debated both causes and solutions. Within this debate has been the struggle
over ideology. The struggle can be epitomized by its extreme ends: the belief
on one end that the remedy for poverty can only be found through capitalism, and
the belief on another other end that the remedy for poverty cannot be found only
through an alternate political economy such as socialism.
Taylor examined the ideological conflict underlying "a superficial agreement"
between Horace Greeley and Karl Marx when Marx served as the London
correspondent for Greeley's New York Tribune from 1851 to 1862. Both were
concerned about issues of poverty, but differed on solutions. Greeley viewed
capitalism and the Industrial Revolution as a chance to bring prosperity to the
poor, while Marx's arguments for an end to capitalist led to his eventual
dismissal from the paper. While Marx worked to incite anger, Greeley worked to
evoke sympathy for the "downtrodden masses."
The defense of capitalism, even in the face of evidence of damaging
consequences, is a reoccurring theme in the literature. Waller-Zuckerman's work
on the writings of Vera Connolly from the 1920s through the 1950s provides an
example of a journalist who, through her work on the horrific poverty and other
conditions of Native American reservations, called for reforms within the bounds
of the existing capitalistic structure. In fact, during the Depression era
"Connolly called for preservation and expansion of the free enterprise system
that had always worked for America" while stressing themes of "enterprise,
initiative, fierce competition and hard work plus faith in American business."
The research also contains tales of journalists who, unlike Connolly, could not
defend capitalism once they gained firsthand knowledge of the realities of
poverty. Henry's article on Helen Campbell tells how she was radicalized
through her work for the New York Tribune in 1886 and 1887. Writing about the
lives of working women in New York City slums, Campbell went from offering
solutions of poverty that were based on educating the poor and on individual
acts of charity by the well-to-do to an eventual embrace of socialism as a way
of changing the political economic structure of society. The Tribune initially
accompanied her articles with glowing commentaries, but grew increasingly
negative toward her and her views, dismissing them as coming from someone who
was "naive" and not "well-advised," as she radicalized.
Miraldi's monograph on muckraker Charles Edward Russell also suggests that
Russell's radicalization resulted from being sent into "pockets of poverty" and
being exposed to other drawbacks of the capitalistic system during his career
beginning in 1881. Like Campbell and muckraking contemporary Upton Sinclair,
Russell too would embrace socialism.5
A good body of work exists within journalism history literature on the
"dissident," "radical," "alternative" and "underground press." This work
suggests that journalists on the ideological end that believes a solution for
poverty cannot be found within capitalism have traditionally been pushed out of
the "mainstream" press or have chosen not to enter it, partly because they
believed the mainstream press "perpetuates class rule" (Buchstein, 66). This
work examines alternative journalism from the 1800s through the 1960s
(Buchstein; Kessler; Shore; Roberts; Glessing; Leamer; Lewis).
Not all the debate over ideology has been between the ends of the political
spectrum, but sometimes each end has had internal wranglings. On the
alternative end, Seeger's examination of the Berkeley Barb demonstrates an
ideological conflict within the 1960s alternative press which occurred when
dissident journalists' unrealistic and romanticized visions of the poor
conflicted with the reality they sometimes saw when they came into actual
contact with the poor.
Cronin's article on The New England Magazine from 1889 to 1901 describes a
reform paper that did not push socialism, but rather argued for government to
improve housing, education, industrial conditions and municipal services while
attempting to present poverty as a result of environmental conditions rather
than personal characteristics of the poor. In addition, the paper promoted
Christian values, reminding its readers of their responsibilities to help
On the mainstream end, Illouz examined a more contemporary presentation of
poverty. She found in 1984, the "elite" New York Times more often portrayed the
poor as only the homeless and within that focused on women, children, blacks,
and the elderly despite the fact that according to "data published the same year
by The New York Times, 66 percent of homeless people were men." The "popular"
USA Today, on the other hand, more often portrayed the poor as "the hungry."
Both papers explained poverty as being a problem of people traditionally
disconnected from "participation in the process of production," thus overlooking
the presence of poverty among working people.
The difference that emerged between the two papers was that USA Today placed
responsibility for poverty on the poor themselves ("laziness, the inability to
take care of themselves and refusal to accept the assistance offered by the
city") and on situational factors, while The New York Times cited situational
factors ("unemployment, shortage of moderate rents, decrease of federal
allotment of funds and increase in the number of people eligible, Reagan's
social policy, an apathetic public and psychiatric deinstitutionalization")
almost exclusively. The fact that neither paper focused on structural factors -
the political economic system - is similar to Cabell's findings in an analysis
of articles and editorials about welfare during the 1970s in The New York Times
and New York Daily News. She found both papers' coverage "rendered invisible
the structural connections between the problems of poverty and welfare and the
functioning of the economic and political systems."
Victims and Victim Blaming
The discussion of the Illouz piece brings into focus the contradictory response
of American mainstream journalism to poverty. Often, journalism responds to
poverty simply by ignoring it. Ryan and Owen examined coverage of social issues
in eight newspapers in March 1975 and found that "poverty and welfare" received
the second lowest amount of coverage across the papers (0.3 percent of the news
stories) among nine sub-issues (drug abuse was lowest). When poverty is
covered, though, journalists often attempt to evoke sympathy for the poor, a
practice which can be traced as far back as Horace Greeley (see discussion of
Taylor's article on page 8). On the other hand, in the often unconscious
defense of capitalism, journalists portray the poor as being responsible for
their situation. On the one hand, the poor are seen as victims, but on the
other, they are seen as responsible for their victimization. Thus, in Illouz's
study she found The New York Times portraying the homeless as women, children,
blacks, and the elderly - people who traditionally have been seen as either weak
and unable to defend themselves or otherwise as victims of society. At the same
time, she found USA Today portraying the poor themselves as the parties
responsible for poverty.
A constant portrayal of the poor as traditional victims may lead the public to
perceive the poor the same way even when counterbalancing evidence is
introduced. Agar analyzed Michael Harrington's 1987 Washington Post article,
"The Invisible Poor: White Males," by having a college class read the article
and submit written responses to it. He found despite Harrington's attempt to
show poverty as a function of the political economy - by focusing on white male
poverty rather than on traditional "victims" along gender and ethnic/racial
lines - the respondents did not grasp this, but instead characterized white
males as a "new group" among the poor.
Another work which discusses journalistic presentations of the poor as victims
is Dahlin's analysis of books, newspapers, magazines and other sources'
"discovery" of poverty as a problem among the elderly at the turn of the
century, a discovery that would eventually lead to the creation of the Social
Security program in the 1930s. The individual responsibility, or what
sociologists call "blaming the victim," tactic is also discussed in Wright's
article, in which she notes that among the explanations offered for why the
media cite individual responsibility as the cause of poverty is corporate media
owners desires to present views favorable to their interests, audience
expectations, and journalists' inability to understand complex social science
Researching the television documentary "Harvest of Shame," Schaefer found that
a debate emerged between those on the production staff who wanted to leave
viewers with an emotional response of sympathy toward migrant farm workers, and
those, led by Edward R. Murrow, who wanted the program to end with a call for
political action. The groups shared the vision of leaving viewers with the
sense that the workers were victims of a system that left them powerless,
impoverished, and living in deplorable conditions.
Journalism and Public Policy Toward Poverty
Murrow's vision for Harvest won out, illuminating another dimension of
journalism's coverage of poverty and public response to the coverage. Schaefer
writes that after Harvest aired, an upset pubic did indeed call for political
action. The call did not result in any meaningful improvements for the workers,
partly because the production staff chose to present then contemporary images of
squalor, accompanied by short sound bites from migrants on one side and their
employers on the other.
Though Schaefer does not spell this out explicitly, the reliance on
"two-sided sound bites" and "contemporary images" represents aspects of the
news-documentary method which trace their origins to print news media. These
conventions of journalism, whether in print or broadcast, lead to an ignoring of
the structural forces which can govern people's lives. Though it may not have
been conscious, the produces of Harvest were constrained from placing blame for
the horrid lives of the migrants on the larger political economic system, but
rather placed it only on the growers, divorced from the system within which the
The results of "Harvest of Shame" are similar to the results Parmenter
discusses in his article on Sinclair's The Jungle, which first appeared in
serialized form in Appeal to reason, a socialist newspaper (Shore). Sinclair
had intended the book to be a call for socialism by showing how capitalism's
drive for runaway profits hurt the average citizen and led to deplorable working
conditions for the poor. The ideological response, in this case from the public
and other news media, was to call for reform within the current political
economic structure. Thus, what resulted was a push for pure food and drug laws,
but not legislation which would improve conditions for the workers.
Despite these examples, a number of researchers have found examples of news
coverage of poverty which have resulted in benefits for the poor, even if the
coverage did not portray poverty as a result of the political economy. McMurray
notes that during a fact-finding tour with Sen. Robert Kennedy, hunger was
"discovered" by television and newspapers for the first time since the
Depression era in 1967 when poverty in general was receiving increased
attention. The media attention waned after a few years, but not before Congress
expanded food assistance programs.
With help from the "hunger lobby," hunger returned to the spotlight in 1981 in
media coverage of the Reagan administration's battles with Congress over the
food-aid budget. The image of the hungry changed during this time, expanding
from "welfare families" to the "new poor" - members of the working class - and
eventually to the homeless. The government first responded by giving away
surplus cheese and later other surplus food which were "funneled to food banks
and soup kitchens."
Similarly, Walsh-Childers found that a package of stories by the Alabama
Journal in 1987 on infant mortality eventually led to the state legislature
appropriating additional funds for Medicaid so that an additional 30,000
pregnant women and their babies came under coverage, and the amount doctors
received from Medicaid for delivery increased from $425 to $1700. The
Department of Health also received additional funds to set up prenatal care
services in 20 counties, and a community alliance group in one county set up its
own non-profit clinic for low-income pregnant women. The people involved with
the changes whom Walsh-Childers later interviewed said the changes would have
occurred anyway, but that the articles helped focus attention on the issue and
greatly sped the process.
Kirchheimer examined the factors which can be credited for a sudden and large
increase in New York City expenditures for homeless emergency shelters from 1978
to 1985, despite the fact that "expansion of public social funding was not
expected in the 1980s." The New York media's dramatic increase in the attention
it gave to homelessness is among the factors cited. "The effect of media
coverage was, at a minimum, to cause the attention of public officials to focus
on the homeless....To a large extent, the media agenda became the agenda of
Carver found that editorial attitudes toward federal health insurance for those
who could not afford to purchase their own insurance was most favorable in 1965
when Medicaid legislation was finally signed into law as compared to 1939, 1945,
and 1960 when legislation was proposed but never passed.
All of the research presented in this section supports the notion that the
public will sometimes respond to coverage of poverty with support for programs -
but not for changes to the political economic structure - that provide
assistance to the poor, if the coverage is framed in a sympathetic way.
Homelessness as Contemporary Issue
The Kirchheimer piece brings to light the increased attention homelessness has
received from news media in past two decades, a trend which a number of
researchers have noted. Blasi, for example, found that public discourse during
the early 1990s on the homeless had displaced discussions of poverty and the
poor. Blasi found that from January 1, 1991 to 1994,6 The New York Times and
Los Angeles Times published 2,146 articles about the homeless and 469 about
poverty. He also examined the evolution of articles carried by The New York
Times during the 1980s from a discovery of "the horror of homelessness" in 1984
to articles focusing "almost entirely on the most troubled and troubling
subgroups, the mentally disordered and substance abusers, and on the 'backlash'
against homeless people" in 1991 and 1992.
Penner and Penner examined the "visual ideology" of the homeless based on
representations of homeless persons in editorial cartoons published in the San
Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Daily Californian from
September 1988 through May 1989. They noted that the cartoons were "dominated
by common stereotypes," and "rarely addressed individual choices," but did,
however, "demonstrate concern for the homeless." In a separate article, Penner
and Penner analyzed 231 comic strips and 126 editorial cartoons on the homeless
and homelessness in the Chronicle and Examiner from April 1989 through March
1992. They found that 57 percent of the comic strips and 30 percent of the
editorial cartoons neutralized homelessness (used the homeless as props for
other stories or issues or belittled their plight). Fifty-two percent of
editorial cartoons politicized homelessness, with political figures and
government bearing the brunt of criticism. They also noted that news coverage
of the homeless in general increased dramatically during the early 1980s as The
New York Times Index had only five stories under the heading "homeless persons"
in 1981 and 1982, but had 82 by 1983 and 313 by 1991.
Despite the increased attention homelessness has received, like other issues of
poverty, news media have also not connected it to the political economic system.
McNulty examined news magazine articles and CBS news broadcasts, and found that
the content contained no explicit definition of homelessness, used the term for
multiple and diverse populations (mentally ill, runaway teens, families and
children, threatening villains), portrayed homelessness as connected to several
other social problems but without clarifying homelessness as a cause, effect or
symptom of these other problems. McNulty concludes news stories portray
homelessness as "a vague, incomprehensible, and intractable problem" which
little can be done about.
Gibson included newspaper articles in his examination of the barriers
stereotypes can produce in forming public policy toward the homeless. Campbell
and Reeves analyzed three network news segments along with a 60 Minutes segment
on a New York homeless woman who was institutionalized against her will to
demonstrate how television news draws "boundaries ... between the marginal and
mainstream" and "between a major socioeconomic problem demanding collective
engagement and a personal problem requiring remedy." Similarly, Whang examined
mini news-magazine segments on the homeless and found that homeless people were
"differentiated from the rest of us" in the stories and were generally blamed
for their homelessness.
The portrayal of homelessness as an unsolvable problem may help explain the
findings of Kinnick, who surveyed 316 residents of Atlanta on their feelings
toward three social problems, including homelessness, to test the idea that too
much media coverage of these problems can lead to "compassion fatigue."
Although 35 percent of the respondents reported experiencing physical reactions
such as crying, sleeplessness, or loss of appetite as a result of exposure to
news about the issues studied, Kinnick found that desensitization was a more
common reaction than "emotional over arousal."
The last issue of journalism and poverty which will be covered here is the
journalistic tradition of creating one monolithic group of the poor out of a
wide variety of disparate groups. Mayne cites newspapers as the chief vehicle
in the creation of the "slum myth" during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Examining coverage of newspapers in San Francisco, Birmingham, England, and
Sydney, Australia, Mayne found the discourse on slums overlooked the diversity
of occupations, incomes, ethnicity and other factors while creating an
"all-embracing concept of an outcast society" within working class districts in
Gans makes nearly the same argument in the media creation of the "underclass."
Gans traces the development of "underclass" from a term following Myrdal's
notion of economic victimhood to an eventual behavioral definition that blames
the poor for their poverty. Much of this took place in social science
literature in the 1960s and 1970s before being picked up by the news media.
Gans sampled The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Time,
Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report, finding that the term's appearance
increased from less than six stories per year in the middle 1970s to 40 in the
early 1980s, to over 100 between 1985 and 1990, and then declining to about 90
stories per year in the early 1990s. Gans also found that the term was used to
describe African Americans almost exclusively.
Gans also found a shift on how the underclass was defined within news stories,
going from being predominantly a term describing economic victimization and
political powerlessness in the 1976-80 time period to being predominantly a term
describing behavior - particularly unwed motherhood - in the 1991-93 time
period. Gans goes on to discuss the dangers of umbrella labels such as
underclass which group together large and diverse segments of the population
with different "problems" under a term which is both "morally ambiguous" and
somewhat definitionally ambiguous. Lumping all the poor together raises the
possibility of repressive actions being taken against poor people who have not
"deviated from mainstream norms" and who have done nothing illegal.
The evidence discussed here shows that journalists are indeed involved in "a
war against the poor." According to the research reviewed and analyzed,
American journalists working within mainstream media have long denied the
structural causes of poverty, and in so doing have failed to make explicit to
the reading, listening, and viewing pubic the relationship between the American
economic system and poverty. In denying this structural aspect, journalists
have had to use other explanations for poverty's existence and have most often
relied on either portraying the poor as weak victims unable to fend for
themselves or as behaviorally-flawed people responsible for their own poverty.
In addition, as the Gilens article discussed on pages 2 and 3, along with the
research by Gans, shows that journalism portrays poverty as a problem for
African Americans. Further research which supports this finding includes
Lavin's analysis of a 1986 CBS News, Bill Moyers special, "The Vanishing Family:
Crisis in Black America," in which unwed motherhood among African Americans was
positioned as a major cause of poverty among blacks.
Though these conclusions are where the evidence seems to lead, it should be
noted that in some ways the evidence is circumstantial, and indeed, some
contradictory results have been found. For example, the Center for Media and
Public Affairs analyzed 103 stories broadcast on ABC, NBC, and CBS newscasts and
26 stories printed in Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report on
homelessness ("Media's view"). The Center found that only four percent of
sources used in the news stories blamed homelessness on the personal problems of
the homeless, while the rest "blamed social or political conditions." The most
often cited factor was the housing market.
Another factor to consider is that as poorly as journalists have done covering
poverty, researchers have done just as poorly in focusing attention on
journalists' coverage of the poor. Far too much of the literature presented
here relies on the doings of The New York Times, or has some other New York City
connection, as if the Times were somehow representative of the whole American
journalism industry and New York City somehow representative of every city and
town in America.
Beyond the New York-centrism problem, some assertions made by sociologists,
historians, and others about what journalism does in regards to the poor and
poverty have been substantiated by only one or two research studies. Far more
research in the vein of that presented here needs to be undertaken and needs to
involve media from different regions of the country in different sized markets.
Though it is doubtful that many newspapers or television stations would wander
too far beyond the ideological framework found here, again no evidence exists
that poverty is presented the same way throughout American mainstream
journalism. In addition, little of the research includes analysis of audience
effects, or perception and interpretation, with the exception of the Iyengar and
Kinder research discussed on page four. Much of the research assumes a certain
effect, but does not investigate the assumption.
In addition to these problems, other omissions exist in the research which has
been produced. Additional research could be carried out, not only building upon
the work of other researchers but also drawing connections between seemingly
unrelated research topics. For example, Jolly examined Los Angeles Times and
Orange County Register coverage to study "prevalent attitudes toward
undocumented immigrants" in 1994, a time when resentment toward this group ran
high in California and a time when California was suffering a severe economic
crisis. Undocumented immigrants are predominantly poor. This raises the
question of what type of overlap exists between "immigrant scapegoating," and
"poor scapegoating" during times of economic turmoil. During these times of
economic crisis, how much do journalists allow politicians to create scapegoats
when politicians have no real answers to address economic problems?
Other possible research that could draw connections between topics would
include investigations of overlap between "the war on drugs" and poverty, urban
disorders and poverty, crime and poverty,7 and whether media coverage of poverty
encourages conflicts among groups within the poor, thus discouraging solidarity
among the poor and decreasing their chances for gaining political power.
Also missing are studies which examine journalistic portrayals of welfare
recipients and public perception of welfare recipients, journalistic portrayals
of recipients compared to the realities of life for average welfare recipients,
or portrayals of recipients and effects on the recipients themselves.
Also missing is research that examines the growing homeless media, or street
newspapers, some of which also have a presence on the World Wide Web.
Comparison studies with mainstream media may produce interesting findings on how
the homeless and poor see themselves. Studies of contemporary ethnic media and
of inner-city neighborhood newspapers would provide follow-ups to Hindman's
research on an inner-city paper in Phillips, Minnesota, in which she found the
journalists torn between the demand for mainstream "objectivity" and advocacy
journalism. Within mainstream media, a question so far unanswered is the degree
to which journalism constructs homelessness as a local or even national
phenomenon, as opposed to an international problem - an estimated 3 million
people were homeless in Western Europe at the start of the 1990s (Stearn).
Research on specific relevant time periods is also missing. Almost no research
is available on the Depression era beyond Olson's 1935 essay in which he
asserted that the public was beginning to question whether journalists were "any
longer a champion of their rights" and in which he stated there was "a growing
dissatisfaction with an agency that tries to lull them with comic strips, serial
stories, movie gossip and advice to the love-lorn while they are desperately
groping for the answers to bewildering new social questions." Was journalism
able to stay within its traditional ideological framework when the political
economy suffered a major breakdown? How were the truly "new poor" portrayed?
Were they portrayed at all? What about the old poor?
On the same token, almost no literature exists, aside of the McMurray piece on
hunger, which examines the journalistic response to the 1960s "War on Poverty."
Was journalism responsible for focusing attention on poverty which then induced
a White House and Congressional response? Or did the government lead the way?
This type of research would be a way to conduct more agenda-setting research in
an historical context. In fact, Song has already made an initial foray in this
area in an agenda-setting study of press/congressional/presidential relations
during the Kennedy-Johnson and Nixon-Ford eras. Song notes that while Kennedy
and Johnson were active in social welfare policy issues, Nixon and Ford were
not. However, the media itself became active in promoting these issues under
Nixon and Ford. Social welfare can encompass much more than poverty issues, so
this area could still yield ground breaking work.
A major omission is research on journalists themselves. How much do journalists
investigate politicians' claims of "Cadillac-driving welfare queens" and other
inflammatory rhetoric targeting benefit programs which assist the poor? How
much do journalists go along with these claims without giving them any serious
thought? In 1992, for example, The Progressive took ABC's "Prime Time Live" and
reporter Diane Sawyer to task for a segment in which the show presented a slew
of unsubstantiated claims of welfare fraud and claimed welfare fraud may be
"even better than robbing a bank." The segment failed to show the burdensome
paperwork and bureaucratic hoops applicants must jump through before ever
receiving a welfare check, as well as other anti-fraud measures which in reality
make welfare fraud very difficult to accomplish. Is this example typical of
journalism's handling of politicians' targeting of government programs which
help the poor?
Why would a highly respected, well-experienced journalism professional such as
Sawyer present such a one-sided account? There is no body of research exploring
why journalists cover poverty the way they do. Are journalists intentionally
antagonistic toward the poor? Is pressure from management involved? Are there
other economic constraints involved, such as the work load and time pressures
placed upon journalists? Are journalists simply not educated on the subject?
While these questions can be answered theoretically, drawing upon what is known
about working conditions and news norms or values, the theory cannot be tested,
nor can plausible solutions be found, without speaking with or surveying
In addition, why does mainstream journalism continue to misrepresent poverty as
a problem for African Americans and not for white Americans? In his analysis of
magazine coverage of public housing, Henderson suggests an unconscious cultural
and racial bias by journalists, supplemented by the need to tailor their product
toward a white, middle-class and suburban audience. Are journalists aware that
they misrepresent poverty this way? Again, are they simply uneducated about the
realities of poverty? Or, is Henderson's explanation the appropriate one?
More work could also be done in line with a civic journalism study by Ettema and
Peer that suggests journalists begin using a different vocabulary to discuss
economically depressed communities; a vocabulary that promotes
community-building and de-emphasizes stigma-producing labels and stereotypes.
Finally, journalism's role in the perpetuation of the view of poverty as always
an undesirable condition could be explored. Beyond stigmatization that can
result from particular framings of poverty coverage, does journalism promote the
concept of poverty as always undesirable by promoting or supporting notions of
consumption and luxury in a taken-for-granted ideology that consumption and
luxury are the only desirable lifestyles and present no moral ambiguities?
All in all, poverty is too important an issue to be overlooked by the
journalism research community to the extent that it has been thus far. In fact,
a number of the studies presented here do not explicitly focus on poverty, but
mention it only in passing. Poverty affects more than 49 million Americans, and
untold numbers worldwide. At the same time, the journalism research community
should be concerned about the lack of evidence produced to either substantiate
or refute the claims that journalists are active in a war against poor people.
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1 As of March 1997, 28.4 percent of America's black population, or 9.7 million
people, lived below the official poverty line compared to 11.2 percent of the
white population, or 24.7 million people (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 477). The
Hispanic population is also disproportionately represented - 29.4 percent, or
8.7 million people.
2 Quotes taken from, "The American underclass: destitute and desperate in the
land of plenty." Time, 29 August 1977: 14-17.
3 Eligibility requirements as of 1994.
4 Using the stricter, official poverty level measure, the numbers are still
extraordinary. As of March 1997, 36.5 million Americans lived in official
poverty. For a family of four, this translates to an annual income of $16,036
5 For an introductory primer on muckraking research literature, see Stein.
6 Blasi gives no actual cutoff date for his article count, though his article
was published in 1994.
7 In two studies that have been done, Bird found that in their coverage of
crime, Depression-era newspapers seldom mentioned economic conditions which led
to an increase in crime during the period, and Stroman and Seltzer found voters
in two Maryland counties who received most of their news from newspapers
"targeted poverty as the major cause of crime," while those voters who received
most of their news from television cited a "lenient court system" as the major
American journalism vs. the poor