In recounting her reporting experiences for the Palm Beach Post after Hurricane Wilma hit Florida, Jane Daugherty speaks to the “retrospective dynamic of our coverage,” in which journalists seem to rediscover in natural disasters the vulnerabilities of those who are poor and powerless. “The unfortunate reality,” Daugherty observes, is “that American journalists do not systematically or analytically cover the plight of the poor, the marginalized, the isolated, or the powerless.” Yet when disaster strikes, these people’s predictable plight becomes news, until interest wanes and the cycle prepares to repeat.
In her role as executive producer of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC’s series about poverty, Emily Hanford relied on a wide array of voices and perspectives to examine in depth such questions such as “What’s political about poverty?” “What is poverty?” and “What’s changed?.” “Getting people to ponder questions like these, possibly in new ways, matters,” Hanford writes. During a 20-month period the local newspaper in Greeley, Colorado (circulation 26,000) devoted considerable space and resources to the publication of a series of articles in which reporters “explored a range of gaps — social, cultural and economic, to name a few — that separate the life experiences of Greeley’s Latino population and the Anglos. …” writes Greeley Tribune reporter Dan England.
As she reported stories for two separate series about disparities in health and gaps in school achievement for WBUR, a public radio station in Boston, reporter Martha Bebinger asked herself whether “the arenas of health and education gaps [are] simply the latest way to measure — or possibly sanitize — the effects of discrimination,” and she struggled to figure out “what language to use and what issues to raise in reporting on [such] ‘gaps.’ ” As a Latina journalist at The Monterey Country Herald who reports often on the city of Salinas’s Latinos, who make up 67 percent of that city’s population, Claudia Meléndez Salinas confronts the challenge of finding ways to “report on these complicated and historic formulas of white privilege and the disadvantage of color in a 12-inch story and on deadline.”
As business editor at The Associated Press, Kevin Noblet monitors closely the ever-expanding wage and benefit gaps separating “what an average employee earns and what top bosses take home.” Noblet sees this issue not as a story assigned to a single reporter but as an historic shift for which “every business reporter and columnist needs to be on watch for threads of this story.” As author and Weblogger Danny Schechter explored the widening credit divide in America — fueled, in part, by predatory targeting of the poor by the credit industry — he found reasons why this story might receive less media attention than it should. “… the media industry has discovered that there’s money to be made in the credit business and so credit card companies become big media advertisers. Why alienate them?”
Trudy Lieberman, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists, offers some explanations for why health reporting so rarely spotlights the plight of the uninsured. She tells of a newspaper reporter in Wisconsin who can’t “interest her editors in stories about health care inequalities or other health policy issues.” In focus groups, Lieberman writes, “consumers tell publishing executives what they want, and it rarely includes a desire for more news about the ever-widening gap between the health care haves and have-nots.” As education reporter for the Walla Walla (Wash.) Union-Bulletin, Cathy Grimes wrote a series of articles about the achievement gap in the wake of the passage of No Child Left Behind. “Stories from the classroom — my version of frontline reporting — focused on successful strategies to bridge the gaps, as well as on efforts and attitudes that seemed destined to leave the gap firmly in place,” Grimes writes.
Paul Nyhan, a reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, describes how his newspaper put a lot of reporting resources behind a series of stories examining the “overarching issues” common to the lives of the working poor. Faced now with a lean newsroom and a fight to keep the newspaper alive, Nyhan writes that he expects “to spend the next year writing about middle-class families, a group our marketers say still reads newspapers.” Freelance journalist Susan Brenna offers thoughts on how good writers “achieve the right tone — humane, but clear-eyed — when writing about the disadvantaged.” Jason Johnson, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, relied on the details of financial experiences to tell an “in-depth story about the economic squeeze on middle-class families.” In reporting for Women’s eNews about how federal welfare reform was affecting poor and low-income families, freelance journalist Jennifer Friedlin realized how little attention most of the news media paid to this important follow-up story and how the stories being done failed to capture the more complicated dimensions that she felt needed to be told. “I got the feeling that once welfare had been ‘reformed,’ the news story was simply over,” Friedlin writes.
Ana Cristina Enriquez, who worked as editor in Reforma Group in Mexico, observes that in her country “Mexican society considers it bad taste to talk about these shameful contrasts [of rich and poor].” This attitude is adopted by the press, where the focus today is “on wealth and celebrities.” As Enriquez notes, “What one almost never reads or hears about in Mexico is the immense gap dividing more well-to-do Mexicans from the native Indians, who reside at the very bottom of the economic and social ladder.” In China, the government has acknowledged the need to address the country’s widening economic divide, but as Beijing-based journalist Yuan Feng writes, “From the official news media, readers cannot get a very good understanding about the presence or significance of these gaps, nor is there any mention made of the structural factors which are causing them or helping them to persist.” Françoise Lazare, a reporter with Le Monde in Paris, describes how foreign reporting of France’s “suburban riots” involving poor, ethnic minority youth differed from that done by French journalists, and also observes that in “normal” times “other political, social and economic issues are generally seen as greater priorities by the French press. …”