Unequal Coverage of Inequality

Shanna Tippin, a minimum wage worker, claims to be fired after talking to the Washington Post about her 25-cent minimum wage increase. This is one of the challenges in poverty reporting: “if workers feel that they will experience negative effects, they may be less likely to come forward,” Alyssa Peterson, assistant editor of TalkPoverty.org, writes. She adds, “If anything, this story demonstrates that we need more coverage, not less.”

Studies have shown that poverty has been an unpopular topic for some mainstream news outlets, with only 0.2 percent of the stories discussing it among all campaign-related stories during election seasons. While nearly 15 percent of Americans live in poverty, the coverage they receive is disproportionately low. “[V]ery few reporters are covering [poverty] and covering it well, so we’re just trying to fill in the gap,” says Peterson. TalkPoverty.org is a ten-months-old blog housed by the Center for American Progress with contributors from all sorts of backgrounds, including journalists, senators, chefs, and individuals who have experienced poverty. Their goal is not only to raise awareness but also to spread the notion that “poverty is not an intractable problem, but one that has a solution rooted to public policy,” says Peterson.

Some may claim that poverty is a natural product under capitalism and free markets, “which is untrue,” Peterson states, “we very intentionally see poverty as a structural problem, as opposed to an individual problem because that’s definitely the narrative that we think is true.” The biggest concern is the economic policy making. “[W]hat we have right now [is an economic system] that routinely cuts core services that provide a safety net for people, that refuses to invest in our infrastructure, that refuses to invest in our education, so what we’re looking for is an economic structure that yes preserves a market, but also provides a safety net for people,” Peterson says. One of the challenges the blog faces is to engage people in the middle who feel bad for the poor but are not necessarily motivated to participate in a movement to take action. “[P]eople cycle in and out of poverty in our life time,” Peterson says, “dispelling this narrative that poverty is a set of people at the bottom engages [more participants] in the inequality argument.” In other words, we are all on this balance.

Fair coverage on poverty is important because without taking it into account, wealth gap and inequality cannot be discussed fully. On the other end of the balance, the wealthy is constantly reported on through all sorts of angles. The New York Times Style Magazine features cultural events and trends that may only be affordable by the upper-middle class, and The Wall Street Journal has a whole section featuring mansions. Peterson attributes this imbalance to journalists’ efforts, “people who are living in poverty don’t have resources to just sit down and write an op-ed. So I think it requires a lot of work for reporters to seek people out.” Reporting on wealth inequality may require lots of data as indicators on how both the wealthy and the poor are doing economically, but “I think what people need to commit to when they’re reporting on the wealth gap, is this idea that there are solutions,” Peterson says. “I think there’s a general consensus in the progressive community that the government needs to intervene in the inequality space, otherwise inequality will continue to persist or expand.”

“Interest in the issue is at all-time high, and our job is to figure out how we can capsulize from that,” Peterson says of inequality. Reporting on people from all financial spectrums is a never-ending process, as there will always be new human interest stories and ever-changing data. The press’ obligation is not to cover every story individually, but rather to present the issue as a structural problem waiting to be solved. Not only should the press ensure the fairness of the amount of coverage distributed across subjects from all financial statuses, but also be the government watchdog and hold it accountable when certain policy solutions are proposed to moderate inequality. There is no fine line in defining how much coverage is enough on a certain group of subjects, but when an issue impacts the progress of the whole nation, “it’s sort of irresponsible I think for journalists to ignore that segment of the population, which is quite large, and not to talk about economic policies,” says Peterson.

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