The poor will always be with us. Just not on TV news. That's the headline of a recent report by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, the New York-based media monitoring group.
According to the Census Bureau, 37 million Americans – one in eight – lived below the federal poverty line in 2005, defined as an annual income of $19,971 for a family of four. However, other studies show that it takes at least twice as much as the official poverty figure to have a decent standard of living in the United States. That means a more accurate figure for people living in poverty is more like 90 million, nearly one-third of the nation.
FAIR did a three-year study of weeknight network news programs on ABC, NBC and CBS, examining every story that contained the words poverty, low income, homeless, welfare or food stamps. The study can be viewed online at www.fair.org.
"Yet despite being an issue that directly or indirectly affects a huge chunk of the U.S. population, poverty and inequality receive astonishingly little coverage on nightly network news," the FAIR study concluded. "An exhaustive search of weeknight news broadcasts on CBS, NBC and ABC found that with rare exceptions, such as the aftermath of Katrina, poverty and the poor seldom even appear on the evening news – and when they do, they are relegated mostly to merely speaking in platitudes about their hardships."
The three networks used a total of 14,632 sources for stories in 2001, according to one FAIR report. Assuming that figure has remained steady over the years, that means roughly 46,000 sources were used in the 38-month period recently studied, from Sept. 11, 2003 to Oct. 30, 2006.
"During the more than three years studied, there were just 58 stories about poverty on the three network newscasts, including just 191 quoted sources," the study found. That means that sources appearing in stories about poverty represented just 0.4 percent of all sources.
NBC led the way with 25 stories about poverty, followed closely by CBS with 22 and in distant third-place was ABC, with only 11 stories, or one every 15 weeks.
"In a handful of stories – primarily on CBS – poverty issues were discussed solely by experts, with no poor people appearing on-screen at all. A CBS story (2/7/05) on George W. Bush's proposed budget cuts to both farm aid and block grants to fight hunger and homelessness quoted solely elected officials, think tankers and executives of food banks.
"Another CBS story on problems with the new Medicare prescription drug plan (1/16/06) cited only the Republican governor of Minnesota (who was concerned) and U.S. Health and Human Services secretary Michael Leavitt (who wasn't); one on the push for increase in state minimum wage workers (6/27/06) interviewed several ACORN activists behind the campaign, but no actual minimum wage workers. (Advocates for the poor, such as ACORN and food bank officials, are an important part of the discussion, but they can't substitute for the perspectives of those who actually live in poverty.)"
The problem also occurred in stories about the poor that did not address policy questions.
"CBS, again, is the prime culprit, having run segments on predatory lending (9/5/03), the difficulties of finding child care (11/25/03) and increasing economic polarization (12/8/05) that studiously avoided asking how government policies had helped to cause or failed to alleviate these problems," FAIR observed.
Many stories left the impression that poor people don't know what's best for them.
"In story after story, poor people were included to tell generic stories of suffering, before turning to 'experts' who discussed what policies should be pursued to address the situation," the study found.
"What FAIR's study cannot do is show why network journalists assign such a low priority to stories that affect so many," the report stated. "Many of whom tell us that the poverty narrative is neither compelling nor good for business, as advertisers aren't fond of negative stories."
What attracted me and many other Black journalists to the field of journalism was the notion that the purpose of the media is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But that is quickly going by the wayside.
"The poor don't have public relations staffs or corporate communications offices," FAIR stated. "They are left to the increasingly quaint journalistic ideals that once implored journalists to be champions of society's underdogs and to comfort the afflicted."
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker and media coach.