FAIR’s study examined the three weeknight network newscasts—ABC World News, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News—over a 38-month period (9/11/03– 10/30/06). We considered every story mentioning the words “poverty,” “low income,” “homeless,” “welfare” or “food stamps,” compiling a list of all stories that dealt with issues of poverty in more than a passing manner.
It was a short list. During the more than three years studied, there were just 58 stories about poverty on the three network newscasts, including just 191 quoted sources.
For perspective, a FAIR study of network newscasts (Extra!, 5–6/02) found that in just one year (2001), the three networks included a total of 14,632 sources. Assuming that the nightly news still features a like number of sources per year, that would amount to some 46,000 sources over the 38 months of FAIR’s study, making sources appearing in poverty stories just 0.4 percent of overall sources.
Among individual networks, NBC ran the most stories related to poverty, with 25, followed close behind by CBS with 22. ABC aired only 11 stories addressing poverty in the 38-month study period—a rate of about one every 15 weeks.
Driving home poverty’s low rank as a news priority is the fact that fewer nightly news segments were dedicated to it than to millionaire pop star Michael Jackson. During a study period that saw 58 stories about poverty, the three network programs dedicated 69 stories to Jackson’s legal woes. Of the three networks, only NBC aired more stories on poverty than on Michael Jackson (25 to 24). Moreover, in 2005, the year that saw the Katrina disaster and the culmination of Jackson’s rather less consequential trial, the networks deemed the pop star’s legal problems twice as newsworthy as the economic plight of tens of millions of poor citizens, running 44 stories on Michael Jackson to 22 for poverty.
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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 an increase in state minimum-wage laws (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 flip side of these stories with no poor sources are those that focus on the poor, but avoid any discussion of policy issues at all. 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. The last one blamed the “changing economy” for increased economic polarization, with no indication of what changes were made or who made them. (For examples of how government policies have directly fostered inequality, see The Conservative Nanny State by Dean Baker.)
This was also true of the stories on hunger that are a staple of newscasts every Thanksgiving and Christmas. In late 2005, both CBS (11/24/05) and NBC (12/26/05) ran stories on food banks running short of donations, without explaining or asking why. (CBS, interestingly, had run a nearly identical story on falling food donations two years earlier—11/27/03—something it never noted in its 2005 story.) Network producers apparently had no interest in going even as deep as USA Today, which in an earlier report (11/21/05) had quoted Food Bank for New York City spokesperson Lisa Jakobsberg as saying, “It’s pretty much a direct result of Katrina”—which had drawn off private resources in part to compensate for the lousy government relief effort.
Generally, though, stories on poverty are expected to include one or more poor people. What they’re allowed to speak about, though, is severely circumscribed. 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.
Friday, September 07, 2007
Poor People? What Poor People?