The Media Does Not Cover Poverty, Despite Record Poverty

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“Poverty and income inequality, Scott, are shaping up to be key issues, not just here in the capital this year but at the White House as well.”

——Reporter Nancy Cordes to anchor Scott Pelley (CBS Evening News, 1/8/14)

With poverty at 15 percent, inequality rising and Republican politicians talking about addressing the problem by cutting federal programs that help the poor, one might expect poverty to occupy a solid spot on media agendas.

This isn’t the case, according to a new FAIR study of nightly network news shows. The study looked at ABC World News, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News for a 14-month period (1/1/13– 2/28/14) in the wake of the 2012 elections. FAIR examined stories in the Nexis news database that included and discussed the terms “poverty,” “low income,” “food stamps,” “welfare” or “homeless.” (Stories that included only passing mentions of these terms, without even a minimal discussion, were excluded.)

A total of 23 such segments were found, three of which were “rip and read” briefs, anchor-read stories containing no sources. The other pieces included a total of 54 sources, less than half of which—22—were people personally affected by poverty. That means, on average, someone affected by poverty appeared on any nightly news show only once every 20 days.

By comparison, over the same period the network news shows aired almost four times as many stories, 82, that included the term “billionaire.” There are 482 billionaires in the US, compared to nearly 50 million living in poverty, according to Census standards, which some scholars say greatly undercount the poor (Extra!, 9/12).

Stories on the rich often painted them in a favorable light. NBC Nightly News (8/5/13) aired a story about the recent trend of billionaires, including Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos, buying up newspapers—in “many cases,” anchor Brian Williams explained, “because they believe in quality work and a robust press.”

ABC World News (1/26/14) aired a story on billionaire Tom Perkins’ claim that there’s a war against the rich in the US. In the piece, Perkins compared criticism of the wealthy to Kristallnacht, the murderous 1938 Nazi rampage against German Jews.

An average of just 2.7 seconds per 22-minute nightly news program was devoted to segments where poverty was mentioned. This overstates the coverage, as many of these segments were not primarily about poverty, but included only a brief discussion of the subject. For instance, in a 130-second CBS Evening News segment about Congress passing a bill to get air traffic controllers furloughed by the sequester back to work, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Mary-land) was quoted in an 14-second soundbite criticizing the narrowness of the bill:

Seventy thousand children will be kicked out of Head Start. Nothing in this bill deals with them. Four million fewer Meals on Wheels for WIC. Six hundred thousand people dropped off WIC, nothing in here for them.

CBS Evening News featured the most segments discussing poverty, with 12, followed by NBC with eight. Throughout 2013, NBC featured a poverty-focused feature called “In Plain Sight,” underwritten by the Ford Foundation*, that accounted for five of the network’s eight poverty segments. (Much of the feature’s content was online-only.) ABC discussed poverty in just three stories in the 14-month period—a rate of one story every 20 weeks.

 

NBC News reports on a food bank.

The depth of coverage varied widely, from some relatively long and informative segments that shed light on conditions and remedies, to segments that were almost uselessly brief or even dismissive.

For instance, a 150-second NBC Nightly News “In Plain Sight” segment (11/1/13), long by nightly news standards, featured reporter Mike Taibbi examining how the expiration of a food stamp subsidy affected three families in dire economic straits.

Contrast that with an awkward, 40-word “rip and read” by ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer (2/4/14), who seemed to minimize the $8 billion in cuts to the EBT program (better known as the food stamp program) included in the recently passed Farm Bill:

After a two-year fight today, the Senate passed a farm bill which cuts $8 billion from the food stamp program. But that’s far less than the $40 billion Republicans wanted to cut. And the president is expected to sign this bill.

In a longer segment that included some of those affected, it would have been harder to look on the bright side of an $8 billion cut in food aid.

Of 54 sources, nine were politicians, two were academics/experts, seven were public interest advocates and four were volunteers. Three were clergy members working at food pantries. As noted, less than half, 22, were sources affected by poverty. Twenty-five of all sources were women, including 11 of the sources affected by poverty.

Thirty-nine of the 54 sources, or 72 percent, were white, 12 were black and three were Latino. Of the sources affected by poverty, 13 were white, six were black and two were Latino.

In 2007, FAIR (Extra!, 9/07) conducted a similar study, using the same search terms and parameters. The results show very little change. The recent study shows a tiny increase in the frequency of poverty stories: In 2007, there were 58 stories over the course of a 38-month study, for a rate of 1.5 poverty segments each month on the three networks combined. The current study shows 23 segments on the same shows over the course of 14 months, for a rate of 1.6 stories each month.

In 2007 (9/07), we quoted the Tyndall Report‘s finding that there were just 2.5 seconds of poverty coverage in the average 22-minute nightly newscast in the months leading up to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. FAIR’s 2007 study looked at how well network news fulfilled the promise of television journalists like NBC‘s Brian Williams, who, after witnessing the crucial role economic hardship played in the suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina and the government’s response to it, vowed to make an extra effort to pay attention to poverty (Extra!, 8/06).

According to the 2007 study, that effort resulted in the average nightly news increasing coverage slightly, to four seconds per newscast. FAIR’s current study shows that the coverage, at 2.7 seconds per nightly newscast, has nearly returned to its 2005 low point.

FAIR’s study (Extra!, 9/12) of how poverty was covered during the 2012 political campaign cited a dodge journalists occasionally employ to justify not covering a crucial issue: How can we pay attention to something politicians aren’t talking about? And it was true that the almost nonexistent coverage of poverty in the campaign corresponded with a failure of either major party to make poverty an issue.

That has not been the case during the period of the current study. While Democrats may have been silent, Republicans have attempted to make an issue of poverty, arguing for cutting federal poverty programs and transferring their funds to the states (CBS Evening News, 1/8/14). Now that politicians are talking about poverty, media have run out of excuses.

*Ford has provided grant money to FAIR.

  • http://warrenwhitlock.com/social-media-expert Warren Whitlock

    The idea that there is no coverage is ridiculous. This story cites numbers that there IS coverage, biased as it is. No more biased than your take on it.

    I can’t see how any thinking person would form their opinions on today’s media, or any group opposed to it, without some broader reading.

    There are tons of stories out about real people DOING SOMETHING to end poverty. Instead of whining about #oldmedia, I propose we all get involved in solutions.

    • http://www.contemporaryfirsts.com/ The Bookwizard

      Where?

      • http://warrenwhitlock.com/social-media-expert Warren Whitlock

        2.7 billion people live on less than $2/day. We’ve been covering what individuals and groups are doing on http://BillionsRising.com

        I hold that whining about people being poor is a giant waste of time. Instead, I choose to focus on real people and real programs that do something about it.

        • http://www.contemporaryfirsts.com/ The Bookwizard

          So self-reliance will magically eliminate poverty? Hmmm. The reality is we live in a world on 7 billion people which requires that we interact with each other. If we just focused on ourselves to the exclusion of “the whiners” – as you call the poor, we’d all starve to death. Sounds like more neo-liberal trope and the pot calling the kettle.

          • http://warrenwhitlock.com/social-media-expert Warren Whitlock

            Poor people are too busy working to survive to be whining. Excuse me if I don’t have time for your problems and political agenda about who is better than whom (“trope”.. what a clever little word). I’m doing something about helping people in need.

            Have you brought anyone out of poverty? If not, you are a whiner. I talk to them every day.

            100% agree that we need each other to survive.

            The post here was about media not covering poverty. Evidence that this is not true includes THIS POST.

          • DHFabian

            Those aren’t the real poor, at least in the US. Many who talk about the poverty of those getting by on $15-20k wages are the same people who thought those trying to get on their feet on $4k welfare aid were living so comfortably that they lost the will to get jobs. When was the last time you saw an examination of hunger and homelessness in the US? Middle classers appear to lack the ability to grasp that not everyone can work, and there simply aren’t jobs for all who need one (since the US shipped out a huge portion of our jobs since the 1980s). When was the last time you heard or read lib media call for poverty relief for those who have been pushed out of the job market?

        • DHFabian

          Like what? This generation has systematically been been wiping out programs that addressed poverty, providing the stability/means to work their way out of poverty. We can’t change conditions in foreign countries, and won’t change them here. The last I heard, there are 7 jobs available for every 10 people who urgently need one, and we’re stuck with an arrogant middle class that cannot grasp this.

          • http://warrenwhitlock.com/social-media-expert Warren Whitlock

            you heard wrong.

    • WitchCat

      Odd, then, that even the small-town journalists in Abilene TX aren’t willing to discuss the issue in their own teensy newspapers. The Dallas Morning News tucks it into the back pages (may as well be dead), and you have to search their websites for (any) articles regarding the issue. The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal is the only one with any recent article relating to the issue, and let’s be blunt, here, THEY’RE POOR.

      SHOW ME where all this coverage you speak of is located, sir.

      • http://warrenwhitlock.com/social-media-expert Warren Whitlock

        maybe you are looking for the wrong coverage. If you want more whining about poverty, just search for that word on any search engine.

        • DHFabian

          Whining? So, you think that those who have been pushed into poverty should just quietly “go die.” Here’s reality: Not everyone can work, due to health or circumstances, and there simply aren’t jobs available to all who urgently need one. The US shipped out a huge number of working class jobs since the 1980s, then increased the number of people who urgently need jobs. Millions who are stuck in low wage jobs are a single job loss from losing everything, with no way back up. Once you no longer have a home address, phone, bus fare, you’re locked out. The overall life expectancy of America’s poor has already fallen by 5-6 years since Clinton ended basic poverty relief — a historic decline. Our govt continues to redistribute massive amounts of taxpayer money upward, largely to corporations that use this money to move our jobs out. Meanwhile, with the latest budget, they curt meager food stamp allotments to the elderly, disabled and working poor. Again.

        • WitchCat

          Mr. Whitlock, did you read what I wrote? Lubbock is THE ONLY newspaper that has any recent articles relating to the issue. Stupid human.

          • http://warrenwhitlock.com/social-media-expert Warren Whitlock

            I just share the top kink. Figuring that any intelligent peso. Could read past one

        • DHFabian

          All we hear is whining from the corporate pigs about having to pay taxes at all.

    • DHFabian

      Have any examples? Liberal media has waved the Middle Class Only banner for years. Not everyone can work, and there simply aren’t jobs available for all who desperately need one. You can’t get a job once you no longer have a home address, phone, bus fare. The US shipped out a huge chunk of our working class jobs since the 1980s, then ended basic poverty relief in the 1990s. I’ve yet to see any examination of the consequences. You can’t buy a potato with another decade of promises of job creation.

  • DHFabian

    The media marketed to liberals can’t say much, since their job is to support Dem pols who tend to habitually target the poor. Media focuses on their target audience, middle class consumers and campaign donors.

  • DHFabian

    I have. I suppose you call him a “whiner,” too.