PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — The average American watches five hours of television a day and spends 40 minutes on Facebook. Of that time, a limited amount is spent looking at the news. Poverty, a growing issue both in the United States and abroad, constitutes less than .02 percent of lead media coverage. This compares to politics at 16 percent, immigration at 1.4 percent and education at 1.2 percent.
These figure mean that people are not informed about important issues. Even when the recession hit in 2009, people were still under-informed on poverty.
Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, the director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, commented in an interview with Nieman Watchdog in 2009 that international aid does more good than military invasions to combat terrorism, yet the latter is covered more in the media.
Poverty is an issue even in the United States, with 50 million people living below the poverty line. During the last election, FAIR performed a study which found that only 309 out of 10,489 news stories discussed poverty at all. Only 17 discussed it in any depth.
While there is so little media coverage of domestic poverty, there is even less of international poverty. Many people do not know that the Millennium Development Goals exist, and only a handful of journalists for major newspapers write about poverty issues with any frequency.
The news typically covers abrupt crises abroad, then discusses the immediate recovery plans. They rarely discuss the systems that impoverished people live in every day. Reactions to terrorism such as sanctions, military interventions and peacekeepers are covered. The causes of terrorism, such as poverty, are almost never discussed.
One of the reasons this happens is that journalists like happy endings. Systematic poverty in the world does not have a tidy resolution. Journalists also want to write about actions and change, and changes in the state of global poverty are not happening rapidly enough.
Another issue is that of censorship. Reporting in impoverished countries is not always easy because governments may choose to withhold certain information from the public. Journalists from countries with free presses struggle to access details about developing countries.
Economics is also to blame. Advertisers do not like poverty stories sitting next to their ads encouraging people to consume more. Money has such control of the media that there are more stories about billionaires than about those in poverty, despite billionaires making up a minority of the population.
There is some hope, however. In 2013, the Brazilian group ABRAJI, the leading investigative journalism association, and Folha de Sao Paolo worked on covering poverty issues through civilian reports. With a $20,000 grant from AT&T, they were able to pay civilian journalists and provide them with a class on journalism. They then sent them out to report on their daily lives and the issues surrounding them.
But this alone is not enough. The Global Investigative Journalism Network gives advice to professional journalists covering poverty: “Coverage of any poverty-related topic, be it infant mortality or lack of access to education, needs discerning, multifaceted stories that reveal the deeper causes of poverty.”
GIJN advises journalists to cover education and to write articles on behalf of people in poverty. They also suggest working with NGOs, governments, and other groups to learn about issues, and to be an ambassador to their editors to emphasize the importance of the issue.
If more journalists write in this manner, it could improve coverage of poverty, aid identification of its causes and illuminate its effects on the world.
– Monica Roth