How to Report on People in Poverty

Published: 2 August 2017

Country: UK

food-sorting-2103-683x416_trussell_trust_food_bankLast week, a report by In Kind Direct revealed that a growing number of people in the UK are facing hygiene poverty. A few days before, figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government showed that the number of homeless children living in temporary accommodation has increased by 37% since 2014, reaching a total of 120,540.

Although stories about poverty concern people who are potential audience, media organisations do not give enough attention to poverty and inequality, nor do they report sensitively about disadvantaged communities. Stereotypes, assumption and misinformation often dominate in articles on benefit frauds, or human-interest stories with no hope in sight, contributing in strengthening prejudice and keeping the status quo.

It is the duty of journalists to report fairly and accurately about poverty, bring the difficulties and the disadvantages experienced by certain people on a public debate that could, in turn, prompt the government to respond.

“When the latest pictures arrive of pestilence, natural disaster, disease or famine, the media responds with immediacy and sensitivity and cash flows in to charities. It is more difficult to convey the long-running, grinding disadvantage experienced by people who may not be living quite so obviously in poverty and despair in the UK,” states the guide “Reporting poverty in the UK” produced by the Society of Editors.

Despite the challenges, however, there is something that journalists can do to improve their media coverage of people in poverty.

Understand what poverty is

It is difficult to define poverty and that’s why there are different measures available, the Guide to facts and figures by Full Fact explains. Governments usually calculate figures for absolute and relative low income, measured before and after housing costs. According to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), around one in six people in the UK are in relative low income before housing costs, rising to more than one in five once we account for housing costs. But poverty is not just lack of money. As Poverty and Social Exclusion (PSE) says, “poverty has most commonly been measured primarily in terms of income and of material and social deprivation, including, more recently, measures of social exclusion.  But increasingly poverty is seen as a more multi-dimensional concept incorporating aspects of, for example, psychological well being, such as mental health and shame.”

Do not pigeonhole

Stories on poverty often depict protagonists as heroes, victims, or villains, says the guide “Reporting poverty in the UK”.  Whether it regards a man who managed to lift himself out of poverty and become a millionaire; a family falling into poverty; or a single mother claiming benefits though she could work, the hero/victim/villain frames are an oversimplification of reality. They are misleading to readers and put the blame or the merit on individuals, failing to acknowledge the economic and social structures within which they are forced to operate.  These frames are also unfair towards the protagonists, who might not recognise themselves in the category assigned.

Build up trust

When it comes to vulnerable people, journalists cannot just shove a microphone on their mouths. They need to build trusts first. “[Journalists] ought to realise that people won’t just tell them their life story straight away, because poverty can be a very difficult subject to talk about, especially the fear of being judged by others who will read the story,” says Dan Paskins, formerly of the UK Coalition Against Poverty, on the guide “Reporting poverty in the UK”.

Respect interviewees

Reporters should also remember they are talking to a person, not to a case study, states the NUJ Guide to Reporting Poverty. Make sure to meet the person in a place where they feel comfortable – continues the guide – to put them at ease and stop the interview if asked, and to explain them the context of the story.

The social stigma around poverty makes people reluctant to be interviewed and embarrassed to have their name and photo associated with it. If interviewees do not want their names disclosed, journalists should accept. There are also ways of concealing the identity of a person in a photo without pixelating it, such us portraying a person drinking from a cup that partially covers the face, as the guide “Reporting poverty in the UK” advises.

daily_mail_daily_express_benefitsAvoid existing prejudices: the deserving and undeserving poor

“The common characteristic of all negative stereotypes of people experiencing poverty is that they are accused of being a drain on society – on the ‘hard-working majority’, who they appear satisfied to take advantage of,” explains “Reporting poverty in the UK”. The insistence on the narrative of ‘hard-working families’ proposed by politicians and repeated by the media – continues the guide – implies that “those who don’t work, for whatever reason, are less deserving and that those who do have few problems.” This brings two stereotypes: that some people choose to live in poverty, and that those who work are not poor. Evidence proves the opposite.

Ask the experts

Listening to and interviewing experts is an essential part of journalists’ work. Specialists can offer useful data and insights to a field the reporter might not know much about. But journalists should remember that those who know better about living with a low income are the people who are in that situation.

Seek help from civil society organisations

Civil society organisations can help journalists with resources, material and sources. If needed, one of their representatives could come along to the interview to make sure that the interviewees are not exploited and are comfortable at talking to reporters.

Use individuals’ stories but explain the broader issue

Straight statistics alone cannot prompt empathy from readers as good as a story of an individual would do. But the story of an individual in itself is not able to show the extent of the issue within its wider context. Research on data, causes, and perspectives is the key not to focus just on the symptoms.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo, author of the book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”, said that simply reporting on the daily lives of people in the slum would only constitute what she called “poverty porn.” Though recognising that “nobody is representatives”, Boo highlights the importance of illuminating on broader issues. To do so, it’s necessary examine data and documents, devoting time to research.

Mind your words

Using inaccurate and derogatory words to refer to a community spread intolerance and hatred which might lead to discrimination against disadvantaged groups. Yet, many outlets do not hesitate to use offensive words such as “scroungers”, “feckless”, “lazy”. “Impoverished” and “poverty-stricken” were also highlighted as stigmatising by “Reporting poverty in the UK”, as well as “handouts”. The guide suggests using instead more neutral words such “people in poverty”, “people on a low income”, and “people receiving/in receipt of benefits”.

Make connection

Many of the stories we read every day are tightly linked with poverty: physical and mental health, disability, violence, and poor quality housing, among others.

“Individual stories have the power to shed light on these wider problems, but they will only do that if the link is made between the facts of the story – for example, educational under-achievement – and its fundamental causes. Simply by making that connection, journalists can raise awareness of the issues around poverty,” states “Reporting poverty in the UK”.

Use a constructive approach

Most journalism work reports on social problems without mentioning any responses for solution or possibility of change. Articles on issues related with poverty usually leave readers overwhelmed or powerless. Rigorous reporting about how people are responding to social problems is what Solution Journalism Network proposes to inform and engage the community, but also to advance positive social change.