The mainstream media needs to step up its reporting on poverty as a campaign issue
If you listen to the experts, the presidential election comes down to one thing: the economy. The job market is awful, and both of the major party candidates talk a lot about what they propose to do to strengthen the middle class.
But what about the poor?
Forty-six million Americans are living in poverty.
This fact gets one day of attention in the news media each year -- when the Census Bureau releases its latest figures, as it did earlier this month. And then poverty mostly fades from journalists' radar screens.
Election years are no exception. A new study by my colleagues at Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) shows that poverty is essentially invisible in reporting on the presidential campaign. The prominent news outlets we surveyed devoted just 0.2 percent of campaign coverage to substantive discussions of the issue.
Yes, you read that right: 0.2 percent.
Poverty is too important to soak up a mere 7.2 seconds per hour of campaign coverage. It affects over 15 percent of the U.S. population, nearly one in six of us. But FAIR found these 46 million people virtually missing when we looked at campaign coverage from January until the end of June by eight prominent news outlets: CBS Evening News, ABC World News, NBC Nightly News, PBS NewsHour, NPR's All Things Considered, and the print editions of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Newsweek.
The study counted campaign-related stories (news reports and commentary) that discussed poverty with just a minimal level of substance. We also counted campaign stories that mentioned poverty in less substantial ways or in passing -- naming it as an issue but not discussing it at any depth.
While we found over 10,000 stories about the presidential campaign, just a tiny fraction addressed poverty in a substantive way. In fact, half of the outlets didn't run a single campaign story about poverty. Stories that even mentioned poverty in passing were just 3 percent of the total. By contrast, "deficit" and "debt" -- obsessions of the Beltway politicians -- were mentioned about six times as often, in 18 percent of election stories.
Why isn't poverty being treated as a campaign story? Surely one major factor is that the candidates themselves hardly speak about it in any serious way. Perhaps the most ink and airtime poverty has drawn followed one of Mitt Romney's most memorable gaffes -- the time he declared during an interview with CNN's Soledad O'Brien, "I'm not concerned about the very poor." That set off a short debate about whether the multi-millionaire presidential nominee actually meant what he said.
But the candidates' failure to address poverty doesn't excuse the media's shameful performance. And it's important to remember that in a profit-driven media culture, there are deeper factors at work.
Stories about poor people are simply not what advertisers want to have anywhere near their commercials, which are supposed to make consumers buy stuff. That makes it far less likely that TV outlets will spend much time on poverty at all. Indeed, an earlier FAIR study found that over three years (from September 2003 to October 2006), there were just 58 stories on the big networks that dealt with poverty.
Writing about a rare TV special on poverty that aired on ABC, one reporter noted that poverty was "deemed depressing and unappealing to the affluent viewers prized by advertisers."
But amid the indifference of big media outlets and most political leaders, some exceptions stand out.
Radio hosts Tavis Smiley and Cornel West spent September on their Poverty 2.0 tour, using their platform to draw attention to stories that are largely ignored. MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry has devoted considerable time on her program to poverty and inequality.
Their efforts are commendable.
But in a healthy media environment, there would be many more journalists like them. And a healthy democracy would not treat 46 million of its most vulnerable citizens as an afterthought.
Read the latest political news.
- A Memo to Mitt and Ann Romney
- Mitt Romney's Biggest Problem is His Own Party
- Mitt Romney Can Win By Doing One Thing
- Mitt Romney on the Spot
- Presidential Debates Present Opportunity and Peril for Mitt Romney
- The Presidential Debate: Look for the Plans, Not the Puns
- His Campaign Sliding, Mitt Romney Must Deliver in Debate
- The 'Self-Made' Hallucination of America's Rich
- Why Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are Going Down
- Four Reasons Why Mitt Romney Might Still Win
- America Needs Good Refs -- On the Gridiron and in Politics
- How the GOP Protects Its Falsehoods
- 2012 Election Could Mirror 1980 Race
- A GOP Civil War Simmers
- Mitt Romney Missed Big Chance with Latino Voters
- Mitt Romney's Losing Bid to Win the Latino Vote
- Does Political Discourse Need Geneva Conventions?
- Another Episode in Mitt Romney's Foreign Policy Follies
- Team Romney Doubles Down
- In Defense of the 47 Percent
- The High Cost of Mitt Romney's Candor
- It was a privilege, Mitt Romney
- The Obama Hare and Romney the Tortoise
- An American Shame that Both Candidates Ignore
- Revisiting Wilson's 'Truly Disadvantaged'
- The Poor: America's Forgotten Swing Voters
- Pragmatic Racism
- Mitt Romney's Taxes: Who Cares?
- Waffling on Obamacare will Not Help Mitt Romney
- Why They Call Bill Clinton 'Big Dog'
- Bill Clinton's Secret: Make Little Words Matter
- Bill Clinton Delivers
- Forward to What, Democrats?
- The New Obama Shows Muscle
- Words of Wisdom from a Nun
- Likable Mitt Romney
- Mitt Romney Misjudges Voters
- Mitt Romney's Troubling Pattern
- Mitt Romney's Party -- Checks OK, iPhones Not
- Distractions and Diversions
- The Self-Immolation of Mitt Romney
- The Latest Battle in the War on Voting
- Better Off Today? Don't Ask
- What has Obama Learned?
- Obama Sells Old Ideas as New
- Let George W Bush Be
- Do We Want This Foolish Man?
- Poor Visibility
- Paul Ryan Runs Into the Truth
- Team Romney's War Against Facts
- Both Parties Go to Extremes
- Candidates Have De-Emphasized Foreign Affairs
- Campaign 2012 in a Nutshell: Wrong Ideas vs No Ideas
- Memo to GOP: Demography is Destiny
- Tribe of Liberty
- The Price of Freedom
- Paul Ryan Calling the Kettle Black with Medicare Scare Tactics
- House of Representatives Armed with Irony
- Obama Leads Romney in Post-Conventions Poll
- Character, Policy and the Selection of Leaders
- The Politicization of Violence
- The Selling of American Democracy: The Perfect Storm
- Losing Latino Votes
- The Party is Over: Longtime GOPer Dissects Modern Political Landscape
- Paul Ryan's Faux Populism
- Rise Up, Middle Class, Rise Up!
- A Modest Proposal: Three Weeks of Paid Vacation
- The Paul Ryan Choice
Poor Visibility | Politics
Distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org)