In our news workshops, we talk a lot with our students about how the news is made. One thing we discuss is why some stories get lots of coverage, and others get none at all–essentially, what is traditionally considered news and what is not. The lesson that “if it bleeds, it leads” is not an easy one, especially when there are so many other important stories out there which also deserve the level of urgent reporting that is afforded to a story about a car crash. So, on Blog Action Day, when we’re asked to consider poverty, think about it: How often does poverty make the news?
With this in mind, I started doing some research and found that the answer is, for the most part, not very often. Poverty is an ageless problem, and like AIDS or cancer, it’s hard to imagine it being eradicated. There have always been poor people in the world, and we know that, even if we don’t all have to think about it every day. Generally, we’re not interested in the news media telling us something we already know, and so the challenge becomes making an old issue newsworthy right now.
We have seen that this is no minor feat. Before he confessed to the media about cheating on his wife, John Edwards was one the most prominent Americans especially devoted to the issue of poverty in our country. In May, he announced the Half in Ten campaign to cut poverty in half ten years from now, and embarked on a three-day tour of some of America’s most impoverished communities. As reported by journalist Peter Dreier, only one major newspaper covered the event in Philadelphia where the campaign was unveiled, perhaps because it was drowned out by news of Edwards’ pending endorsement of Barack Obama. The 2007 poverty tour got more coverage, happening as it was during the North Carolina senator’s campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. In both cases, we have to wonder if John Edwards or poverty was the real story. If John Edwards runs a 2009 poverty tour, will the coverage be about the issue, or will it be about a fallen politician trying to restore his career? (Let’s also not miss the irony that coverage was minimal when Edwards was trying for change that actually affects our lives, but coverage on his private life was top priority.)
As I continued to look at poverty in the media, I realized that perhaps an even greater issue may be the way that poverty is represented. Impoverished individuals and nations are often portrayed as “the other,” making it hard for us to relate to them or otherwise be inspired to help. There also exists the pervasive stereotype that poor people are a class of uneducated, unemployed, lazy addicts who may even be abusing the federal welfare system paid for by our tax dollars. When statistics about poverty are presented, it’s easy to feel that the problem is so overwhelming that it is totally out of our hands. Giving up is simpler. Move on to something more manageable.
And, unfortunately, this is true. The problem of poverty is not something one of us can fix on our own, and it isn’t manageable if only one person is addressing it. But when we all work together, the fight against poverty is one we can win, and one that must be won. If you think you’re not affected by the fact that, as of 2007, 37.3 million Americans are at or below the line of poverty, then think again. When massive amounts of a population cannot afford permanent housing, basic healthcare or food for their families, we are all at risk. Microloans, like those given out by the Grameen Bank, have proven effective–58% of Grameen Bank borrowers have been lifted from poverty. Poverty is a huge problem, but you do have the power to make a difference. Visit the Blog Action Day website for organizations to which you can make a donation, or, if you can’t spare the money, take time out to volunteer. Work at a soup kitchen or food pantry, donate clothes and blankets to the homeless, build houses, help out at a free clinic–the possibilities are endless, and they won’t cost you a dime. I like volunteermatch.org and idealist.org for volunteer opportunities, but there are several websites that can help. Perhaps years from now, poverty will be a thing of the past.