The Media Discover the Poor

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 19, 2005; 8:18 AM

The fact that most of those left behind in the New Orleans flood were poor and black is being treated by the press as a stunning revelation--"A National Shame," as Newsweek's cover put it.

But not exactly a national secret.

"Apparently none of these ace reporters has ever set foot in Washington's Anacostia district, or South Central Los Angeles, or the trailer parks of rural Arkansas," writes Los Angeles Times columnist Rosa Brooks.

A Sept. 12 Washington Post story was headlined "Katrina Pushes Issues of Race and Poverty at Bush." An equally apt headline would have been, "Katrina Pushes Issues of Race and Poverty at a Media Establishment That Has Largely Ignored Them."

A database search of The Post for the past decade found one story that prominently mentioned the poor of New Orleans: a 2002 piece on a campaign to boost the minimum wage that cited the city's "40 percent poverty level." Far more typical of the Mardi Gras media was a 1995 Post story on how "the city's black neighborhoods come alive" with Sunday parades in the fall.

New York Times ombudsman Byron Calame found a similar record at his newspaper, unearthing only two articles about New Orleans in 10 years that "contained a few paragraphs on poverty and race."

The mounting problems of the urban poor, from unemployment to high infant mortality to family dysfunction, were long ago reduced to a blip on the media radar screen. Politicians rarely talked about them--John Edwards, with his "Two Americas" speech in last year's presidential campaign, was an exception--and reporters rarely prodded them on the subject. Bill Clinton spoke of publishing a book on race while he was president but never finished the project.

Newspapers and magazines, meanwhile, have been chasing suburban readers who appeal to upscale advertisers. The poor, whether in New Orleans or Newark, were, well, very '60s.

There have been exceptions, of course, certain journalists who have specialized in scrutinizing the problems of the underclass and efforts to alleviate them. And certainly the media have covered the policy debates over welfare reform, subsidized housing, school vouchers, affirmative action, out-of-wedlock births and other issues that affect the poor. But poor people themselves were relegated to an occasional walk-on role--until the levees broke. "TV dislikes poor people," says Newsweek, because they're a "downer" and bad for ratings.

"Katrina suddenly made America's invisible poor very visible," writes Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page. Brooks, an associate professor at the University of Virginia's law school, wrote in her Los Angeles Times column: "It took the destruction of a major American city for the media to notice the Third World here at home."

But why is that? This is not a story, like whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, that was difficult to get at. But journalists rarely venture into impoverished neighborhoods these days, except for quick-hit features. When a woman from one of these communities goes missing, it doesn't attain the status of a Natalee Holloway drama.

Covering the 37 million people who live below the poverty line--the percentage has increased for four straight years--is not as easy as, say, covering advocates who claim to speak on their behalf. Many of the poor are wary of intrusive journalists, don't carry cell phones and don't speak in snappy sound bites. The same goes for race: It is far easier to write about the politics of race--President Bush appointing the first two black secretaries of state, or refusing to speak to the NAACP--than to probe the impact of federal policies on the lives of minorities. And the problems of generations of low-income broken families who seem unable to escape the cycle of poverty can be depressing fare.


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