Exclusive Commentary

Missing from the Media: News about Poverty

Kevin Fagan, San Francisco Chronicle - Posted April 25, 2011

Considering the unparalleled wealth of this nation, we live in awful times for far too many people, and they show little sign of getting better soon. As a journalist, I feel there has never been a more critical time for reporting on poverty and its byproducts of homelessness and despair.


Middle-class people are getting crushed into the working class, and the working class is getting crushed into the working poor. They’re all putting in more hours for diminishing pay, and the outlook for the future is for more of the same.


Unless, of course, you are rich. For multi-millionaires, these are boom times—the culmination of 30-plus years of Reaganomics and its descendants pushing income to top earners while raising taxes and fees on the lower end of the economic scale.


The average CEO made about 40 times more than the average worker when I became a professional reporter three decades ago. Today that ratio is about 350 to one. Today, the wealthiest one percent of Americans gets a quarter of the nation’s income. When I became a reporter, they got a tenth.


That kind of split between the wealthy and the middle and poor hasn’t been seen in America since the late 1920s—just before the Great Depression.


Other times have critically needed poverty reporting of course, such as the 1950s and ’60s when the War on Poverty and civil rights movement were being crafted. But none more so than now. Between America’s growing have-and-have-not split and our rapidly declining international economic prowess eroding the ability to bounce back, we face a turning point that demands intensive and immediate ground-level attention to the struggling middle and under classes.


But that is more easily hoped for than done. The trouble with reporting about poverty for most news outlets is that it is messy. It always has been.


Poverty reporting comes automatically freighted with left-and-right wing arguments that paint the economic landscape in black and white terms and sling contrasting statistics and anecdote-driven contentions to prove their points. You have to give them all attention, sorting through the mountains of official and unofficial accounts to get to some bedrock facts.


Today, with the proliferation of strident opinion outlets that often try to blend in as true news sources, the message of clear, honest journalism is fuzzed over with noise as never before in modern times. That means a lot more blather to wade through for objective truth.


The other messy factor in poverty reporting is that it is more time-consuming than a lot of other types of reporting. I know—one of my specialties has always been homelessness.


Between 2003 and 2006, photographer Brant Ward and I were the only newspaper team in America covering homelessness full-time. During those years, I learned, as never before, just how valuable it is to have weeks and months to get to the bottom of each situation we explored. Homeless people have mountains of dysfunction, tragic history, criminal behavior, or just plain bad luck trailing behind them, and sorting through that – and the labyrinthine governmental and non-profit world designed to help them – takes the effort of a spelunker crawling through caverns with a candle.


Telling the stories we did then, such as the saga of a colony of junkies living on a traffic island in downtown San Francisco, or the success of a program in New York for severely mentally ill street people, took enormous effort and time that would have been impossible if we were pulled back and forth between daily assignments.


I still manage to produce this type of detailed report. Just last month Brant and I reported on people sleeping in San Francisco’s demolished transit terminal, and this month we produced a piece on housing vouchers for homeless veterans. But with the exception of episodic reports on surging topics, such as foreclosures or census reports, the number of intensive stories on poverty in the media everywhere has declined since my homelessness beat days.


It’s not hard to see why. With the cutbacks at every newspaper in America, we are all working more quickly and prolifically than before. And even though my newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, still nurtures reporting like mine, we in this industry all have to choose projects more carefully than in the not-so-long-ago old days of bigger staffs—which makes it all the more important to take on these issues whenever we can.


The national conversation surrounding poverty is convoluted and heated, and only with objective and thorough journalistic attention will the public and decision makers ever be informed enough to move ahead proactively and intelligently.


It’s always been worth the effort. And it’s worth that effort more than ever today. 

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Kevin Fagan is a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle.