The Whole Story: Diversity Tips and Tools
Covering the heart of poverty, not just its victims
You've got an infant severely bitten by a rat in a poor neighborhood. What's your lede? Here are some possible choices:
• An infant left sleeping in his crib was bitten repeatedly by rats while his 16-year-old mother went out on a five-minute errand to cash her welfare check.
• An eight-month-old boy was treated and released from Central Hospital after being bitten by rats as he slept in his crib. Tenants said that repeated requests for extermination had been ignored by the landlord. The landlord claimed that the problem lay with tenants' improper disposal of garbage.
• Rats bit eight-month-old Michael Burns five times yesterday as he napped in his crib. Burns is the latest victim of a rat epidemic plaguing inner-city neighborhoods that has helped push infant mortality rates close to those in developing countries.
Each of these approaches leads readers to different conclusions about who might be held accountable for the rats overrunning this household and what the best solutions might be. Many journalists would pick the first one, thinking audiences relate best to individual stories, to drama, and to detail. That may be true. But this approach can be misleading, especially when writing about social disparities. It's irresponsible to focus only on the poor victim without looking at the other players employers, policy makers and elected officials. And a little more reporting might have uncovered a more important story, that of short-staffing at rat control and housing inspection programs for the city.
When writing about low-wage work or poverty, journalists gravitate toward the person who has trouble making ends meet or the one who defeated all odds and is squarely on the road to success. In order to get closer to the heart of the story, we can look at the relationship between low-wage workers and the U.S. economy. Instead of always framing stories around individual success or loss, we can consider the choices that we make as a society. We can explore the decisions that employers make, not just employees. We can investigate potential solutions, rather than falling prey to the assumption that income inequities built into society can't and won't change.
Most people do not associate the word "poor" with the word "worker." Yet the two are often the same. More than 30 million Americans work full time but live below official poverty levels. Poll after poll finds Americans worried about the state of the U.S. economy and about meeting family needs. How will they make ends meet? In the future, what jobs will their children be able to find?
Joanne Omang, a former reporter, editor and correspondent for The Washington Post, suggests asking some new questions in order to help audiences better understand the situation low-wage workers face. As reporters look for fresh approaches to stories about poverty, they must get beyond a pathology frame where the poor often black and brown people are portrayed as victims and social deviants, not people forced to make tough calls.
Look beyond the obvious story
• What causes economic system failure? What creates economic well-being?
• How important are job training, individual education, hard work and perseverance as engines of the economy?
• What policy and employer choices might support economic well-being? What communities or companies are modeling them?
• Are globalization and market cycles inevitable, natural systems? Do any institutions have control over them?
• Does globalization affect every type of job? What about nursing home workers, restaurant servers, retail clerks, security guards, teachers' aides, and other service providers? Is there a trickle-down effect or not?
• Where have governments or employers invested in infrastructure such as good pay, benefits and opportunities for advancement? What have the results been? What prevents government or employers from investing in infrastructure?
• What does a "good corporate citizen" or "community steward" look like?
• What has happened to traditions and laws that ensure job safety, health care, retirement benefits and equal opportunity?
Try some new approaches
• Question policy-makers on their policies toward employers, not just toward workers.
• Outline the job trainer's challengesŃnot just those of the people taking his class.
• Focus on the restaurant owner and her employment practicesŃnot just the struggling waitress.
• Interview the employer who offers no health care or family leaveŃnot just the employee who can't afford medicine for his sick child. Interview the small business owner who has chosen to find a way to offer health care.
• Profile the city planner who is trying to create jobsŃnot just the jobless street person.
These ideas are excerpted from "What's in a Word?" by Joanne Omang, a guide on new approaches to stories about low-wage workers funded by a grant by the Ford Foundation.
Additional resources on low-wage work
• Economic Policy Institute
• Economy that Works
• Employment Policies Institute
• Fairness Initiative on Low-Wage Work
• University of Arizona Report: Employer Opinions on Living Wage Initiatives [PDF]