Huffpost Media

Reporting Poverty: Journalists Speak Out On Homelessness, Hunger; Criticize Obama, Romney

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MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry exploded at a guest on her show over the weekend. The issue that set her off? It was poverty.

Harris-Perry was discussing a new book about welfare with financial expert Monica Mehta on Saturday. Mehta argued that people who are wealthy were willing to take risks. "What is riskier than living poor in America?” the host yelled in response, slamming her hand on the table and delivering a fiery monologue.

Poverty is a familiar topic for Harris-Perry's show, which did two other notable segments on it recently. But that seems to be the exception rather than the rule in media. The difficulties of covering poverty are well-documented. Reporters are told that breaking news takes priority, or that advertisers want to target wealthy consumers.

The latest numbers, however, indicate that it is more important now than ever to report on poverty. Over 2.5 million more people fell into poverty last year, according to the Census Bureau. There are 46.2 million Americans living below the poverty line — the highest the agency has seen since it began following the figures.

There are some journalists and news outlets who make this argument, too. Kevin Fagan, a reporter for the San Chronicle, is one example. Fagan, whose specialties include homelessness, described the challenges of the beat and the big impact of newsroom cuts in an op-ed last year. He wrote that while the paper continues to nurture his type of reporting, "we in this industry all have to choose projects more carefully... which makes it all the more important to take on these issues whenever we can."

He said that between 2003 and 2006, he and photographer Brant Ward were the only newspaper team in the country covering homelessness full-time. They are still producing comprehensive reports about San Francisco's homeless population, the most recent one about a massive camp underneath the highway getting cleared out.

On television, there are occasional series devoted to poverty. "ABC World News," for example, ran one on hunger in America last summer. A particularly striking component of the reporting was correspondent Steve Osunsami's own recollection of growing up on food stamps.

"We'd open the empty kitchen cabinets, and come up with magical dishes with the few scraps of canned and dried food we'd find hidden in the corners," he wrote, recalling how he and his siblings made do.

And if there is a singular media celebrity associated with the cause of poverty, it might be Tavis Smiley. The PBS host co-authored "The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto" and embarked on a 15-city bus tour with Cornel West to raise awareness of poverty last year.

Smiley — who has been a vocal critic of President Obama — aimed to get poverty on the 2012 election agenda. Last fall, he predicted that the issue would take on new importance after not getting much play. "Politicians can speak to the concerns of the middle class, but they never speak to the ranks of the 'perpetually poor,'" he said last year. "That won't happen this year, because the new poor are the former middle class."

His message is not lost on other journalists, some of whom have echoed similar charges against politicians. In June, former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert alleged that Obama and Romney "both shy away from the plight of poor kids" and "you won’t hear about it in the presidential race." His piece earned a rebuttal from the White House.

Just last month, Bill Moyers blasted both campaigns for failing to mention poverty in the election.

"Those few who dedicate themselves to keeping the poor ever in sight realize how grave the situation really is," he wrote, before citing an Associated Press report that illustrated the crisis.

He concluded with an appeal that could apply to journalists just as well as politicians: "...when it comes to our 'out of sight, out of mind' population of the poor, you have to think we can help reduce their number, ease the suffering, and speak out, with whatever means at hand, on their behalf and against those who would prefer they remain invisible."

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America Sept. 5 from 12-4 p.m. EDT and 6-10 p.m. EDT. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.