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Why Isn't Poverty a Story?

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Why did John Edwards' crusade against poverty find so little resonance in the media?

It seemed a perfect time for his message. In 2006, 36.5 million people were in poverty, and 35.5 million Americans lived in "food insecure" households, 22.8 million adults and 12.6 million children. On any given night in America, anywhere from 700,000 to 2 million people are homeless, according the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

Poverty in America is considerably higher today than it was in the 1970s and children are especially affected. The U.S. lags behind other developed countries in this area. While Denmark and Finland lead 26 participating OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries with child poverty rates below 3 percent, Mexico and the United States are at the other end of the spectrum, both with child poverty rates of more than 20 percent. (Maybe those folks who wade across the Rio Grande should just keep trekking North -- to Canada. )

Despite these facts, the press reaction to Edwards too often focused on what the Washington Post called the three H's -- Haircut, Hedge funds and House (his North Carolina estate.)

As Media Matters for America has reported, the media extensively scrutinized all of the above, "often baselessly suggesting that they conflict with his anti-poverty campaigning."

When Edwards announced a three-day, eight-state tour aimed at calling attention to poverty, the news media generally chuckled. The tour echoed Bobby Kennedy's poverty crusade in the 1960s, but the media seemed to regard Edwards' poverty tour as a gimmick. They also saw Edwards as just too pretty to be talking about poverty. Maybe he needed a face transplant from Johnny Cash to be taken seriously.

The news media has changed in many ways since Bobby Kennedy went on the road, and not for the better. Reporters used to be the people with their noses pressed to the window, looking in at the lives of the affluent. Today, they are often on the inside looking out. Big name journalists -- especially if they get on TV often -- command thousands of dollars in lecture fees. When I started out in journalism, reporters felt lucky if they could get three people to listen to them in a bar. They were more likely to follow the racing form than the stock market. Many of them actually lived in the down-at-the-heel neighborhoods that they covered.

Today, that's changed dramatically . A FAIR study found that in just over three years (9/11/03 - 10/30/06) the major TV networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, broadcast only 58 stories dealing with poverty in more than a passing mention.

It's a subject that has largely vanished from the media, deemed too depressing and unappealing to the affluent readers and viewers prized by advertisers. Where's the growth in journalism today? In infotainment and lifestyle journalism. If you're affluent and you want to know how to spend your money, just go to the nearest magazine rack or to your local newspaper. Coverage of food, fashion, furniture and high end housing eats up space. Late-breaking recipes trump stories about poverty.

Thomas Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard, found in a 2001 study that soft news has increased dramatically over the past two decades. News stories lacking public policy content jumped from less than 35% of all stories in 1980 to roughly 50% of stories appearing in 2001. Stories with a moderate to high level of sensationalism rose from about 25% of news stories in the early 1980s to a current tally of 40%. Stories that include a human interest element also figure heavily in contemporary reporting, accounting for less than 11% of news stories in the early 1980s, but more than 26% of reports by 2001.

It's no surprise that a "spiral of silence" has formed with regard to the coverage of poverty. Competitive pressures lead to fewer stories and the silence depends. Add to that the fact that few journalists today have personally experienced poverty, you find explanations for the often-mocking tone of the coverage of Edwards.

Even when John Edwards did well, he couldn't get a break. The Daily Kos notes that his coverage fell after he finished second in Iowa.

"There's no good reason for Edwards' coverage to fall the day AFTER the caucus. It should have gone UP not down; the news of Obama's victory had already been told, and Edwards' strong showing in Iowa should indicate a strong reservoir of support."

However, on the day of the caucus, Edwards received 41% of the mentions of either Edwards or Hillary; the day after the caucus, he received just 36%, despite narrowly edging Hillary out.

Given all the factors that influence the lack of coverage of poverty, this situation is going to worsen. The infrastructure of serious journalism is crumbling faster than our bridges and roads. So what to do?

One answer may be foundation funding, The Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has launched a $25 million initiative to help newspapers cope with the new digital technology.

But as Dan Gillmor, director of the Center for Citizen Media Project (at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism) notes, "$25 million is a rounding error compared to what it will take nationwide (and, in fact, around the world) to come through this transition with a vibrant and diverse journalistic ecosystem..., foundations have the ability to support ideas that stem from motives other than big profits." One idea he suggests is that foundations pay the salary of an investigative journalist at a local newspaper.

They'd better hurry. Good journalism is collapsing just like that Minneapolis bridge, and that's sad news for the future of the republic.

Boston University Journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women."