If it’s not in the Times, it doesn’t exist

Margaret Sullivan, the NYT public editor, responds to criticism of the Times’ poverty coverage:

Occasional coverage — no matter how excellent — doesn’t get the job done.

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that in 52 major mainstream news outlets, including The Times, combined coverage of poverty amounted to far less than 1 percent of all front-page articles. The Times may do better than some, but given New York City’s high poverty rate and The Times’s special responsibility as the nation’s dominant paper, with the most plentiful resources, there should be more. The Times has no metro or national reporter devoted solely to this subject, though many reporters’ beats touch on it, and the columnist Ginia Bellafante writes about it frequently and well. Jason DeParle, a Washington reporter who focused much of his time last year on economic mobility, is on a yearlong leave to write a book.

Diane Nilan, an Illinois-based advocate for homeless families, is frustrated by The Times’s “spotty interest”: “I ache for these people, but until the media make an issue of it, nothing will happen. It would be good to see The Times really take the lead in providing clarity and building compassion.”

Some advocates for the poor see another problem: News organizations, including The Times, tend to treat those in poverty as “the other,” a problem that is “over there.”

“It’s isolated, it’s in a silo, it’s a problem that other people have,” Melissa Boteach of the Center for American Progress said in an interview. By contrast, The Times’s thorough and sustained coverage of gay rights has a remarkable sense of inclusiveness and solidarity: across sections, from Styles to Sports to Metro, The Times movingly tells the stories of admirable individuals who are overcoming challenges.

Poor people really aren’t “the other,” Ms. Boteach said. “People cycle in and out of poverty,” and, she said, in a given four-year period, one in three Americans will experience a spell of poverty.

But poverty coverage does not have the regularity or the inclusive tone of Times coverage on the opposite end of the affluence spectrum, like Paul Sullivan’s business feature “Wealth Matters,” which is described as a column about “strategies that the wealthy use to manage their money and their overall well-being.”

Dan Froomkin, a journalist who wrote about the Pew study for Nieman Reports, also notes the “special occasion” quality of poverty coverage. During the charity-giving holiday season, or when a major reporting project comes to fruition, the focus is there. But it is not sustained.

Then there is what The Times does not cover. In a recent e-mail, Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, mentioned a stream of current local stories that The Times has not written about: Legal Services NYC went on strike; the city is trying to increase the number of summer meals for low-income children while they are out of school; the sequestration slashed federal spending on the city’s soup kitchens and food pantries.

These stories and more, Mr. Berg notes, were covered in other New York City publications, including non-English-language newspapers like El Diario and Sing Tao Daily. “They cover these issues big time,” he said. “If you read them and the New York Times metro coverage for a while, you’d think they were reporting on two entirely different cities.”

He also notes, “There has not been a single story about the positions (or nonpositions) of people running for mayor on hunger, poverty, homelessness or inequality.”

Not just in New York. Reporters rarely ask in any city.

Wendell Jamieson, the metro editor, said that Mr. Berg’s complaints about stories that went without coverage missed an important reality: “There are eight million stories in the naked city, and for every one he mentioned that we didn’t do, there are dozens of comparable stories, in scope and impact, that we did do.” One example, among many, was Joseph Berger’s strong front-page investigative piece that showed how some landlords profit from homelessness.

The Times’s coverage of poverty strikes me as a paradox. It is both top-notch and too occasional. Improving that is not impossible.

As an illustration of how quickly change can happen, consider this: Last month, The Times assigned a talented and prolific reporter, Jim Rutenberg, to cover the Hamptons for the summer. He made an immediate impact. In last Sunday’s paper alone, one of his entertaining stories appeared on the front page, and another dominated the cover of Styles.

What if The Times decided to assign a few of its several hundred reporters to focus regularly and for a sustained period on poverty — the issues, the news and, especially, the people? The effect would be powerful.

2 thoughts on “If it’s not in the Times, it doesn’t exist

  1. Far less than one percent — NYTimes coverage of poverty issues.

    About Zero Dot One Percent? Except they do pay a hell of a lot more attention to the actual Zero Dot One Percenters.

  2. Hot tip for the Times: Check with the Sports Department, you may just have a Pierce or Olberman hiding there.

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