The challenge of writing about people in poverty

When online commenters get nasty, it’s tempting to just write them off as trolls. But is it possible that sometimes journalists set the stage with cartoonish, stereotyped portrayals of the subjects in our stories, particularly when writing about people who are poor or homeless or undocumented immigrants? Can well-meaning but uncareful journalism about marginalized people do more harm than good?

These are worthy questions posed in a blog by Lori Kleinsmith, who works as a health promoter for a community health center in Ontario, Canada. Kleinsmith says:

The challenge with writing a story about someone living in poverty is that it is really just a snapshot that is unable to display a deeper context of the experience of poverty firsthand. The pathways into and out of poverty are much more complex than a snapshot and many readers are unable to see beyond the surface and to be empathetic to a person’s circumstances, choosing instead to speculate or criticize. There can also be a pitting of the working poor against those in receipt of publicly funded social assistance programs, an “undeserving poor versus deserving poor” battle. The real systemic issues about how to address poverty get lost in the war of words and degrading comments about one’s choices and lifestyle.

Kleinsmith asserts that journalists need to tell more complete stories “that provide evidence and not just emotion, and that do not further victimize those who are brave enough to speak out.”

As a model for how to do that, I recommend Washington Post staff writer Eli Saslow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series on food stamps. Saslow carefully harnesses the power of narrative to convey the complexity of the poverty trap and government efforts help people out of it. Here’s a sample from the final installment, “Too much of too little,” which explores how inequality and a “food-stamp diet” is wrecking the health of many people in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley:

“How is your nutrition?” she asked one woman in Spanish as they stood together at a front doorway missing its door.

“We eat what we can get,” the woman said.

“Do you ever eat vegetables?”

“Not much. Maybe beans, some salsa.”

“Do you exercise?


“Do you have a fridge?”

“Not anymore.”

The woman explained that she stored what little food she had in an icebox, and that the closest grocery store offering fresh produce was seven miles away. Nobody in Little Mexico exercised outside after 4 p.m., she said, for fear of the dogs and drug cartels that roamed the streets.

Rueda started to move on to the next house, but the woman called after her with a question of her own — one not covered in the six nutrition lessons, and the one Rueda heard most often in Little Mexico and the hundreds of places like it.

“Do you have any extra food?” the woman asked. “Anything?”

“Yes,” Rueda said. “We can bring you some.”

There’s much to learn from Saslow’s technique. Paige Williams over at Nieman Storyboard notes the importance of carefully chosen scenes, details and imagery. “He humanizes big issues by embedding himself in characters’ lives, which allows him opportunity to observe the kinds of details that make for deeply personal, and moving, stories,” she says. “Once he has those details, he uses them without melodrama.”

Granted, most of the time reporters don’t have the luxury to embed in the lives of their subjects for days or weeks. It’s still possible to look for telling details while reporting a daily assignment, to reserve a portion of the writing time for crafting portrayals of subjects with more of their complex humanity intact, to remember to feel the weight of this responsibility and not shrug it off in haste.

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