Tag Archives: john merrow

Media Mis-colors American Poverty, Undermining Response

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We’re at work on a project chronicling that since the early 1990s American working-class youth face declining chances of equal opportunity .

We were thus intrigued by a 8/20/12 PBS NewsHour story – “In Rhode Island, Reinventing Summer School to Prevent Kids’ Learning Loss” — concerning efforts to combat summertime achievement gaps.

But the visuals were highly troubling. While the intro to the story correctly reported that this was about poverty, not race, the pictures were virtually all of African American kids, giving the impression that most if not all of the poor in America are black.

We brought this to their attention and the education correspondent for the NewsHour, John Merrow. [He graciously admitted that the story could have been edited better and his take on the whole episode is on his “Learning Matters” blog.]

There are three things worth amplifying beyond Merrow’s blog post:

1)      Just how off Americans (including well-educated Americans) are on the colors of poverty;

2) how the continued misportrayal of American poor as “non-white” helps continue the trope of poverty equaling race  and makes poor whites more invisible; and

3)  How mis-coloring “poverty” undermines a public response to the problem.

Point #1: The national expert on this issue is Princeton scholar Martin Gilens.  Here is Gilens’ summary of his findings in a landmark 1996 article (cited below):

 Over the past decades, the black urban poor have come to dominate public images of poverty. Surveys show that the American public dramatically exaggerates the proportion of African Americans among the poor and that such misperceptions are associated with greater opposition to welfare. In this article I examine the relationship between news media portrayals and public images of poverty. I find that network TV news and weekly newsmagazines portray the poor as substantially more black than is really the case.

More recent studies have fully confirmed Gilens’ original findings.  In fact, according to a 2000 CBS News poll, only 18% of Americans know that most poor people are white!

Moreover, our own analysis suggests that the misperception may be slightly greater among college-educated whites than among less educated whites, perhaps because the less-educated whites are actually more likely to know poor folks.

Well-educated whites (college graduates) think blacks make up over half of folks on poverty!  (According to the 1991 National Race and Politics Survey).

The right number?  Blacks comprise only 23% of folks in poverty in the US (according to 2010 Census estimates, Table 4 in the above link).

Point #2:  The invisibility of the poor whites in media accounts and hence (according to Gilens) in the resulting public image of American poverty hurts poor whites (by undermining any potential impetus to respond to their plight) and perpetuates the trope that poverty equals poor non-whites.  Politicians and concerned citizens can’t effectively talk about and think about responding to the problem of American poverty if they can’t picture what American poverty looks like.

Point #3: The progressive NewsHour surely aims to encourage viewers to take policy or direct action to thwart the poverty-based educational gaps the story describes. Ironically, Gilens’ book shows in great detail that support for help to the poor is dramatically undermined by this media distortion in who is poor.  Namely, the fact that Americans misperceive that most of the American poor are black, makes them less inclined to respond. With visuals that accurately show the whiteness of poverty in America, media outlets could help overcome this crucial, irrational impediment to effective action against class disadvantage in America.

For more detail on Gilens’ findings, see:

-  Martin Gilens, “Race and Poverty in America: Public Misperceptions and the American News Media,” Public Opinion Quarterly (1996) 60:515-541

- Martin Gillen’s 1999 book Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Anti-Poverty Policy. University of Chicago Press.

More recent citations: van Doorn, Bas W. “Media Portrayals of Poverty and Race in Pre- and Post-Welfare Reform America.” Portland, OR: Western Political Science Association Annual Meetings, 2012.

Clawson, Rosalee A., and Rakyua Trice. 2000. “Poverty as We Know It – Media Portrayals of the Poor.” Public Opinion Quarterly 64(1), no. 1: 53-64.

See NewsHour story “In Rhode Island, Reinventing Summer School to Prevent Kids’ Learning Loss”  [Note:  the NewsHour has vowed to repost video that attempts to correct their incorrect portrayal so what you see may not be the original version that aired, but instead their attempt to correct the original misrepresentation of American poverty.]