Murders and festivals: understanding what drives news coverage of poor communities

Let’s face it:  even in the “good old days” when mainstream local news media were flush with advertising revenue, covering poor communities was never a consistent priority.   Newspapers, with their larger newsgathering staffs, have historically done a better job than local TV news, but these days there isn’t much difference.  News about poor communities is most often driven by press releases and events such as violent crime, rather than a larger context for what everyday life is like in these neighborhoods.

This isn’t anything new, but it’s something that has troubled me for years, since the days when I was the founding editor of City Times, the community news section The Los Angeles Times started after the 1992 riots.  The topic is very much on my mind these days as I consider how to best support media in the 14 underserved neighborhoods that are at the heart of The California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities strategy.  And it’s more relevant than ever given the record gap between rich and poor in the United States.

There’s no simple explanation for this coverage gap.  I think it’s due to the combined impact of several trends that have emerged through the years and accelerated with the current economic crisis in traditional media.  My comments are particular to the newspaper industry, where I spent many years in both the newsroom and on the business side, but I imagine some of these points are applicable to broadcast media, as well.  Here’s how I size it up:

  • Local news beats have changed. It used to be that newspapers had a much stronger emphasis on geography as a way to organize news coverage.   Reporters were assigned to neighborhood beats, and when your job is cover an entire community on an ongoing basis, different stories emerge.  You get to know local people, history and issues, and coverage is more diverse and less event-driven as a result.   These neighborhood beats morphed into “specialist” beats, through which reporters cover a broad topic such as health care or education rather than the school down the street or a local health clinic. Topic-focused beats lead to more stories about trends and policies, rather than stories about the fabric of everyday life.   In recent years, many local newspapers have eliminated community news editions created to provide additional neighborhood news as a supplement to the primary newspaper as a way to save money on newsprint and staff costs.  (When I worked for the L.A. Times, the now defunct Orange County edition of the newspaper employed more than 200 journalists, but today that staff numbers fewer than a dozen).  I believe this neighborhood coverage gap has played a major role in the startup of independent local news sites across the country.
  • Advertising revenue became a stronger factor in determining news coverage priorities. I’ve run into many people who believe that advertising can buy you news coverage, in the sense that a business that purchases an ad is entitled to positive coverage.  I’m not saying this doesn’t happen, but I’ve never witnessed it.  However something else does happen, which is that newspapers do consider the potential of advertising revenue when it comes to deciding whether to start new sections or other initiatives focused on geographic communities (see above reference to the Orange County Edition of the L.A Times).  These decisions end up influencing newsroom coverage priorities because there needs to be local content to run alongside the local advertising. Because poor neighborhoods tend to have fewer businesses, they don’t rank high on the list.
  • A focus on serving subscribers or viewers rather than the larger community. As the number of newspaper subscribers shrinks (and print still drives the majority of the revenue for newspapers), there is a greater focus on retaining those customers by providing content that is relevant to them.   Newspaper readers are among the most affluent and educated people in a community (82% of adults in households earning at least $100,000 read newspaper content in print or online), and their everyday concerns vary greatly from those of poor people.
  • Language skills and social class of journalists. Relatively few reporters speak Spanish or languages other than English, creating a disincentive to report on immigrant communities.  Today, almost all journalism positions require a college degree in addition to digital media skills.   Although there have not been recent comprehensive surveys of the journalism profession in recent years, a 2003 Indiana University survey found that journalists were a “more professional” group that is better educated and better paid.
  • Newsroom cutbacks. The American Society of Newspaper Editors tracks newsroom employment, and reports that “American daily newspapers shed 5,900 newsroom jobs last year, reducing their employment of journalists by 11.3 percent to the levels of the early 1980s.”  With fewer journalists employed, the quantity and quality of news coverage is declining in general.

What this all adds up to is news coverage that present a gross distortion of what life is like in poor neighborhoods. I call it the murders and festivals syndrome, meaning that these communities appear in the news when horrible crime happens there or when there is an ethnic festival or other event at which people cheerfully eat food and watch kids perform traditional dances. This is what happens when news coverage decisions are driven by press releases and made by people who have little knowledge of these communities.

I first observed this in the late 1980s, when I settled in the Los Angeles area after growing up in Arizona.  I had been to L.A. many times as a girl because my grandmother, a Mexican immigrant, lived in Boyle Heights, a Mexican-American neighborhood on the Eastside of town.   In L.A., Boyle Heights was and is seen as a gang-infested crime zone.  While it could be a tough neighborhood, it was also a place where I walked to the corner market to buy pan dulce, took the bus with my mom to go shopping in el centro (downtown L.A.), watched my uncles play soccer in local parks and went to mass on Sundays.   I have been there hundreds of times and have never once heard gunfire.   But this side of Boyle Heights, a neighborhood where nearly 100,000 people live, is not one you know about unless you live there or go there often.

To see what I mean, look at recent news coverage of Boyle Heights in the L.A. Times, on Google News and the news aggregator Topix.com.   In looking over these stories, do you get a sense of what life is like in this community?  Then compare that to coverage of the more affluent L.A. County city of Encino in the L.A. Times, Google News, and on Topix.com.

The community news situation is even more dire in rural poor communities, which tend to be off the radar altogether and where Internet access is limited.

I wish I could be more optimistic about the potential of the new wave of local online news startups to improve community coverage, but what I have seen so far is largely a repeat of the newspaper model:  a focus on more affluent communities that offer more advertising revenue opportunities and widespread broadband Internet access.

I say all this not to blame existing media organizations, although they can do better.   Newspapers and TV stations are profit-seeking entities, as are internet entrepreneurs.  They are not public sector organizations and it’s unreasonable to expect them to be the only ones who support community news coverage, especially in the digital world where consumers have an expectation that information should be free.

However I do think most mainstream media organizations have blinders on when it comes to local partnerships that could help fill these coverage gaps.  Joining forces with ethnic media, schools and local news startups makes sense in a world of scarce resources.

More institutions need to pitch in to help solve this problem.  Foundations have a role to play, and I salute the efforts of the Knight Foundation to highlight the key role of information needs in our democracy. Colleges and universities can contribute more, too, as USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is doing with its South Los Angeles Report and UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism is doing with Richmond Confidential and the bilingual Mission Local.

Former Washington Post Executive Editor Len Downie and Columbia University journalism professor Michael Schudson suggest a number of ideas in their Reconstruction of American Journalism report, including more favorable tax status for news organizations engaged in public affairs reporting.

The situation is all the more urgent given the growing gap between rich and poor in this country.   When our news coverage is driven by the needs and priorities of the well-to-do, how can all concerned people make informed decisions about shared resources that all of us depend upon?   About the public services that cities deliver, the roads we all use, land development, social services, the public schools, the air we breathe?

While it makes economic sense for news media to fragment and segment audiences in increasingly narrow ways, that’s not what works best when it comes to understanding the communities we live in and making decisions about the common good.   Here’s hoping there can be a better way.

Update:  A number of people from across the country have reached out to me in response to this post, with questions and ideas for how to address the issues I highlight.  Among them is Tom Stites, whose powerful 2006 speech touched on many of these themes and led to the creation of the Banyan Project offering a new model for sustainable community-based journalism for all neighborhoods, not just affluent.   Tom’s ideas were honored with a We Media Game Changer award earlier this month and are worth checking out.

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2 Comments

  1. Steven Clift said,

    March 18, 2010 at 6:40 am

    Great post.

    Here in the Twin Cities we are working with two neighborhoods who no longer have basic once or twice weekly neighborhood newspapers to try to help create public conversations online. While our neighbor forums do not replace media, they are one thing a community can do at a low cost to open up a basic channel for exchanging local information:

    http://e-democracy.org/inclusion
    See the news story link.

  2. March 18, 2010 at 8:36 am

    Thanks Steven. Glad to hear about your forums — they’re a great place to start and hopefully will lead to some good story ideas.


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