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From AJR,   December 2012/January 2013  issue

Putting a Human Face on Poverty   

An award-winning Christian Science Monitor piece illustrates what itís like to be poor in America. Wed., December 12, 2012.


By Amber Larkins
Amber Larkins (amberelarkins@gmail.com) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

Linda Criswell, a daycare worker who makes about $12,000 a year, received an envelope that had been mailed in Canada. Inside, there was a $20 bill and a note that said, "Dear Linda, Maybe you can treat yourself. From a friend."

"She called me up to tell me that," says Jina Moore, who has been a freelance correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor for five years. Criswell told Moore she had just wanted to tell people what it was like and have them understand living in poverty. She hadn't expected money from strangers when she first told Moore about how she watches grain prices to see if she can afford to buy meat.

Moore has been impressed by the response to her October story titled "Below the line: Poverty in America," which won the November Sidney Award. "It's been interesting since to see the reactions people have to it, especially the people in the story," Moore says. "I didn't have any grand ambition for accomplishing anything."

She liked seeing the topic of poverty get attention, and she also liked seeing the Monitor recognized because of her 3,500 word story. The article focused on how the government measures poverty and what it's like to be poor in America.

Lindsay Beyerstein, who runs and helps judge the Sidney Awards, a monthly honor from the Sidney Hillman Foundation recognizing socially conscious journalism, found Moore's story to be outstanding. "The lead was so compelling," Beyerstein says. "She took really dry subject material and packaged it really compellingly."

The story began with the sentence, "Technically, Linda Criswell steals her fruit," and went on to describe how Criswell, who lives in Wheeling, West Virginia, finds ways to eat cheaply but worries about how she will pay her bills.

The Christian Science Monitor and Moore thought it was important to illuminate poverty, but it took a while to determine the best way to bring the subject alive. "There was a lot of brainstorming about what was the best way to do this," Moore says.

Originally, the idea was to write a story about poverty around the world, but when the team at the Monitor began looking at the statistics from the Census Bureau and the Supplemental Poverty Measure for 2011, they quickly realized that the subject was so complicated in the United States that dealing with just one country would be plenty.

"It was a long journey...that involved really digging through statistics and trying to think, 'What do the statistics mean?' " Moore says.

Her story described how the government formula for poverty has not changed for over 40 years. As a result, Moore reported, many people living at or slightly above the poverty line are not considered poor by the government, but are struggling to get by.

The key was finding people to illustrate the problem. "When you're going into a community and looking for people you don't already know, you have to find access points to those people," Moore says. "What does it look like, what does it feel like? We had to find those people."

She searched for them at food pantries, at secondhand clothing stores, at homeless shelters.

That's the way contributing reporter Anna Clark found James Harris, who volunteers at a church and homeless outreach ministry. Moore's story raised questions about the idea that those who are poor do not have houses or possessions. She told how Harris, who lives near Detroit, has cable television, a Nintendo Wii and a PlayStation 2 but makes less than $1,000 a month.

Beyerstein says many of the stories that win Sidney Awards are about poverty. And she says the focus of many stories about the subject has changed as a result of the recession. For example, there are many more stories about people losing their houses or living in cars. "Poverty has been mainstreamed in a really big way," she says.

She adds that poverty and inequality are being more widely acknowledged in the wake of the nation's economic crisis. "There's a new consciousness," Beyerstein says.

Nevertheless, Edward Wasserman, currently the Knight Chair for Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University and soon to be journalism dean at the University of California, Berkeley, believes that poverty is vastly undercovered. He recently worked with others at Washington and Lee to develop www.onpoverty.org, a Web site that aggregates poverty coverage. "It tries to be a meeting place," Wasserman says.

Wasserman, who was impressed by Moore's story, agrees that poverty has become more newsworthy in the wake of the recession. But, he adds, "It's a particular kind of poverty." He sees coverage gravitating toward the newly poor, such as people who once had nice homes but suddenly find themselves under duress.

"That became the most popular theme and hardship: People who had been well off and now were not," Wasserman says.

There's nothing wrong with that, except that people who were impoverished before the recession and will still be when it ends are too often ignored, Wasserman says.

In his view, despite the upsurge in the past few years, news outlets still don't cover poverty as much as they should, in part because of a perceived limited appetite for such stories. "The media have something to do with the public not knowing," Wasserman says.

"There is a civic obligation to worry about this," he adds, "Good news media pay attention to it."