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Knight Poverty Journalism Conference at W&L Challenges, Aids Reporters on Poverty Coverage

Instead of a ladder that people can use to climb out of poverty, a greased chute keeps people sliding further and further down into poverty.

That is how Barbara Ehrenreich, author and political activist, described the current situation at the first Knight Poverty Journalism Conference, held at Washington and Lee University this weekend.

Ehrenreich presented the keynote address for the conference, which drew 40 national journalists and journalism professors to Lexington for three days of sessions on writing about poverty and issues of economic justice.


Edward Wasserman, the Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at W&L and the conference organizer, said the goal of the event was to build competence and community among this group of journalists with the hope that they will create a nationwide support system to improve the quality and quantity of these issues.

Wasserman called poverty journalism “a miserably neglected area of journalistic coverage and an area where social awareness is very poor.”

Throughout the weekend, participants heard panels of academic experts discuss the underlying economic issues at play today. They also participated in workshops to learn what kind of stories others had been able to pursue effectively.

In her keynote address, Ehrenreich acknowledged that “it is not easy to be a journalist who focuses on poverty and economic hardship. Believe me, I know this because I’ve been trying to do this before some of the journalists here today got their first rejection slips.”

Ehrenreich is probably best known for her 2001 memoir, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America,” in which she wrote about the three months that she spent working at minimum wage jobs.

“What I have learned over the years is that most editors and other media gatekeepers aren’t interested in poverty,” she said.

Ehrenreich is founding editor of the Economic Hardship Writing Project. It supports journalists who write on these issues and who may themselves be struggling with poverty.

“We have one of the biggest economic stories in my lifetime — the story of the huge and rapid growth of poverty and inequality in this country,” she said. “And this story is not getting out as it should, because poverty itself is silencing the people who are in the best position to tell it.”

Ehrenreich told the journalists that they need to work together “to get out the stories that need to get out, and to tell them so compellingly that they can no longer be ignored.”

The Economic Hardship Writing Project was one of the resources cited during the conference. Another was a new tool kit for journalists, CoveringPoverty.org, that was presented by the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications. It offers reporters new ways to cover local stories about the impact of the recession.

In addition, OnPoverty.org, a website created by Washington and Lee University students, released its newest version. OnPoverty.org not only collects stories and research data about poverty but also serves as a site for journalists to discuss the issues.

Wasserman noted that while the current economic climate may have resulted in increased numbers of stories about economic hardship, the recession has inspired coverage that focuses on people who had been in the middle class and have fallen into difficulty.

“These kinds of stories have become the focus of media attention,” said Wasserman. “They have gotten a disproportionate amount of attention. The people who have not gotten the attention they deserve are the people who were poor before the recession and will be poor after the recession.”

Poverty, he added, is generally not a very attractive subject, nor is it one that advertisers are keen to support.

“Coverage of the poor has rested on the belief that there is a civic purpose to this reporting, that it illuminates conditions that we all ought to know about even if we’re not personally implicated in them,” he said. “To some degree, this civic trust has eroded, and it’s harder to sell these stories.”

Washington and Lee has pioneered the development of poverty studies through its interdisciplinary Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability. The University’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communications offers courses as part of that program.