Help Wanted

Written by on February 24, 2021

This story is part of the SoJo Exchange of COVID-19 stories from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

By Sarah Gustavus | Solutions Journalism Network

SJN’s Economic Mobility Beat needs open-minded journalists willing to shed biases, tired narratives and musty ideas

A few years ago, I was at a gathering in Colorado with journalists and civic leaders interested in exploring solutions. We discussed shared concerns across the Mountain West region, including housing.

An attendee leaned over at one point and said, “Do you notice that when we talk about housing with other journalists, no one ever brings up trailers?” It turned out we both grew up in rural areas and spent time with friends and family members who lived in trailers, also called mobile homes. Nothing about recalling those experiences dredged up negative thoughts about those homes and neighborhoods. And from my work covering rural communities, I know lots of folks find trailers an affordable housing solution, despite some challenges if you don’t own the land where you set up your home.

Along with mobile homes, I rarely see stories about manufactured homes, which are built off-site and shipped to different locations. It makes sense that if you don’t know anyone who lives in a trailer or manufactured home, it doesn’t come to mind when considering potential stories. What surprised me as I reflected more on this is that over time, I myself had developed an unconscious disregard for trailers. During story planning meetings I never brought up trailers, either.

Not every journalist has a blind spot about mobile homes. But it’s a fair bet that many do, by virtue of their limited exposure to those communities. I often hear comments from journalists that signal to me they have other blind spots about covering poverty.

Not everyone who lives in a manufactured home is experiencing poverty. Whenever trailers are a key part of a news story, the framing is often that people living in them are in crisis. They’re seen as vulnerable or even helpless. Can you imagine a situation in which every resident in two contiguous Midwest states was depicted as such? Talk about depressing — and damning.

There’s growing evidence that framing poverty as a constant crisis is not leading to change. It’s making people feel helpless, as if nothing will ever be different. By its very definition, solutions journalism rejects that notion. SoJo’s principles and practices encourage journalists to seek out responses to poverty that have measurable results and, yes, limitations. Evidence-based reporting on poverty can bring to light what’s actually working with such issues as affordable housing.

The potential bias we may have in our heads about manufactured homes and trailer parks can skew reporting. But acknowledging that bias can set journalists on a path to new stories on the economic mobility beat. Fresh narratives must replace stale ones.

For example, did you know that trailer parks across the country are moving to a co-op model, with members purchasing land to ensure rent stays affordable? The Christian Science Monitor covered that trend in 2018. And Bloomberg CityLab made the case in 2018 that mobile homes could be a potential solution to the rising cost of housing in urban areas.

Research on Narratives About Poverty

Last year, I learned about research on narratives around poverty by Olson Zaltman, a market research consulting firm that examines consumers’ beliefs and behaviors rooted in the unconscious mind.

Its team employs an approach called ZMET, which involves using images as a starting point for interviews about an issue like poverty. For this project, the team asked 40 people from four different communities to bring in images that describe poverty. What resulted as a common theme? Water, of all things.

Not just any water: choppy, stormy, dangerous water. When asked to describe poverty in words, people used phrases like “falling underwater,” “ocean when it’s storming” and “surrounded by sharks.”

The Olson Zaltman team then identified four common narrative groups from the interviews, which we cover in the Economic Mobility reporting guide:

  • Progressives are socially liberal and reject the status quo. They see poverty as a systemic issue.
  • The Conflicted are open to change, but unsure how to help. They see poverty in terms of both the system and personal agency.
  • The Strivers still believe in convention and the existing system. They have faith in the concept of the American Dream and believe that community connections are crucial.
  • And the Bootstrappers believe hard work and traditional values are key to escaping poverty.

Harmony Labs has also done research on the same four groups (identified in its work as People Power, If You Say So, Tough Cookies and Don’t Tread on Me). You can take a quiz to see which group you most closely identify with. Harmony Labs’ analysis of social media and news stories found eight common narratives, from “Helping Hands” to “Not Like Us.”

Tired narratives can lead to overly simplistic stories.

For economic mobility, they’re often rags-to-riches tales that make escaping poverty seem dependent on luck. Or there are heartwarming stories of buying groceries for a mom, or a car for a man who was walking to work every morning. Those stories may go viral, but they don’t provide insights into the strategies that could help people who are experiencing financial hardship.

Enter solutions journalism, with its emphasis on reporting beyond the problem. When you go in search of responses to problems, you’ll invariably find deeper, better, fairer and more illuminating narratives to share.

How Journalists Can Use This Research To Tell More Accurate Stories

Understanding common narratives about poverty can help us as journalists reflect on the language and framing we use in stories about economic mobility.

Are we reinforcing stereotypes or challenging them?

Are we leaning into where we might have blind spots so we can tell stories that inform and surprise our audiences?

Exploring common narratives can also help us develop questions that lead to a deeper understanding of how both our sources and audiences might respond to stories about poverty.

Millions of Americans want greater financial stability for themselves and their families. The U.S. government threshold for poverty is an income less than $12,800 for most individuals and $26,500 or less for a family of four. But the federal definition of poverty isn’t the only way to measure economic hardship, and the effects of the pandemic are still unclear. Many families have incomes higher than the federal threshold, but are struggling to pay for housing, transportation, child care and education.

Complex stories about economic hardship and the responses that are working are critically needed to help our communities make sense of challenging economic mobility issues. Such stories help us all understand the systems that created the current economic inequality, what strategies are working to provide relief and correct past injustices, and the insights from successful programs that are worth sharing.

We hope you’ll consider taking on this challenge in your reporting. Submit your stories to the SJN Solutions Story Tracker and get in touch to let us know what you’ve found in your reporting.

Want to talk more about covering responses to economic mobility and poverty? Reach out to set up a time to chat! Email: sarah@solutionsjournalism.org

Story originally published on solutionsjournalism.org

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