]]]]]]]]]   MEDIA'S TYPICAL HOMELESS ARE ANYTHING BUT     [[[[[[
                      By S. Robert Lichter          (12/15/1989)

(Mr.  Lichter  co-directs  the  Center  for  Media  and  Public
                    Affairs, in Washington.)
   [From The Wall Street Journal, 14 December 1989, p. A22:3]

          [Kindly uploaded by Freeman 10602PANC]

   You know  it's the  holiday season  when the  media make their
annual   rediscovery   of   homelessness   in   America.    Since
Thanksgiving ABC News has named a Massachusetts homeless advocate
as its ``Person of  the Week,'' the New  York Times and USA Today
have  made the  nonurban homeless  front-page  news, and  CBS has
aired  the  made-for-TV  movie  ``No  Place  Like  Home.''  NBC's
``Golden Girls'' and  CBS's ``Jake and the  Fat Man'' are running
their own holiday segments on the homeless.
   Unfortunately, this barrage  of attention tells  us more about
the  media than  about the  homeless.  The  Center for  Media and
Public  Affairs found  that, from  1986  to 1989,  the television
networks ran twice as many  stories on the homeless from November
through February  as during the  other eight months  of the year.
And homeless people in New York City appeared five times as often
as those in  any other city.  Call  them the seasonally adjusted,
conveniently located homeless.
   The media's  portrait of homelessness  is skewed  by more than
laziness or  a short attention  span.  The  coverage reflects the
advocacy approach that journalists adopt when they see a need for
social  reform, eschewing  balanced coverage  of two  sides.  And
this raises the tension that  can arise between journalists' dual
roles as champions of  the underdog and disinterested chroniclers
of social change.
   In his 1973  book ``News From  Nowhere,'' media analyst Edward
J.  Epstein  noted that  institutional  controls  on journalistic
advocacy  are  lifted   on  news  reports   about  subjects  like
pollution, hunger,  racial discrimination  and poverty.   On such
topics,  a CBS  executive  told Mr.  Epstein,  correspondents are
expected  ``openly to  advocate the  eradication of  the presumed
evil and even put it in terms of a crusade.''
   The  Center  for Media  and  Public Affairs  study  shows that
homelessness  can now  be added  to this  list.  We  analyzed 103
stories on the  ABC, CBS and  NBC evening newscasts  and 26 often
lengthy articles in Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report
from November 1986 through February  1989.  The results provide a
blueprint of advocacy journalism:
   o  Create  empathy.  The  homeless were  presented as ordinary
people  who  differ from  other  Americans mainly  be  being more
victimized by the  social and political  system.  As CBS's Martha
Teichner put it, ``People who once  gave to the needy now are the
needy.''  Fewer than one in  four of the homeless people featured
in the  stories we examined  were identified  as unemployed, only
one in 14 as a  drug or alcohol user, only  one in 12 as mentally
ill, and under 1% as having a criminal record.
   Yet recent  studies by the  U.S. Conference of  Mayors and the
Urban Institute  suggest vastly  higher rates  -- 75% unemployed,
35% substance abusers,  25% mentally ill, 20%  to 25% with prison
records.
   o  Blame  the system.   In keeping  with this  portrait of the
deserving poor, only one source  in 25 blamed homelessness on the
personal  problems of  the  homeless themselves,  such  as mental
illness, drug or alcohol abuse,  or lack of skills or motivation.
The other  96% blamed  social or  political conditions  for their
plight.   The  primary  culprit  cited  was  the  housing market,
including forces like  high mortgage interest  rates, high rents,
downtown  redevelopment,  etc.   Next   in  line  was  government
inaction, especially the government's failure to provide adequate
public housing.
   o   Issue a  call  to arms.   Every  source who  evaluated the
government's role  in fighting homelessness  found it inadequate.
The repeated denunciations of  government passivity and calls for
a kind of  ``war on homelessness''  provided clear indications of
the  crusading  mentality.   For  example,  CBS's  Susan  Spencer
charged that ``government as usual has meant virtual paralysis.''
As  a  corollary to  the  call  for federal  action,  the private
sector's role was  minimized.  When sources  discussed who should
be responsible for helping the homeless, nearly three out of four
named the government, and only 4% specified the private sector.
   o   Engage the  emotions.  A  distinctive feature  of advocacy
journalism  is  the  emotional  quality  of  its  language.   The
coverage is full of  apocalyptic imagery, despairing descriptions
and  dire predictions.   Thus, a  sociologist proclaimed  in U.S.
News and World Report:  ``What we are dealing  with is a collapse
of moral  leadership in this  country. ... It's  hard to remember
that this is  America, not Calcutta.''   Such overheated rhetoric
transforms the  subject from  a problem  that needs  to be solved
into a cause that must be joined.
   o  Speak for yourself.  The  homeless story is built mainly on
quotations from the affected group and its advocates, rather than
community leaders or those  in officially sanctioned positions of
authority.   Thus, homeless  individuals  were quoted  more often
than all  federal, state  and local  officials combined,  and the
flamboyant  homeless advocate  Mitch Snyder  was heard  from more
often  than  either  George   Bush  or  Ronald  Reagan.   Indeed,
reporters  themselves  accounted  for   over  two-thirds  of  the
comments  on  the  causes of  homelessness.   Rather  than citing
officials  or  experts,  they  seemed   eager  to  carry  on  the
discussion themselves.  So it's  not too surprising that Newsweek
would conclude, ``The homeless won't get very far unless they can
persuade a Republican  to break with  Ronald Reagan's policies --
or elect a Democrat.''
   Is  anything wrong  with all  this?   Surely the  homeless are
deserving of our sympathy and our assistance.  But a journalist's
first duty is to the facts, not the cause, however worthy.
   In playing down any ``skid  row'' image and presenting them as
victims of economic dislocation and Republican heartlessness, the
media  surely have  increased public  sympathy for  the homeless.
But  they  may  also  have  increased  the  difficulty  of  fully
understanding  and effectively  addressing their  plight.  Robert
Hayes,  director  of  the National  Coalition  for  the Homeless,
recently  told  the  New  York  Times  that  mental  illness  and
substance abuse  among the homeless  are rarely  raised in public
because   television   news   programs   ``always   want   white,
middle-class people to interview.  They  want someone who will be
sympathetic to middle America.''
   Thus, the homeless story is  becoming the 1980s counterpart of
the 1960s  civil-rights story --  a stark moral  issue that calls
for  journalists  to  awaken the  national  conscience  and force
public action.  The difficulty is that this advocacy approach can
skew  the depiction  of the  actual problem.   And misperceptions
born  of good  intentions are  not the  most promising  basis for
choosing the best ways to help the homeless.

      [The following is not part of the original article.]

The commonly quoted figure of three million homeless people comes
from activist Mitch Snyder who admitted before Congress, in 1984,
that  this number  is ``in  fact meaningless.   We have  tried to
satisfy  your  gnawing  curiosity for  a  number  because  we are
Americans  with  western  little  minds  that  have  to  quantify
everything in sight, whether we can or not.''

                        Items of Interest

Brill,  Stephen.  ``Attorney   for  the  Defenseless''.  Esquire,
   December  1984, pp.  245-248.  Profile  of  Robert Hayes  by a
   `liberal'.
Center for Media  and Public Affairs, 2101  L Street, N.W., Suite
   505, Washington, D.C. 20037, 202-223-2942.  Founded in 1986.
Epstein, Edward  Jay, 1935-.   News From  Nowhere: Television and
   the News.  New York: Vintage Books, 1973.
Fingarette,  Herbert. ``Alcoholism:  The Mythical  Disease''. The
   Public Interest, 91 (Spring 1988).  See The Public Interest 95
   (Spring 1989) for criticsm  by William Madsen and Fingarette's
   reply.
Main,  Thomas J.   ``The Homeless  Families  of New  York''.  The
   Public Interest, No. 85 (Fall 1986).
Rossi,  Peter  H.   et  al.  ``The   Urban  Homeless:  Estimating
   Composition and Size''. Science 235:1336-1341 (13 March 1987).
Torrey,  E. Fuller.   Nowhere To  Go: The  Tragic Odyssey  of the
   Homeless Mentally Ill. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

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