Silencing Poverty

A Study of News Coverage of Welfare

This study found the quantity and scope of news coverage of welfare in the first half of 1999 (the period following the first year of reform implementation) was extremely limited.

Over the course of five months, the study found a total of only 37 articles on welfare reform in the three opinion-leading California newspapers combined. The papers were the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee. In contrast, a less thorough search of these same newspapers over the same period found 40 articles about pets. The message from these newspapers is clear: welfare reform is not deemed newsworthy.

News outlets offered few reports on whether the new welfare-to-work programs are effective in alleviating poverty. Intead, the success of welfare reform was measured by the decline in caseloads. Perhaps most disturbingly, the articles found by the study team provided little insight into how reforms were impacting the largest population of welfare recipients--children. In addition, a large portion of the articles written in the three papers discussed welfare recipients with language and terms most commonly reserved for criminals. Little reporting was offered about what happens to people when they exit welfare programs, about the impact of welfare reform on immigrants, or about the role of discrimination in producing disparate racial outcomes.

In contrast to the news stories offered by the opinion-leading papers, news reporting on welfare reform by the Contra Costa Times, one of the two regional newspapers examined in this study, was frequent and provided in-depth examination of critical issues around welfare reform. The Times published 31 articles. The second regional newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, generated only four stories in five months.(Grade the News note: The Mercury has since reported on welfare reform in depth; see Stars and Dunces.)

The study concludes with recommendations for improving welfare coverage. These include increasing the number of profiles of people and programs as well as deeper investigation of welfare-related topics.

--We Interrupt This Message & Media Alliance

For a copy of the study, write to: Hunter Cutting, Associate Director of We Interrupt This Message; 965 Mission St., Suite 220; San Francisco, CA 94103. Tel. 415-537-9439, or email <interrupt@igc.org>.