Reporting on the Economic Impact of Coronavirus

Resolve Philly was developed to address how historically misrepresented communities, particularly those experiencing racial injustice and economic hardship, are covered by the media. The following guidance is inspired by and draws from research and a reporting guide created for Broke in Philly, Resolve Philly’s collaborative solutions journalism project focused on economic mobility and stability in Philadelphia. Learn more about Broke in Philly.

Framing Your Story

There will be large scale economic fall-out from the spread of coronavirus. Respectfully and accurately describing people experiencing poverty is key to ensuring accurate reporting on the coronavirus more broadly. As this unfolds, it is important that journalists covering these effects remember some baseline truths about poverty in this country:

  1. Poverty is a systemic, and not an individual, problem. It requires systemic solutions.
  2. Poverty is not a moral failing. 
  3. In times of societal crisis, those who have the least will be impacted the most.

Beyond these facts, there are several aspects of the experience of economic hardship — and the way the media represents this — that are particularly important to remember when doing coronavirus coverage. 

Poverty is a State, Not a Trait

The vast majority of people experiencing poverty vacillate in and out of being officially “poor.” Given this, person-first language is always the most accurate way of describing people who are dealing with economic hardship. 

🚩The term “poor” is not only felt by many to be hurtful, it is less accurate than explaining a person is experiencing poverty or falls below the poverty line.

“Poverty” vs. Economic hardship

Living in poverty is defined by the Federal Poverty Level at certain income thresholds — in 2020 as individuals with annual income of  $12,760 and $26,200 for a family of four.1 In 2018, there were approximately 38.1 million people in the U.S living in poverty, a rate of 11.8%.2

BUT economic hardship impacts is a huge swath of the population: a 2018 poll found that 61% of U. S residents could not withstand a $1,000 minor medical emergency without taking on debt.3 Poverty is much more mainstream than anyone realizes: nearly 60% of Americans between the ages of 20 and 75 will encounter at least one year below the poverty line4, and half of all kids in the U.S. will at some point live in a house that uses food stamps.5

🚩Reporting on how the coronavirus will affect or is affecting people experiencing economic hardship/instability is actually just reporting on how it will affect the majority of this country, not a small subset of the population. 

“Vulnerable” Populations

“Vulnerable populations” has become a common phrase  in coverage of the coronavirus. With respect to those perhaps more likely to be affected by the virus itself, it’s more accurate to say they are more medically susceptible to severe cases of the virus, or more likely to contract it because of their line of work. 

Using “vulnerable” as a catch all to describe those impacted both by the virus and its impacts on society is imprecise and obscures nuance. Consider gig, restaurant, and retail workers who work paycheck-to-paycheck and who are particularly susceptible to economic hardship as a result of social distancing measures. For example: Say you’re reporting on an hourly grocery store worker who gets no paid sick leave. They feel ill, but they live paycheck-to-paycheck like many others. Are they “vulnerable,” or is their lack of paid leave putting them at risk?

🚩 Rather than describe a person or group as “vulnerable,” describe what puts them at risk for economic hardship.

“Welfare” and State Assistance

As businesses close or fight to survive, many more people will struggle to stay afloat. It is important that journalists revisit the terms typically used to describe government assistance when it is given to businesses vs. when it is given to individuals or families.

The word “welfare” has developed a stigmatizing connotation in many settings where its recipients are described as “dependent” or “reliant” on others, or as a “drain” on “the rest of us.” It is less frequently used to describe the type of economic assistance afforded to businesses, despite this all being a form of state assistance.

If you would find yourself using phrases like “given a boost,” “economic relief,” or “disaster cash” to describe the emergency measures rolling out amid the coronavirus, ask yourself, “Would I use this to describe programs like SNAP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or disability benefits? Why or why not?”

🚩Pay attention to how relief packages that are proposed or passed in the coming months are framed in juxtaposition to usual coverage of other social safety net programs.

Think about reporting for, not just reporting about

Given the majority of this country can not afford to weather the financial disaster that the coronavirus represents, that means we as reporters have an obligation to be providing information that is useful to this wide swath of the population, not just “about” their experience.

🚩 In your editorial meetings or when writing your piece, consider asking yourselves and others, “Who does this information serve?” How can we provide reporting that is useful for people in the most precarious economic position at this moment?

Language

TERMS TO AVOID

These are terms that are commonly used but are often not the most accurate way of describing a person or group of people.

The poor or poor people/person
Given poverty is a state and not a trait, this is less accurate than saying a “person experiencing poverty.”

A low income person 
A person can not be low-income. Perhaps they receive a smaller income in relation to others, but before using this phrase, ask yourself if that is what you are aiming to describe. Does their economic hardship relate only to their wages, and not a number of other factors like the availability of jobs, the cost of living, etc?

Fallen on hard times
This makes economic hardship sound like an accident that could strike anyone at any time, and not the product of societal systems.

Economically disadvantaged
This term makes economic hardship sound like an inherent quality in someone, rather than the product of societal systems.

Citizens/poor citizens
This phrasing unnecessarily leaves out non-citizens who may also be experiencing economic hardship.

The needy, or in-need
We all need things. This term implies those experiencing economic hardship are alone in needing basic goods to live, or that they are less deserving of  having those needs met.

Poverty-stricken or -ridden regions/communities
These phrases not only make experiencing poverty sound like a disease or an affliction, but they’re also inaccurate and imprecise. What are you trying to describe? Is it truly an area in which many people fall below the federal threshold for poverty? Or is it something else? 

(For more on reporting and language best practices listen to this On the Media segment and “Covering Poverty” by Heather Bryant.)

TERMS TO USE INSTEAD

BEST OPTION: Ask the person you are reporting on how they describe themselves, or how they would like to be described in the article. Give them the power to define themselves—and then follow-through by using that language in your story

When that’s not possible, here are suggested  replacements for the above. Given the facts about our nation’s economic reality, person-first is always more accurate when describing someone dealing with economic hardship.

Person or People…

  • Experiencing / Dealing with / Living with/in….
    • economic hardship, instability or uncertainty
    • poverty (if you know they currently fall below that federal line)
  • Who can’t make ends meet
  • Who can’t meet their basic needs

To avoid repetition of the word person or people, consider: neighbors, communities, or residents.

Footnotes

  1. Healthcare.Gov: Federal Poverty Level
  2. U.S. Census: Income and Poverty in the United States 2018
  3. Bankrate: Most Americans don’t have enough savings to cover a $1K emergency
  4. Money.com: 6 in 10 Americans Will Experience Poverty
  5. Washington University in St. Louis: Nearly half of all U.S. children will use food stamps, says poverty expert