Reporting on Economic Inequality: Tips from Our Newsletter

Last Updated July 2022

The guidance below collects the thoughts, tips, and must-reads about reporting on economic inequality published in our weekly newsletter, Freeze Frame. The information is presented in roughly chronological order, has been edited for clarity, and is updated where necessary.

Language & Word Choice

November 18, 2021
What’s the best way to describe the tight labor market in the U.S.?

Many outlets have been referring to this supply-and-demand problem as a “labor crisis” or “worker shortage,” but these phrases are imprecise. While November 2021 reports said there were more jobs than jobless people in 42 states, we’re also experiencing “The Great Resignation,” during which a record number of Americans are quitting jobs because they are less willing to accept low pay, insecurity, and inflexibility in the workplace. The term “labor shortage” does address a supply-demand gap, but it doesn’t capture why many are leaving the workforce. Labeling the crisis by its roots rather than its result helps audiences understand systemic cause and effect. When describing why people are leaving the workforce, for instance, “living wage shortage” or “benefits crisis” might be more accurate.

 

January 20, 2022
What’s the difference between “low-wage” and “low-income?”

The phrases “low-wage” and “low-income” are often used interchangeably when referring to workers, but I do believe there is a subtle important difference that journalists and word-nerds should pay attention to. Income refers to what someone receives, implying the recipient has the agency in what they’re receiving. Whoever’s on the other end of this give-and-take is absent in that phrase. (I.e., if your income is low, it’s on you.) A wage, however, refers to what someone is given by their employer; the employer has the agency. (I.e., if your wage is low, it’s on your employer.) So, in discussions about workers and how wages are affecting employment, economic security, and public health, using “low-wage” to focus on what employers are paying workers is likely more appropriate.

Reframing Headlines

November 11, 2021

KPIX Exclusive: San Francisco Luxury Condos Overlook City’s Worst Squalor; ‘I Don’t Want To Be Afraid To Live Here’

This headline comes from KPIX, the CBS affiliate in the Bay Area, but it is far from the only time we’ve seen a story about homelessness center those who witness it rather than those who experience it. Framing a story in a way that positions threats to those in luxury condos as the primary impact of homelessness — rather than, say, the lack of safety and support felt by people who are actually experiencing homelessness — misses the point. If journalism seeks to help society deal with its collective problems, focusing on what support is needed by those without secure housing (and why they are not receiving it) is the right place to start.

For an example of what centering the narratives of those experiencing homelessness looks like, check out the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Homegrown and homeless in Oakland.” It privileges the stories of four local residents from a systemic, solutions-driven angle.

(I’ll also, as always, recommend Anita Varma’s research on covering homelessness in solidarity with those experiencing injustice.)

 

January 13, 2022

The first headline above is from a January 7, 2022 Associated Press story about a Labor Department jobs report. The second headline is from a Washington Post story — also published January 7 about the same exact report. Though both make accurate statements — unemployment did decline, and the economy did add 199,000 jobs — very subtle language choices give them very different framings.

AP chose to highlight lowering unemployment and “many more” people finding jobs. Both of those are widely regarded as good things, so this sounds like a positively framed story. The WaPo headline is decidedly more negative, all thanks to the word “just.” By using “just 199,000 jobs,” the reader is to understand that that number is not high enough. By what measure is unclear. Did experts predict a higher number? Does it vastly undercut current needs of the market? That question is almost unnecessary to answer because, such as you might lament, “there’s just one cookie left in the jar,” the message is clear: not good.

Though usually I use this space to mark a clear “do this, not that” conclusion, that’s less important to me here than the lesson the juxtaposition provides. The monthly jobs report is consistently reported on across major news outlets and often seen as a barometer of the economy. If two broadly trusted outlets can frame the same information so differently, it’s clear how turning to just one source for all of our news is fraught. Just like you should eat a variety of fruits and veggies, you should consume a variety of news. For even more comparisons on job reports headlines, check out media critic Dan Froomkin’s site Press Watchers.

 

April 28, 2022

For many American families a living wage is out of reach: Report

The headline above, from ABC news, references the 2022 County Health Rankings report published by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. From the story:

“The data reinforces what we’ve known for some time. People in both rural and urban communities face long-standing barriers, systemic barriers — avoidable barriers — that get in the way of groups of people and places in our country from being able to live long and well,” Sheri Johnson, co-director of County Health Rankings & Roadmaps and director of the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, told ABC News.

The acknowledgement of these systemic and avoidable barriers makes describing improved economic futures as “out of reach” an odd and fatalistic choice. The report does describe major inequality, but it does not, as far as ABC News reports, suggest it is mysteriously insurmountable or natural to U.S. life. Instead it clearly describes it as essentially man-made. The headline below, from United Press International, makes plain what the solution to this man-made problem of low, unequal wages is: pay increases! (From, one could infer, those creating the inequality.)

Analysis says most U.S. workers need major pay increase to earn living wage

It’s crucial to understand how journalists play a role in establishing what is possible in the public discourse. This is a perfect example of two news outlets highlighting the same problem and framing the potential for that problem to be solved completely differently.

Critical Voices

It’s not just the presentation of workers having power as a disease but the callousness of writing that during a pandemic that’s killed almost 900k Americans that really takes this tweet and article to the next level of ridiculousness.

Couldn’t agree more with writer Zito Madu here. Language is a powerful thing and so much of communication requires using comparisons to help others pick up what you’re putting down. This social media presentation uses a metaphor to describe workers making the choices that feel right for them like a disease, a frame so negative and pro-capitalist it’s hard to overcome, regardless of the article’s contents.