When “humanizing” leads to judgement

Children facing food insecurity

Data can give important insight into what’s happening in the world, but charts and numbers alone aren’t always resonant.  One way that reporters ground the numbers in a story is by finding people whose experience matches the trend.  This was the case with “A Daily Fight To Find Food: One Family’s Story,” a report that was aired on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”  The story profiles the Williamson family of Carlisle, PA as an example of the growing number of families who struggle to meet their nutritional needs.  The Williamson family, the report said, “is among those who struggle for food. They’ve been in and out of poverty for years.”  The report goes on to describe a family whose experience includes limited education, teen pregnancy and joblessness due to health issues.

While the report tells the challenges facing the family and the mechanics of how they use a combination of government support and social services to meet their food needs, it doesn’t go very deep into the connections between the different elements of poverty beyond statements like this one from a woman who runs a food pantry in the Williamsons’ community: “But Livas, of the local food pantry, says a good diet is especially important for the poor, as a first step toward addressing their other problems, with things like work, health care and education. She says it’s hard to make good decisions when you’re hungry.” Unfortunately, this left a lot of room for listeners to speculate.

Devon Mann was one of the people who questioned the food the family bought and how they used it:

“Am I the only one that has a hard time believing that you can’t feed 5 people healthy home-made meals with $600/month in food stamps? I know exactly how much I spend on groceries (food only) each month–I buy local produce when available & strictly organic meats. I buy very little canned and essentially no processed/prepared foods. What exactly are these people cooking & eating? Why is there chocolate or pop & ice pops to choose from? We choose water in our home, & yes, we often add lemon to my toddler’s delight. I’m troubled by the ignorance and waste.”

Katherine Bittner made a similar observation that was also echoed in letters responding to story that were read on the air:

“I do not fill [sic] sorry for these people. I think the story would have benefitted [sic] from finding another family where people are really struggling to with food. $600 a month is a lot of money. My family makes six figures and we don’t buy juice (water is free), rarely buy brand name products, and junk food or sweets. We stick to generic store brand food at the local supermarket and clip coupons. Maybe instead of looking for the lean cuts of meat go for the cheaper cuts of meat that you can stretch out to make stews or for less than $20 you can buy 20 pounds of rice. It’s cheaper to buy a whole chicken or whole fish. You can make more meals out of them.”

These comments are judgmental, but also show listeners struggling to understand questions left unanswered by the story.  Did the reporter fall short of an obligation to the listeners and the Williamsons to address these questions?  By anticipating some of the listener responses, the  reporter could have gotten the family’s perspective on the perceived contradictions described in the story such as growing vegetables in a household while giving their thirsty child soda or having a full refrigerator yet sometimes needing to rely on a soup kitchen for meals.  This inquiry may have offered a deeper look into the problem of hunger, not just as a gap in food resources, but also in information and lifestyle.  Asking questions about this could have helped explain this situation instead of letting comments make assumptions about these dynamics.  Given, the emotional tone of some of the comments, it is easy to see how comments can steal focus away from the initial report.

Kathryn Geiszler, another commenter, exposed another challenge with using a single example to depict broader trends:

“I am surprised they need so much food. And, I agree with another commentor [sic] that if she is able to spend so much energy driving around with her food gathering routine, how come she can’t work? I am a single mother of two kids. We get by usually on $50 per week on food. We have no TV servie [sic], no HDTV, old video game consoles, ripped clothes, and taking the car anywhere depends if the gas gauge is near the bottom or half full. My little boy has Autism, so I stay home to school him. Not much luck even if I was a PhD looking for a job. 20% unemployment in my rural county. Moving to a better area would require thousands of dollars I don’t have. Therefore – I make do with the situation I’m in. It would be nice to get government help, but for some reason, I don’t.”

One role of the news is to help  the person reading or listening place herself within the events of the day.  From Geiszler’s description of her experience, her children may be very well be counted in the 17 million children living in households where getting enough food was a challenge.  However, because the report was framed in the Williamsons’ story, she may not feel the Obama administration’s request to Congress for $10 billion in additional spending on child nutrition programs, also mentioned in the report, as something she should engage in, either as a supporter, critic or inquirer.    Listeners may have been better served if the story was told through the lives of more families with different experiences with food insecurity to make it easier for listeners to identify with the issues instead of differentiate their experience from that of the Williamsons.

However, comments like Geiszler’s makes it easy for the reporter to talk to additional sources to get a deeper understanding of a complex issue like poverty.  While it may be unrealistic for reporters to get framings right the first time, it would be unfortunate to fail to take advantage of opportunities to report the stories or nuances that were missed.

Photo by Pam Fessler/NPR.