Mainstream Media’s Lack of Coverage on Poverty

Updated on November 27, 2017

Studies have shown a lack of reporting on global poverty from mainstream news outlets, accounting for less than one percent of the media’s coverage. Many of the world’s deadliest conflicts including crises of poverty are simply not covered by mainstream media (Savchuk 2016). Looking at it from a holistic approach, one of the underlying reasons for the lack of coverage stems from the nature of the news outlet itself – usually being a for profit news outlet that is bought off by multinational corporations which holds conflicting interests in terms of what they can report on, most of the times those interests also align with the elite national interests. In contrast to mainstream media, non-corporate publications cover issues of poverty more readily since their not tied down to special corporate interest. U of T Faculty of Information Studies Professor Juris Dilevko differentiates corporate and non-corporate publications: “corporate, for-profit publishing entities support a dominant social paradigm” whereas “smaller, independent publishers, usually non-profits challenge the assumptions of the sataus-quo” (Pankov 2010).

There are several key components which determine whether a conflict gets covered by the media, in her book Stealth Conflicts, Virgil Hawkins explains the reasons that prevent deadly conflicts from getting covered; these key components being whether the issue is of political significance/political interest, the issues proximity (geographically/culturally) i.e. if the readers are able to identify with the issue, the issues ties to national interests - (strategic military and economic concerns), if the country covering it is a core nation, and the relationship between the media and elite western powers (Hawkins 2008). This paper will explore each of these key components in further detail. The consequences of not covering issues that pertain to deadly conflicts of poverty and war leads to a lack of knowledge by powerful wealthy nations which are in the best position to help those countries in need. Poverty in Africa is a clear example of an issue which needs more aid but continues to be largely ignored by mainstream media.

While poverty is recognized as one of the most important problems facing humanity, reports show mainstream media barely covers it, statistics show a lack of reporting. Despite being such a widespread issue, poverty only accounts for less than 1 percent of the media’s coverage (Pankov 2010). Other studies show similar results; a progressive media watchdog group named Fairness and Accuracy found that three major network newscasts spent just 0.2% of their programming to poverty in a 14-month period (Savchuck 2016). Moreover, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism also showed similar results; they showed that poverty coverage accounted for less than one percent of stories in 52 mainstream news outlets from 2007 to mid-2012 (Froomkin 2016). Although it remains unreported, issues of poverty can be regarded as news worthy simply based on its ties to the staggering rates of death and violence - more than 1.3 billion in extreme poverty with 22,000 children dying every day as a result (UNICEF 2010). Nonetheless, famines and other poverty related crises are disproportionately reported on. This results in emergency conflicts which could substantiate more help remaining in conflict and in desperate need of more aid due to the lack of world knowledge, state aid or major powerful western humanitarian organizations which are in the best position to donate, might not due to a lack of exposure or knowledge; an example of this being the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s which took the lives of more than five million people yet remained unknown to many in the west at the time. In a way, this lack of knowledge attributed to more starvation and disease which could’ve been alleviated quicker if there was greater media exposure (Gettleman 2012).

Virgil Hawkins details the various factors that influence whether a conflict gets covered in the media, one of them includes the issues political significance, otherwise known as political interest. In other words, depending on whether the news outlets lean right or left, this will influence or determine whether the issue gets covered, or how they choose to cover it. If the news outlet benefits politically from the coverage, then they are more likely to cover that issue. A Pew Research survey spotlights the differences in how Democrats and Republicans choose to cover issues of poverty, the study also shows the differences in how they think poverty could best be alleviated and how the issue of income inequality divides Republicans more than Democrats (Horowitz 2014). Nonetheless, the spectrum of political ideologies aligns with particular views of how to best solve problems of poverty, due to unavoidable media bias, these differences can correlate with how news outlets choose to cover the issue. The Survey showed that a higher percentage of Democrats believe governments should do a lot more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor than do Republicans. A higher percentage of Democrats also believe that raising taxes on the rich to expand programs for the poor would do more to reduce poverty than lowering taxes (Horowitz 2014). Moreover, the Pew Research survey also shows that Republicans are more likely to believe that the gap between the rich and the poor hasn’t increased in the last 10 years; this shows that Republican and conservative news outlets are less likely to cover issues of poverty since they believe that it hasn’t increased in the last 10 years; in a way this gives credence to Hawkins argument that the publications political views naturally influence whether a conflict gets covered or how it gets covered, for coverage on poverty, these determinants are also based on the difference in ideologies.

Another factor that affects whether certain conflicts get covered, according to Hawkins, is the issues proximity, both geographically and culturally to the nation covering it. Many news outlets find it easier and more convenient to report on issues close to their vicinity, this is due to the fact that it is easier to collect the information where one is located, and in a way it also guarantees sufficient viewership due to it being local news and thus more likely to resonate with the local population. The lack of data from third world countries supports Hawkins argument; about half of the nations in sub-Saharan Africa have conducted two or more surveys since the 1990s, these remote locations are often not reached (WHO 2010). If there is very little public information on the state of poverty in most impoverished areas, then journalist are going to have a harder time collecting or finding that information, in effect avoiding reporting on many third world countries in need of help due to the difficulties and time constraints of finding the data. Proximity in terms of culture is also relevant in determining whether the issue gets covered. If the culture that the media is reporting on matches the viewers, then the viewers are more likely to resonate with it and thus tune in. Publisher, New Internationalist gives the example of how people in western society will acquire more interest and greater sentiments by seeing news of cars and buildings getting bombed, as opposed to seeing violence and poverty surrounding mud huts in Africa (Harvey 2012). In short, according to Hawkins, the ability for readers to identify with the story is a significant factor that decides whether the conflict gets covered; these factors are related to similarities in language, religion, or historical ties; skin color is a significant factor as well, this being one of the reasons why coverage of Africa by western media remains low, preferring to cover news of Caucasians instead.

Moreover, another factor which affects whether a conflict gets covered is if the issue is located near or in a place of national interest, this includes strategic military and economic concerns (Hawkins 2008). With many for-profit magazines having financial ties to multi-national corporations which are beholden to the interest of the military industrial complex, reporting on something which can hinder the shareholders profits or their geopolitical ties is looked down upon. This could mean that certain news worthy issues of violence and poverty could be purposely avoided in order to avoid any conflict of interest. An example of an issue that purposely gets avoided by western media is the state of violence and poverty in Palestine. The publication Near East News Agency (NENA) highlights western media’s lack of reporting on Palestine, showing how western media focused their reporting on the kidnapping of three Israeli teens while none of them took into account the kidnapping of more than 570 Palestinians since June 12 (Redazione 2014). National geopolitical interest of allying with Israel prevents many Palestinian crises from being exposed by western media.

Another factor which effects whether a conflict gets covered is if the nation is a “core nation” i.e. an economic powerful nation like the U.S. or China (Hawkins 2008). If the country is a core nation then it is more likely to receive coverage from international media, thus they are more likely to receive information on global poverty. However, for a small developing country, receiving international news is less likely, they are most likely to receive local news, preventing them from being fully informed on issues of poverty which need further aid.

Lastly, a significant issue which affects whether a conflict gets covered has to do with the relationship between the media and elite western powers, in short, international relations is taken into account, assessing if it could hinder nations relationships with their allies (Hawkins 2008). With many news outlets having such a widespread influence, reporting on issues which could portray allies in a negative light could have the effect of hindering businesses profits. This also ties in to the nature of news cycle, instead of investigating issues of significant importance, the journalist finds it easier to just cover whatever is on the agenda of the governments office that day.

In conclusion, the underlying reason for the lack of coverage on poverty stems from the nature of the news outlet - for profit news outlets that are bought off by multinational corporations which hold conflicting interest in terms of what they can and can’t report on; they are in effect burdened with writing constraints, thus preventing certain issues of poverty from getting coverage, leading to a lack of humanitarian aid because the public in western nations remain oblivious to where help is needed most.


"Child Mortality Rate Drops by a Third since 1990." UNICEF. N.p., 16 Sept. 2010. Web.10 May 2017.

"Family Planning in Sub-Saharan Africa: Progress or Stagnation?" WHO. World Health Organization, 2010. Web. 10 May 2017.

Froomkin, Dan. "It Can't Happen Here." Nieman Reports It Cant Happen Here Comments. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 May 2017.

Gettleman, Jeffrey. "The World’s Worst War." The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Dec. 2012. Web. 10 May 2017.

Harvey, Nick. "Why Do Some Conflicts Get More Media Coverage than Others?" New Internationalist. N.p., 2012. Web. 10 May 2017.

Hawkins, Virgil. Stealth Conflicts: How the World's Worst Violence Is Ignored. Aldershot (England): Ashgate, 2008. Print.

Horowitz, Juliana Menasce. "Inequality, Poverty Divide Republicans More than Democrats." Pew Research Center. N.p., 29 Jan. 2014. Web. 10 May 2017.

Pankov. "What Is the Alternative Press? A Few Definitions…." PANKOV. N.p., 21 Mar. 2010. Web. 10 May 2017.

Redazione. "Western Media’s Coverage of Palestine: Part of the Problem." NenaNews. N.p., 07 July 2014. Web. 10 May 2017.

Savchuk, Katia. "Poor Journalism: Is Media Coverage of the Poor Getting Better or Worse?" Cal Alumni Association. N.p., 06 Apr. 2016. Web. 10 May 2017

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