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2014 Explanatory Reporting, Large Newsroom finalist

How America Gets By

 

About the Project

Al Jazeera’s unofficial motto is to amplify the voice of the voiceless. We wanted to take the same approach in our reporting on poverty in an attempt to focus on the point of view of those dealing with financial hardship and to dismantle the stigma surrounding poverty which many of our readers brought up during calls to actions on social media channels.

REPORTING: A DIALOGUE WITH OUR AUDIENCE

From the beginning of our continuous effort to cover poverty, we wanted dialogues with our audiences to be an integral part of our coverage.

This year is the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, a set of policies that brought us social programs like food stamps and Medicare. Fifty years ago, President Johnson also set a definition for who is and isn’t poor — an income level of $3000 at the time or $11,500 for a household of one (adjusted for inflation). But can we really measure poverty and its multifaceted faces with a number? We wanted to take the opportunity to open up a dialogue with our audiences and solicit responses about what they think the definition of poverty should be and about their experiences with poverty.

We not only received many insights into how our audience thinks about poverty through this call to action but people also told us incredible stories of their own lives. One 72-year-old man who commented on our story told us he lived in a trailer park, working post-retirement to get 50% off his rent while taking care of a friend and his daughter. He inspired us to start an entirely new project, Getting By, a series of intimate photo portraits of Americans getting by with very little, and was the first subject to be featured in this project.

We also wanted to make sure that our reporting continued to be informed by what our audiences thought. We started a Facebook group about the subject of poverty and try to educate our audiences on this group with articles — our own and those of other outlets — and other material on a weekly basis. During our most recent reporting trip, we posted updates from the field through the Facebook group and other social media channels, trying to solicit feedback on what we should investigate but also be completely transparent about our reporting (example 1, example 2).

STORIES: HUMANIZING POVERTY AND DISMANTLING STIGMA

Poverty is often covered from a policy angle with a focus on government programs and agencies working with the poor. While this is an important effort, it can often portray poor people as an ‘other’ who are either victims of an unjust system or “welfare queens” who don’t deserve the assistance of wealthier taxpayers. Our project aims to humanize and focus on those who are dealing with financial hardship in an attempt to return a certain agency to those who are often talked about but seldom talked to.

Our photo series Getting By focuses on the ways in which people manage with little money, their budgeting strategies and how their income level shapes their identity and their outlook on life. Through this series we want to explain and showcase the lives of low-income households.

We continued to take this approach with our most recent piece on Californians who live above the poverty line but who aren’t quite middle class. In California, the poverty rate goes from 1 in 10 households to 1 in 4 depending on how you count the poor. We wished to bring data literacy to our audiences about this subject, explaining just how different economic realities look depending on how you count the poor, but also collect individual household data. How much did Fernanda save on dinner by maintaining a vegetable garden? $14.58. How much shorter would Iveth’s almost 4-hour daily commute be if she could afford a car? She could save 85 minutes each way.

We often talk about budgets and household costs in abstraction and averages, but this story attempts to connect the data point with the person and marry an understanding of the contextual with an understanding of the individual.

FORMAT: THE BEST FORMAT FOR EACH STORY

We strive to tell our poverty stories with the medium that is the most appropriate for each part of the story. For a story about hunters who donate their kill to food banks we wanted to paint a picture of two very separate worlds — that of wealthier hunters and that of the poor who depend on the help of food banks. Understanding that radio and audio storytelling can sometimes be the most ‘visual’ media — one that evokes imagery — we used ambient sound to introduce the different environments featured in the stories and to add texture and depth to the experience.

To explain the economic hardship of five different households in California we decided to collect data of their spending, their incomes and their financial decision-making and visualize that data in what one could call “quantified selfies.” We found that using data visualization and a standardized way of querying them about their financial situation was the best way to explain their respective budget issues over time.

Overall, we have committed not just to explaining and educating our audiences about the subject of poverty but have the strong desire to receive their feedback and stories for this subject. Considering that the recession and the anemic recovery has tumbled so many households into economic duress, we believed that it was important to start with listening to our audience, many of whom have inadvertently become experts in the subject, and cover the kind of stories that amplifies their voices.