"The case study may alienate the viewer, listener, or reader, especially if they don't match our pre-conceptions. I remember hearing about a television crew doing a report from a scheme in the east end of Glasgow. Half way through the reporter took the charity worker who was helping them find interviewees to one side and told him 'These people aren't poor enough. They've got carpets'." (Huw Williams, BBC Radio 4 Today programme)
Just as with any sector, people in poverty are wary of journalists and the way they will be presented. But whereas people with physical health problems will expect their illness to be highlighted, with poverty there can be real stigma, and those interviewed may well feel they are not poor, but merely experiencing an income shortage, which is often short term.
It can take a lot of courage to go public in associating yourself with a group that may be stigmatised, and a sympathetic hearing is likely to draw out much more than a confrontational approach. Interviewees may fear they will be harassed or criticised by neighbours or others for talking to the media. This can make them even more reluctant to be interviewed. While it is clearly better to have a named individual, there are times when using a pseudonym might be the best way out.
At a Joseph Rowntree Foundation seminar where people in poverty and representatives from voluntary organisations gave their views on media coverage, the advice to journalists included 'the need to build up trust'. People may not tell them their life story straight away: poverty can be a very difficult subject to talk about, especially the fear of being judged by others who will read the story. The point participants emphasised most was that they wanted to be treated with respect.
Charities and voluntary organisations that support and represent poor people may well be able to find suitable interviewees. It may be that they offer to attend an interview. Don't dismiss this out of hand: their presence may well reassure a vulnerable person, leading to a better result.
As with any interview it is important to have an open mind: preconceptions of poverty may be mere stereotypes, not an accurate portrayal. Research shows that in the past, reporting poverty has often failed to get to the root of the problems.
There is no reason to expect that the home of a person experiencing poverty would be strikingly different to any other – indeed, it may be surprising at first what possessions a person appears to have. Any reference to possessions in your report or feature must be carefully considered: bear in mind that these may have been acquired when the family had an adequate income, or through loans.
"The British are remarkably effective in disguising their poverty. Here are a couple of examples given to me by journalists from stories they covered:
- mother who lived on virtually nothing but bread so her children could eat well and have a few little luxuries.
- A children's bedroom with the latest electronic games, so the kids didn't feel ashamed at school, but with a mattress on the floor being the only piece of furniture".
(David Seymour in his introduction to Reporting poverty in the UK).