Local news outlets in New Mexico need to do a better job in covering both poverty and homelessness.
On June 14, just a few hours apart, KOB 4 published two stories that exemplified poor reporting, and failed to inform the public.
The first was titled “Twerking Panhandlers Spotted in Albuquerque.”
The women are identified by the sole source and KOB as panhandlers. And it is true that the women are dancing on the median and holding a sign. However, the sign is unreadable (barely distinguishable from the background of the video) and no other evidence is given that these women are panhandling. No attempt was mentioned in KOB’s article to contact the women to ask their side of the story.
A good article aims to inform. It answers questions or poses better ones. This article, with it’s clickbait headline, answers one question, but also passes uninformed judgements. The question was whether or not these women were acting illegally, which they were not. The judgement was passed by an indignant delivery and an unbalanced story, pulling only from one perspective.
The context of Albuquerque’s Panhandling Ordinance did not connect to the story of these women, and how it affects their lives. Instead, it aims to contextualize other people’s feelings — that panhandling is a problem for the people viewing it.
The second story is more insidious: “Suspicious Man Worries People in North Valley.” A man who was not identified by name by KOB because he has not been found guilty of any felonies, had his face plastered across their newscast. The article aims to shock again as KOB writes, “Homeowners want to know why the man doesn't remain behind bars.”
Well, because he has not been found guilty. In stating that “prosecutors don’t have evidence to prosecute him” there is an implication that he is guilty.
Most disturbing is a quote from a neighbor, Nicholas Koluncich, implying the future violence this man will create: “Eventually this individual is going to go to the wrong house and when he goes to the wrong house someone is going to get hurt. It could be this person or it could be somebody who actually lives there.”
While it is understandable that Koluncich is protective of his property, it does not excuse the implication that this man’s presence is a threat of violence.
I’m not critiquing their choice of source, but the lack of balance. If you have a source say this man will commit violence, provide evidence or a countersource. Check it. Why do the neighbors have that opinion?
If this man has a criminal history outside of the felonies, KOB doesn’t say so. KOB did not mention whether they had attempted to contact this man for his side of the story.
The national Point-In-Time count reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated 553,742 people in the United States experience homelessness on a given night.
In order to talk about homelessness as the United States is experiencing it right now, we have to understand the historical, racial and social contexts of those experiencing it.
Violence against homeless people in Albuquerque is a serious matter. Elise Kaplan and Matthew Reisen wrote a story giving a critical, humanizing picture of Audra Willis, the 39-year-old woman found decapitated in a Four Hills arroyo, reminiscent of two other murders of people who were homeless. According to another article Elise Kaplan explains that a serial offender is killing homeless men.
Other articles from KOB, Santa Fe Reporter, Santa Fe New Mexican, KOAT 7, KRQE 13, and the Daily Lobo that focus on homelessness often do so from resource centers, or service provision.
Reporting on homelessness ethically and critically takes time.
Kevin Fagen reported on homelessness full-time for the San Francisco Chronicle from 2003 to 2006, and wrote a primer for journalists on how to cover homelessness. The primer includes tips for developing sources in the homeless community, and means to make journalists more comfortable challenging themselves to write on this topic.
I’m not targeting individual journalists or outlets. KOB just provided two examples in one day.
In a 2008 interview for Columbia Journalism Review, Mary Ellen Schoonmaker, an editorial-board member at The Record in northern New Jersey, asked Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. for suggestions for journalists writing about poverty. Dionne Jr. said that journalist’s ability to ask people for their stories is their best tool.
“The best journalists have a kind of empathetic ability, the ability to see the world not just from their own perspective but from somebody else’s perspective,” Dionne Jr. said. “At its best, journalism is an interaction between an empathetic view and a critical view, which is: How does the world look from this perspective?”
I want to challenge myself and other journalists to walk the line of empathy to tell the real, detailed story of humans, no matter their position.
Danielle Prokop is the multimedia editor for the Daily Lobo. The opinions in this column are her own. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @ProkopDani.