Originally posted at www.21stcenturyscholar.org
How are black men portrayed? After Freddie Gray’s death due to the brutality of six Baltimore police officers, newscasts focused on Gray’s criminal record and suspect behavior. When city residents protested, the media became more interested. Reporters searched for provocative stories and trolled for increased viewership. They showed dehumanizing videos of wild mobs looting and rioting.
Mainstream media ignored the peaceful protests of informed residents who understand the intricate factors that contribute to distressed neighborhoods in the city; a city where one out of four individuals live below the poverty line; a city where more than three out of four low-income households are headed by single women; and, a city where nearly one out of three children live below the poverty level. Of course, we know these figures underestimate poverty. Federal poverty lines are notoriously unrealistic. The qualifying amount for a one-person household is $11,770. The amount for a three-person household is $20,090.
I could go on. I could mention that, while most research indicates the multiple benefits of homeownership—from health to upward mobility—nearly eight out of ten low-income families rent, not own. I could talk about the failure to provide living wages, the lack of food security, the disproportionate number of dismal public schools, and a robust school-to-prison pipeline. I could criticize reports about exorbitant amounts of money spent on failed public policies to revitalize Baltimore neighborhoods, reports that imply residents somehow refuse to improve their economic standing despite the good deeds of politicians.
We know that healthy neighborhoods rely on five pillars—quality health, safety, education, employment, and institutions. One-dimensional reforms rarely account for interconnected factors that reproduce concentrated and generational poverty. They disregard a history of corrupt institutions and prejudiced politics, facts that have significant implications for policy implementation. When politicians do introduce comprehensive reforms—think of Promise Neighborhoods—they are woefully under-funded. When they fail, critics use them as evidence to quell future anti-poverty efforts.
Distorted media coverage has wide-ranging effects. It informs public discourse and policy discussions. It’s also divisive. How do reactions while watching the nightly news differ between a middle-class 50-year-old in Loveland, Colorado versus a low-income teenager in Baltimore? I imagine the two might have drastically different interpretations. No one likes to be misrepresented. In this case, news organizations misrepresent entire groups on a national stage.
So, what’s the function of qualitative research? Thoughtful research has the potential to contest negative stereotypes, to show why poverty is rarely a choice, to illustrate how living in poverty is not the same thing as being poor. Skilled ethnographers, for example, have the ability to present the complexities of local conditions and connect them to overarching social and economic conditions. Such insights are critical to creating more productive public dialogue and designing more just social policy.