Takeaways from Covering the Gap and Resources for Reporting on Income Inequality

The need for smart reporting on income inequality has never been greater. Journalists throughout America frequently raise awareness about social issues and their impact on their communities. They report on incidents of racism, emerging political movements, unemployment, housing discrimination, bad schools, police-community relations and many others. But in order for such coverage to truly assist the community in seeking solutions, reporters need to better understand the complex economic forces that contribute to these issues and thwart efforts to address them. These are issues that defy simplification.

On October 11 through 13, 2016, Poynter convened a group of experts in the fields of economics, political science and urban policy, community activists and journalists at WBEZ in Chicago to focus on this topic. The event, a specialized reporting institute funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation called Covering the Gap: The Impact of Economic Inequality, explored the economic roots and impacts of some of our country’s most vexing social problems and discussed how to better cover this important issue.

Lessons from the event's speakers are shared below. A full schedule is available here.

Don't define people by a moment in their lives

Grow empathy for your sources and share it with your audience

Alex Kotlowitz, Journalist and Author, There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up In The Other America

“The power of storytelling is this question of empathy,” Kotlowitz says. “The challenge for us as storytellers — we have to find empathy with the people we’re writing about and be able to imagine ourselves as somebody else, and, of course, then get our readers to that same place.”

When covering delicate stories, one of his biggest pieces of advice is to be upfront with sources about your intentions with the piece you’re reporting. He emphasizes that sources should disclose anything that could potentially compromise their safety. Kotlowitz also advises to keep your notebook out as a reminder to sources — who you may inevitably build relationships with — about your practical purpose for being there.

On ethically gaining access to potentially difficult sources: Kotlowitz says many people he’s covered have lived in situations of poverty or violence, in which case, buying them lunch or movie tickets was a way of connecting and building trust with those sources. But he warns to be careful when going any further than that as a reporter.

“Recognize that you’re asking people for access to their lives and there’s this kind of unstated quid pro quo that you’re gonna treat them well and decently, which is important, but you shouldn’t let that compromise your honesty as a reporter,” he says. “Be aware of what asking for access might imply.”

The other part of empathy involves being empathic to your readers, Kotlowitz says. In his book “There Are No Children Here,” he ultimately chose to open with a benign moment, of kids hunting for garter snakes, rather than a violent one he thought readers might struggle to connect with.

Ultimately, he points to advice from novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who says to avoid the danger of the single story.

Be careful, Kotlowitz says, when using words like “homeless,” “gangbanger,” “ex-felon,” “teenage mom.”

“Do not define people by a moment in their lives, by who we think they are,” he says.

Kotlowitz's Tips for Reporting


Be upfront and direct with sources


Keep your notebook out, remind people why you’re there


You might have a great story, but be prepared to walk away if a source isn’t ready

Kotlowitz's Tips for Writing


Importance of detail (write down way more than you’ll actually use)


Look for moments and scenes, then flesh them out (almost like a movie)


Use dialogue. Will give your reader a real sense of immediacy

Tell policy stories with the lives of individuals

And make it a habit to learn from academics

Natalie Moore, WBEZ Reporter and Author, The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation

While it’s important to read things by other journalists within your beat, also make it a habit to read academic papers and get plugged in to that community. Moore finds it valuable to make connections with academics — connecting with them for story ideas with make them more likely to talk with you later when you need a quote for an article.

Moore tends to look at larger policy issues, then find ways to plug stories about individuals around it. FOIA requests can often be helpful here. For instance, for the WBEZ story “Federal food stamp program fails some low-income Chicagoans,” Moore FOIAed the USDA and got a list of places in the city where food stamps could be cashed in, then mapped the results.

In the WBEZ story, “Chicago developers shell out millions rather than build affordable housing,” Moore sent FOIA requests around a federal program, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, the largest federal initiative for building affordable housing. She then analyzed where those tax credits had been used since the program’s inception in 1986 in the metro Chicago area and found that they were used mostly in the city in areas with high minority populations and higher rates of poverty.

When it comes to issues of affordable and public housing, the public is often confused, Moore says. It’s important to stress the differences and clarify for your audience. Be informed and make sure you yourself aren’t making these same incorrect assumptions around different types of housing.

Moore recommends getting on mailing lists to get a better sense of micro day to day happenings on your beat. The Urban Institute offers a good national mailing list, and the Metropolitan Planning Council is good for Chicago-area reporters.

Moore's Recommended Reading List

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc., 2006.

Hirsch, Arnold R. Making the Second Ghetto: Race & Housing in Chicago 1940-1960. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998 edition.

Lemann, Nicholas. The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.

Long, Herman H. and Johnson, Charles S. People vs. Property: Race Restrictive Covenants in Housing. Nashville: Fisk University Press, 1947.

Massey, Douglas S. and Denton, Nancy A. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Muhammad, Khalil Gibran. The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Orfield, Gary. Must We Bus: Segregated Schools and National Policy. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1978.

Pattillo-McCoy, Mary. Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Pattillo, Mary. Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Sampson, Robert J. Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Sugrue, Thomas J., The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Venkatesh, Sudhir Alladi. Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. New York: Vintage Books, 2010.

Wilson, William Julius. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Look past cultural explanations to deeper, structural issues

Cultural views drive conversation, but journalists need to go further

Susan Smith Richardson, Editor and Publisher, The Chicago Reporter

The biggest challenge when covering inequality is this: There are these cultural explanations that people are likely to gravitate towards, it’s hard to talk about inequality being a structural issue. One resource Richardson recommends is Stephanie Coontz’s, “The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap,” one of the first books she read in the 90s, which in part examines punitive responses to juvenile crime.

“What’s so interesting is this – cultural views drive conversation. So something we need to think about is pushing past cultural expectations, but we have to go beyond that," she said.

So how do we translate this into stories? In the Chicago Reporter story, “Reverse commute is a long haul on public transit,” the publication looked at the transportation situations of two different men who both have long work commutes. Utilizing multimedia, the story illustrated the two men’s economic hardships through the lens of transportation.

Check out a Storify of Richardson’s talk here.

Smith Richardson's Tips for Reporting


Know the experts


Read the relevant literature


Study civil rights history and laws and your community’s unique racial history


Place events in historical context


Pay attention to systems and patterns


Get on the mailing list for think tanks and universities in your area

Look for "subtle inequalities" that are hidden amid more visible forms

Flawed perceptions, gender and more often have important roles in inequality

Simone Ispa-Landa, Assistant Professor, Human Development and Social Policy, Northwestern University

Ispa-Landa explores the idea of “subtle inequality” – when things have the appearance of equality but actually aren’t. Part of her research includes a study of an urban to suburban busing program designed to provide students with a more integrated schooling experience. As reporters, she says we need to think about asking better questions to get to the heart of whether or not programs like these actually work.

One of her findings from interviewing students involved in the busing program was that there was a gender perception that favored the African-American boys above the girls. Among boys, there was a universal agreement that to be black was to be cool and to have lots of friends, while the African-American girls were perceived as loud, “ghetto,” and obnoxious. The black urban girls were called “aggie” (aggravated) and “ghetto” – seen as difficult to “handle” and “defensive." Previous research shows that black girls may be sanctioned for failing to conform to notions of white middle-class femininity (Fordham 1996; Morris 2007).

It’s also not the full story: girls’ gender performances also threatened boys’ exclusive access to the characteristics that provide “cultural insurance” for male dominance (Schippers 2007: 96). They ultimately contaminated and threatened the gender order with their less passive behavior.

So Ispa-Landa challenges reporters to think about a deeper story in this case – it’s not just about this racial issue of segregated schools, but also about gender and about how these perceptions are affecting students’ abilities to perform and succeed in school.

One policy conclusion Ispa-Landa came to within her research is that the rush to improve segregated schools could actually have some drawbacks. Integration could benefit students in the sense that privileged students could learn how to interact across class/race lines in everyday, mundane encounters Less privileged students could gain a positive sense of entitlement. Also, learning about upper-middle class whites and “their ways” could be important for future success in college and work.

However she says, if we do continue these programs, we need to move from a mindset of “diversity” towards one of “inclusion.”

She says reporters should be better at using comparisons: For instance, at low-poverty schools Ispa-Landa studied, parents were encouraged to speak frequently with principals about their concerns; principals often acquiesced to the parents' demands. On the flip side, principals in high-poverty schools often responded differently to parents who made demands, sometimes even calling police.

Use data to compliment, not replace, storytelling

And be sure you're accurately measuring data

Ben Casselman, Senior Editor and Chief Economics Writer, FiveThirtyEight

Data can be your best friend when covering stories of economic inequality, Casselman says. “Data aids storytelling, this is something that I think gets lost a lot when I hear discussions of data journalism,” he said.

In 2014, he wrote a piece on the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson called, “The Poorest Corner of Town.”

When he began talking with the city’s residents, they complained that national reporters were getting the story all wrong – that the pieces being written had focused on Ferguson as some sort of extreme pit of poverty and despair. His team began to look through the data surrounding the city’s make-up and it became clear that it was actually not particularly poor or segregated, contrary to that initial media perception.

But the data showed that there was one corner of the city with an almost entirely black population that did, in fact, contain high levels of poverty. And it happened to be the area where Michael Brown had lived and died.

Why data journalism?

  • Data compliments journalism, it does not replace it
  • Data is not just for data journalists
  • Data is a source like any other – it can give you story ideas, it can confirm trends, it can lead you to stories, but it can also be biased and wrong and lie to you (The one thing it cannot do is avoid your calls till the very end)

Be sure you’re accurately measuring your data, Casselman advises. “There are certain things that are true – inequality has been rising over the last several decades in the U.S.,” he says. “We can cut that a lot of ways, we can look at how, maybe it hasn’t been rising as much recently or maybe it has risen less if you look at it a certain way.”

“It’s worth understanding – what are the things that everyone agrees on and what are the things where there’s legitimate disagreements and presenting that accordingly,” he says.

Data journalism on deadline

  • Pick a specific dataset and get to know it well before you’re on deadline
  • Look for quick stories
  • Build in “off ramps”
  • Push your data skills one more step each time
  • Don’t be afraid to phone an expert who can walk you through complex data

In addition to the Pew Research Center, which Casselman points to as a great resource for adjusting data, he says don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call an expert.

“Getting someone who knows the data set on the phone quickly is gonna be far, far faster than trying to figure this out on your own,” he says. “Every time I launch into new data set, I call either the agency that produces it or some academic or think tank that works with it person and say, talk to me about this.”

We need data to cover inequality

  • Inequality debate is full of rhetoric and assumptions – data helps cut through that noise
  • Our audience is skeptical – data helps convince them
  • Data aids storytelling – helps find your protagonist
  • Inequality is complicated – data forces us to be precise about what we’re asking

Look at data in both the small and big pictures

Snapshots can be illuminating, but many issues have been going on for quite a while

Kevin Murphy, George J. Stigler Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago

Murphy uses the example of a rise in the number of people going to college since the 1970s. As an economist, he asks, "Why? What’s going on behind this?" It is important to look at both the big and small pictures when looking at data. For instance, though data shows women’s wages have been rising at a faster rate than men’s wages, that’s not taking into account how the historically large gap between men's and women’s wages. So while women have made up a lot of ground, they are still not up to where men are.

Murphy says when you think about inequality growth, it isn’t just a snapshot of this moment. These issues have been going on for quite a while and have been affecting a large swath of the population.

When thinking of issues of growth in the economy, Murphy says you need to think about where growth comes from. The three primary sources of growth are improvements in technology (knowledge), investment in physical capital and investment in human capital (growth in markets is also a factor).

Murphy says to think about the shifting demands of a global economy like putting together a car. While we originally needed a lot more people on the line, we now need a lot more people designing cars. Back in 1880s, people made money because they had strength and physical power. But now, technological progress tends to favor the technically savvy over laborers.

So technical progress, investment in physical, and improved markets all increase the skills premium gap. Reducing the gap requires investing in human capital.

Human capital challenge:

  • Growth in human capital has been and continues to be a critical component of growth
  • Labor market outcomes demonstrate growing demand for skill that is outstripping supply
  • The preparation of individuals (particularly young men) seems to be a limiting factor
  • High returns signal an opportunity and a challenge
  • Human capital investment is a long-term effort

Murphy says solving this problem will require more investment in human capital, particularly for the low-end population. But he worries that while human capital is more important than ever, a large segment of the population is being short-changed. We’ve fallen short on supply side because we haven’t produced enough high skill markets. High-skill workers have worked harder and more and less skilled have worked less, ultimately exacerbating inequality, he says.

Consider that young adults of color may not be represented in polls

Millennials are big, diverse and at the center of many national issues

Cathy Cohen, David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago, Black Youth Project, GenForward

GenForward is a survey of the Black Youth Project at the University of Chicago in a partnership with the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The survey specifically targets Millennials (for the purposes of this study, 18-to-30-year-olds), and uses a large (1,750+ people) ethnically and racially diverse sample.

According to Cohen, it’s important to target Millennials in the survey for several reasons:

  • Largest generation
  • Most racially and ethnically diverse generation
  • Intersectional difference: race and class
  • Largely absent from policy and political debates
  • At the center of many national issues

GenForward is unique in that:

  • Monthly surveys allow for current and topical responses
  • Ability to disaggregate and challenge media assumptions
  • Ability to see intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, class and sexuality
  • Inserts young adults of color into the public discourse and political debate
  • Rigorous data is then used by journalists, academics, policy advocates and activists

Cohen says she worries that current polls in the political cycle, for example, are largely leaving out people of color. This doesn’t necessarily mean the polls are inaccurately predicting who will win in the election cycle, but we’re missing opportunities on mobilizing young voters of color. She recommends reading “Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980,” by Charles Murray, a starting point for discussion of welfare reform. The book argues that the ambitious social programs of the 1960s and 1970s actually ended up making things worse for its supposed beneficiaries, the poor and minorities.

GenForward is looking to partner and collaborate with reporters and news outlets. Reach out to them for more info.

Poynter thanks the

for making this event possible.