Media has become an essential tool to bridge the gap in knowledge between an individual’s lived experiences and the wider world around them. It is a uniquely powerful tool for uncovering the nature of modern society, as its versatile nature allows for a detailed exploration of anything from current events to social phenomena (Baecker, 2014). As poverty affects around a tenth of the global population, it is naturally a frequent topic of discussion in all sorts of media forms. While the technical definition of poverty only requires a lack of income and material possessions, it will also manifest itself as constant hunger, lack of access to education, exclusion from recreational activities and so much more. Yet when it is viewed through the lens of modern media, it is rare to see a sympathetic attitude taken with regards to those who live through poverty. Even historical events or entertainment shows can be more biased in perspective than they first appear, and this will be explored through the analysis of two separate case studies.
The first case study observes Sago Mine disaster of 2006, and the following coverage of national newspaper corporations. The tragedy involved a coal mine explosion in Sago, West Virginia, where 13 miners were trapped inside for nearly two days, with only one eventual survivor. There were many contributing factors that led to those 12 deaths, though after further investigation beyond the first news cycle, the main cause was widely believed to be that corners were cut when safety procedures were put in place; the seals containing potential blasts were too weak to handle the explosion, the roof ventilation failed to provide the miners with enough clean air, and many of the oxygen bags that were supposed to be a last resort malfunctioned when they were needed the most (Kitch, 2007). While local papers took a more sympathetic outlook, the following media coverage from more widely read national newspaper outlets not only did they incorrectly report that 12 miners had survived the disaster, but also changed the narrative of the story from a failure of safety procedures to a tale of bravery of blue collar working heroes (Kitch, 2007). Though the national coverage does not overtly insult or belittle the miners, its deliberate omission of the lack of agency the miners had in choosing to work in Sago Mine and the lazy implementation of safety features that lead to their deaths is far more damaging than a simple smear campaign.
Surprisingly, the families of the deceased were willing to accept this change in narrative. This is primarily because they have internalised some of the stereotypes surrounding people that live in poverty, and therefore feel ashamed of their economic struggles. As the Sago Mine disaster happened in the United States of America, the families were well aware of how others experiencing poverty in western media have been subject to a unique form of discrimination known as ‘scroungerphobia’: the impoverished people are pigeonholed into a false caricature of the average poor person where they are depicted as lazy, deliberately refusing to work and content to live off of government welfare at the expense of society (Shildrick & MacDonald, 2013). To avoid being put in this category, some poorer people go to great lengths to avoid being seen as a victim and instead prefer to have positive values assigned to their struggles (Spicker, 2007). Considering Sago is a small, unincorporated community with little access to the outside world, some of the miners and their families simply didn’t believe they were living in poverty in the first place, most likely due to a lack of experience with the outside world. It is a common misconception in wealthy western countries that either believe others struggle just as hard as they do, or that poverty is something that only exists in poorer countries (Kumar, 2004).
The miners’ families were therefore willing to sweep the real tragedy that occurred under the rug in exchange for being seen in a good light in the global public eye. Instead of being exploited into doing gruelling manual labour due to their surrounding economic situation and lack of education, the blue collar workers of Sago preferred to say that they willingly carried out the work no one else wanted to do out of personal sacrifice (Shildrick & MacDonald, 2013). It is for this reason that USA Today, a huge national news corporation, included pictures of the miners with their families in their articles, presenting the image of a strong family unit with the miner playing the role of the selfless breadwinner (Barringer & Goodman, 2006).
While the decision to portray the disaster as a story of heroics may seem flattering at first, this could not be further from the truth. The national media left out the utter helplessness the miners felt during the cave in, ignored the monotonous and downright dangerous working environments the miners felt day after day, as well as the real reasons why the miners were forced to work in the mine in the first place. There was no mention of how the families of the deceased received no compensation for their loss, or how the miners who were still alive were not offered any alternative work, trapped by the illusion of choice between working in the mines and starvation (Bazar, 2006). National media exploited the miners' families and their desire to distance themselves from the negative connotations that come with living in poverty, using ideas of bravery and community as a distraction to avoid asking the more difficult question of why the miners had to work in such a hazardous environment in the first place. In doing so, the media has concealed the inept implementation of safety precautions that ultimately lead to the cave in and the grim economic prospects that await the lone survivor of the tragedy.
Moving on to the second case study, the popular reality television series Wife Swap has a much more direct approach in showing its disdain for those in poverty. The premise of the show involves the wives of two separate families swapping households for a period of two weeks. In the first week the wives will need to adapt to the other family’s way of living, before having the chance to implement their own set of rules in the second. Though reality television is viewed by both the working and middle classes, their reasons for watching are quite different. Working class viewers find entertainment in the argumentative and dramatic nature of such shows, while the middle class viewers engage more with the ethical debates and subject matter presented (Skeggs et al. 2008). While this appears harmless on the surface, the two families are typically from a different social class, and the show is frequently edited so it is viewed through a middle class gaze.
At the start of an episode, the two families are generally introduced to the viewer through a visual tour of each house. This is usually filmed with typical media stereotypes in mind, where differences such as cleanliness, choice of supermarket and leisure activities are played up to suggest why the two families ended up in the social class they are categorised in (Cook, 2000). Reaching the middle class is generally presented as something that is to be earned through personal improvement, instead of being influenced by external factors like social connections or opportunity inequalities (Skeggs, 2004). The show will zoom in onto the living conditions of the working class family and emphasise differences like the lack of employment in one parent, an abundance of children and overspending on leisure or alcohol in an attempt to persuade the viewer that the family is in poverty due to a lack of control over their basic desires (Skeggs, 1997).
Reality television shows like Wife Swap, which focus on the banality of everyday life, are generally interpreted as rawer and closer to a realistic interpretation of their subject matter, but this fails to account for the scripted nature of certain interactions and the ability of the producers to tailor edited footage to their liking (Piper, 2004). In the aforementioned introduction, the camera paints a one dimensional image of the economic position of both families. Furthermore, smaller conflicts can be made to look longer than they appear, and conflicts arise more frequently because the contestants are aware they are on television and therefore feel inclined to prove that their way of living is the right one (Gray, 2004). It is in this way that the justified resentment for the unequal opportunities both couples have had is instead reframed as jealousy, ignoring how the uneven class dynamic is a result of more than just amount of effort put in (Hughes, 2007).
Despite the stark differences in their subject matter, there are some similarities between Wife Swap and the national newspapers that provided coverage of the Sago Mine disaster in their portrayal of poverty. Wife Swap uses the "real" footage of the two families as an irrefutable source to push negative assumptions about the working class contestants onto the viewer. In reality, the deliberately confrontational nature of the show, combined with the immense freedom the producers have with regards to what footage and editing techniques they use, creates an artificially natural product (Piper, 2004). The more impoverished family on Wife Swap feels a pressure to present themselves in a positive light to the public that parallels the experiences of the miners' families in Sago, though in Wife Swap these feelings of pride are used to encourage conflict between the lower and upper class family and edited to imply the poorer family is the aggressor (Piper, 2004). There is no room for the show to explore the difficult past or future of the working class family and the many factors contributing to their situation, as the show instead chooses to over analyse the present to highlight the differences in working class and middle class behaviours that support its critical perspective of poverty.
Different types of media have proven to be flexible enough to tackle the issue of poverty from a variety of different angles, though the ways in which they present their viewpoint are sometimes similar. Yet whether it paints a superficially flattering picture as an excuse to ignore poverty’s underlying struggles, or unjustly compares the penurious lifestyle to its middle class counterpart, one thing about the portrayal of poverty in media remains consistent. Very rarely does its content truly benefit the impoverished people it studies.
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Cover picture: Business Standard. (2022). Poverty and Media [Image]. Retrieved 29 August 2022, from https://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/during-covid-free-food-helped-rein-in-poverty-in-india-imf-paper-122040700009_1.html.
Figure 1: News Releases. (2007). A picture of the Sago Mine taken sometime after the incident [Image]. Retrieved 29 August 2022, from https://newsreleases.sandia.gov/releases/2007/sago.html.
Figure 2: Leicestershire Live. (2022). Daily life within a coal mine is tiring, dangerous work [Image]. Retrieved 29 August 2022, from https://www.leicestermercury.co.uk/news/local-news/gallery/pictures-show-what-like-work-1729729.
Figure 3: Dow Jones & Company. (n.d.). The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved September 11, 2022, from https://www.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/info-mine0601.html
Figure 4: In The Wash. (2022). Something as simple as an untidy bedroom can be used to make larger assumptions about the contestants [Image]. Retrieved 29 August 2022, from https://inthewash.co.uk/cleaning/can-a-messy-house-cause-depression/.