Reading the Homeless: The Media's Image of Homeless Culture

Article excerpt

Reading the Homeless: The Media's Image of Homeless Culture. Eungjun Min, ed. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999. 221 pp. $65 hbk.

For nearly a decade, a small army of salespeople has taken up positions near exits of the London Underground to hawk the latest edition of The Big Issue. They're polite. They're friendly. They're homeless. The Big Issue is their weekly publication, and they sell it to earn money. Each issue contains "Street Lights," a section showcasing their poems, their essays, their art. In The Big Issue, the homeless have a voice. Each week, 1.2 million readers in the United Kingdom hear it. Each week, readers of sister papers in the United States and across the globe hear it.

Readers of Reading the Homeless: The Media's Image of Homeless Culture, however, will not hear it. This collection of a dozen articles, two of which were previously published, lacks an examination of media produced by the homeless. Nor does it contain analyses of the images of the homeless in print media, which seems an oversight.

The other omission is on the production side: How do journalists' views influence the stories they write, the video they shoot? Why Americans Hate Welfare, a recent book-length study of a similar topic, makes this point markedly. Journalists' attitudes have a profound impact on the way they depict the poor.

The medium in which stories appear also influences the way stories are framed. Seven articles analyze television stories about homelessness. Television, a visual medium with a narrative structure, requires a compelling subject to attract viewers' attention. Television uses a person for this hook, but this trope conveys the idea that homelessness is a personal problem. Its human face may belong to someone mentally ill or to an alcohol or drug abuser. Television's personalization of the homeless therefore evokes a personal rather than a societal or public policy response. The homeless problem seems one of agency rather than structure.

Yet, the causes of homelessness are primarily economic, not personal, as the authors of ch. …