Testing the Editors: With Welfare Now in State Hands, Newspapers and Broadcasting Stations Must Find Ways to Check How Programs Work

By Herbers, John | Nieman Reports, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Testing the Editors: With Welfare Now in State Hands, Newspapers and Broadcasting Stations Must Find Ways to Check How Programs Work


Herbers, John, Nieman Reports


If President Clinton and Congressional leaders had plotted to stump the press on reporting how the poor fare in this country they could hardly have come up with anything more effective than the so-called welfare reform measure enacted last summer.

The legislation gives the states the major authority in shaping and running welfare assistance that has been under federal jurisdiction for six decades. Suddenly newspapers and broadcasters scattered across the country, which have little experience, and frequently no interest, in covering the subject, have a pressing obligation to dig for the facts and explain the impact of the change on those most affected by it.

Like it or not, newspaper editors and television news producers are going to be tested in the coming years. What priority will they place on determining how the new welfare system works in their states and in their communities? Of course statistics will be released at regular intervals showing declines in welfare recipients. Those are simple stories to produce and they are worth reporting. But will reporters be given the time and the resources to look beyond the statistics to determine the effectiveness of the new welfare programs in breaking the cycle of poverty? The test will come in decisions on freeing reporters for such difficult-to-cover stories as job training and the impact on children's health.

Moreover, each newspaper and TV station will have to do the job for its area; no national newspaper or wire service and no television network can cover for them.

Some media critics already are predicting that the press will fail to provide the kind of reporting and analysis necessary to keep the public informed. The 50 states make up a diversity both in their governance and politics and each will emerge with a different system of welfare, as they had early in this century before the federal government stepped in and guaranteed cash assistance for all of the nation's poorest children.

Covering state government other than scandal and political races does not, with rare exceptions, rate a high priority with the media on the state and local scene. The old papers of record that reported at length the operation of state houses, city halls and county courthouses have long since reshaped their coverage to make it shorter, livelier and less substantive. And the state capitols more often than not are staffed by less experienced reporters who soon learn they are on a low priority beat and struggle to move on to something more exciting.

Some major newspapers and even more television stations make no effort at all to cover the inner workings of state and local governments, assuring that the subject is boring and must give way to news of crime, violence and entertaining features. There is a widespread perception among proponents of a strong central government that some advocates of the "devolution revolution" -- the Republicans' name for turning federal programs over to the states -- believe that under state control the programs will simply disappear from the public view and thus be diminished or eventually abolished.

Another view, however, is that the historic change in public welfare offers a good opportunity for human interest stories that appeal to the humanizing trend in journalism -- explaining abstract public policy and actions through the experiences of real people -- especially children. According to many predictions there will be ample opportunity for such reporting. Will they be cast adrift or given a new lease on life?

First, though, the press must try to understand what is involved in the change now getting underway, and that will not be easy. Devolution is occurring but the entire process is entangled in several layers of ambiguity.

The new law, itself, which President Clinton signed last August 22, is complex and in many ways ambiguous, according to federal officials charged with trying to interpret it. …

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