Limited and Limiting Conversations about the Poor: Elizabethan Prescriptions to Poverty in the Canadian Press

By Harding, Robert | Canadian Review of Social Policy, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Limited and Limiting Conversations about the Poor: Elizabethan Prescriptions to Poverty in the Canadian Press


Harding, Robert, Canadian Review of Social Policy


Introduction

The conversation about people living in poverty in wealthy developed countries is couched in moralistic terms such as deserving vs. undeserving poor (Raphael, 2011). This study has found that longstanding discourses are prominent in Canadian news coverage of poverty issues and that venerable themes and stereotypes of people living in poverty and on income security abound. Other significant findings point to the presence of emerging discourses that naturalize poverty and advocate Elizabethan1 solutions - eliminating or reducing government intervention and allowing an unfettered free market to "run its course."

In the news texts about poverty analysed in this study, voice is accorded to a narrow range of actors and sources. Overwhelmingly, politicians, political parties, bureaucrats and representatives of conservative think tanks such as the Fraser Institute were given prominent roles as sources and authors in news stories. The voices of social workers, antipoverty activists, and others who work directly with the poor were marginalized. The voices of poor people themselves rarely found expression.

When it comes to reporting on poverty, news media utilize a limited menu of frames and scripts, many of which blame people living in poverty for their plight or cast them in a negative light. Furthermore, excluding social workers and poor people themselves from the conversation about poverty affects the tone and shape of coverage. Schneider, Chamberlain and Hodgetts (2010) examined how the homeless were represented in four major daily newspapers - Globe and Mail, Calgary Herald, Vancouver Sun, and Province - and found that news stories included "almost nothing of the ways in which homeless people organize themselves socially and make lives for themselves on the streets and in shelters" (p. 169). Leaving out the voices of poor people results in their othering and constrains the public's ability to understand their lived experiences with poverty.

One of the impediments to progressive social policy development in Canada is "our tightly controlled and highly conservative media" (Lightman, 2003, p. 253). News media play a key role in how Canadians define problems of poverty, what they perceive to be the solutions and how they view poor people themselves. Negative media framing of income security recipients and others living in poverty may lead to decreased public support for these populations, which may make it easier for governments to maintain residual approaches to poverty or justify taking an even harder line by slashing income security rates and other vital services and policies. While the connection between news representations and public opinion has been well studied, there is a dearth of empirical research on "how the media directly affects policy" (Wolfe, Jones & Baumgartner, 2013, p. 176). However, the news media has the ability to influence the policy-making agenda (p. 185), and a variety of studies have spoken to the potential impact of news discourse on public policy. The news media play a prominent role in stigmatizing the poor (Devereux, Haynes, & Power, 2011), "anti-poor" discourse has preceded punitive legislation, such as Ontario's Safe Streets Act (Jeppeson, 2009, p. 493), underrepresentation of "hunger" has played a role in the issue not being addressed (Briley, Shrum, & Wyer, 2013), and mainstream news stories have served to "justify exclusionary social policy on homelessness and marginalize efforts for change by homeless activists and their allies" (Toft, 2014, p. 784).

Methodology

Techniques of traditional Content Analysis were applied to 193 news stories on poverty, including 19 opinion pieces,2 published during the month of January, 2012 in 11 major daily newspapers and both national newspapers in Canada. Using the online full-text news database Canadian Newsstand, researchers searched for key words such as "Poverty," "welfare" and "Social Assistance,"3 in news texts published during the research period in the Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, Globe and Mail, Leader Post (Regina), Montreal Gazette, National Post, Ottawa Citizen, Star-Phoenix (Saskatoon), Telegraph Journal (St. …

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