Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Who's Poor; Who Do Images Tell Us Is Poor?

I used to do content analysis back in my graduate school days. Basically, you read, watch, or look at media content and count things. One study I did analyzed movies ads from 1959. I can't even remember what we were counting, but there's a lot more to the methodology than it sounds like. More than one person has to do the reading/looking and their assessments have to come out reasonably close to each other to be considered reliable, for instance.

Martin Gilens, then a professor of political science at Yale, published a 1996 content analysis of U.S. news magazines, particularly of their photo use when it comes to portraying poor people. Not surprisingly, race was where the action was:

If 560 people were selected at random from America’s poor, we would expect 162 to be black. But of the 560 poor people of determinable race pictured in news magazines between 1988 and 1992, 345 were African American. In reality, two out of three poor Americans are nonblack, but the reader of these magazines would likely come to exactly the opposite conclusion.

Although the news magazines examined grossly overrepresent African Americans in their pictures of poor people as a whole, African Americans are seldom found in pictures of the most sympathetic subgroups of the poor. I found that the elderly constitute less than 1 percent of the black poor shown in these magazines (compared with 5 percent of the nonblack poor) and the working poor make up only 12 percent of poor blacks (compared with 27 percent of poor nonblack).

I also found that stories dealing with aspects of antipoverty policy that are most strongly supported by the public are less likely to contain pictures of African Americans. Although 62 percent of all poor people pictured, African Americans make up only 40 percent of the poor in stories on employment programs and only 17 percent in stories on Medicaid. In contrast, we find far too many African Americans in stories on the least favorable subgroup of the poor: the underclass. Every one of the 36 poor people pictured in stories on the underclass was black.
As it says in the article abstract, "Surveys show that the American public dramatically exaggerates the proportion of African Americans among the poor and that such misperceptions are associated with greater opposition to welfare."

I don't know if this kind of misrepresentation still happens in news magazines, which, of course, are not the preeminent medium they were in the 1990s. If you search "poor Americans" in Google images, you get a whole lot of pictures of white people.


The extended quote from Gilens comes from a screen snapshot of the paywalled article, courtesy of Sean McElwee.

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