Journalism on homelessness: Expert driven
Canadian study investigates sourcing practices and framing of homelessness in the news. Elyse Amend and David Secko write about the study which considers the power of expert quotes in three Canadian newspapers to frame homelessness.
Homelessness, as a word, is not that old. A recent study on the sources journalists chose in writing about homelessness suggests Canadian journalism on the topic is still young as well.
The term 'homelessness' appeared in the early 1980s when we needed a new term to talk about a widespread social problem, suggests the work of David Hulchanski, a professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto.
'Homeless' as a word -- having "no home" -- has been around for a long time. But during the 1980s, a "new" social problem was being defined that focussed on wealthy, developed nations, as opposed to people without homes in developing nations, said Hulchanski during a 2009 keynote address at the Growing Home: Housing and Homelessness in Canada Conference.
Homelessness in this context is an issue of dehousing, where people who once had homes no longer do. In 2007, the Calgary-based Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics and Leadership tagged this problem in Canada as involving between 200,000-300,000 people, with housing affordability affecting 1.7 million others. Notably, a 2008 Salvation Army survey suggests more than one quarter of homeless men self-identity as employed. In the 1980s, the social problem of being homeless seemed more complex than previously realized.
"The response [in the 1980s] was to add yet another suffix to further qualify the word homeless, to give us that odd-job word, homeless-ness. Adding the suffix −ness makes the simple and clear word homeless into an abstract concept. As such, it allows users, readers, and listeners to imagine whatever they want. It tosses all sorts of problems into one handy term. We thus have the ongoing problem of defining what homeless-ness is and isn’t," said Hulchanski in 2009.
Journalists are part inheritor of this "odd-job" word, having the problem of how to give voice to homelessness as a serious Canadian issue.
In 2008, Barbara Schneider, an associate professor in Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary, was funded to examine the representation of homelessness in Canadian newspapers. In her latest publication from that project, “Sourcing homelessness: How journalists use sources to frame homelessness,” Schneider investigates journalists’ use of sources and quotations in writing about homelessness and how this may influence how readers perceive homelessness and the people who experience it directly.
Schneider’s take on this issue is coloured by her experience. "As someone who has on occasion been interviewed for news reports, I have been frustrated by journalists’ attempts to get me to provide a particular answer for an item they already have in mind," wrote Schneider in the paper, "rather than being willing to hear my thoughts about what the story is or could be."
Schneider suggests that people who are homeless have been disenfranchised. They aren't encouraged to participate in the public discourse and to speak for themselves. (Schneider has created a blog written by homeless people to support the inclusion of new voices.)
It is well known that journalists and journalism have the ability to shape public perceptions on important issues depending on how information is interpreted and news stories are framed. For Schneider, journalism is one form of traditional dialogue that may be stigmatizing and reinforcing ‘us verses them’ barriers about homelessness.
Sourcing practices: 73.6% experts
Schneider set out to analyze sources quoted in news stories about homelessness in the Calgary Herald, Vancouver Sun, and Globe and Mail between Aug. 1, 2007 and July 31, 2008. In doing this, she paid special attention to what voice the homeless themselves had.
In the 270 articles analyzed, Schneider identified 749 individual quotes that each fell into one of three sourcing categories, namely experts, citizens, or homeless. The research revealed that when reporting on homelessness, journalists relied mostly on expert sources, who were quoted 73.6 per cent of the time (or 551 times), as opposed to the homeless, who were quoted 16.5 per cent of the time (124 times), and citizens, who were quoted 9.9 per cent of the time (74 times). Schneider also observed that journalists relied on experts as the main sources for hard news, while homeless people tended to be quoted more in soft news articles – although with a catch. As Schneider writes: “They are quoted more extensively in soft news items and speak primarily about their experiences of homelessness. They rarely offer abstract understandings of or solutions to the problem of homelessness.”
Quotes about homelessness from the three newspapers analyzed in the study were also organized into two groups. Those on the “personal reality of homelessness” originated from homeless people themselves 54.5 per cent of the time. However, homeless people were only quoted on the “general reality of homelessness” in 12.6 per cent of the cases. It was the experts that journalists turned to for quotes on these issues.
Similarly, when it comes to solutions to homelessness, it is the experts who have the loudest voice, being quoted 80.1 per cent of the time, while the homeless only counted for 12.7 per cent of the comments on solutions. Schneider points out that the cause of homelessness is rarely addressed in news articles – however, when it is, it is often through homeless people describing their personal circumstances, a trend Schneider refers to as a double-edged sword. She observes that while it raises awareness of the realities of homelessness through presenting it as an individual problem it contributes to the “othering” of the homeless, thus reinforcing the notion that homeless people are not worthy of citizenship.
While homeless voices are not completely absent in news articles, Schneider indicates they are designated a very specific voice, and only provide material for other sources – namely experts – to comment on, instead of offering a balancing voice in such articles.
Can we change?
Schneider is clear that she considers it difficult for journalists to change the way they write about homelessness, largely due to the expectations that have been set by its ongoing narrative. But, she equally longs for alternative ways of framing homelessness, stating she would welcome a narrative on homelessness being a “lifestyle” – “a reasonable and liveable situation that individuals have the right to choose,” thus demonstrating that homeless people are able to make decisions and have the right to social inclusion.
Schneider concludes: “By quoting homeless people as legitimate speakers about the problem of homelessness, as experts on the topic of homelessness, not just victims of homelessness, journalists can have a vitally important role in changing representations of homeless people and thereby in changing the realities of homeless people’s participation as full members in society with the same rights to membership and social inclusion as domiciled people.”
Some will debate the power of expert quotes in newspapers, even at rate of 7 to 1, to significantly frame such a complex social issue over other factors. Still, it never hurts to contemplate the choices journalists make on who to talk with. Consider some recent examples yourself: