Pop Culture and News Coverage of Homelessness has a Race, Gender and Attention Problem, Research Shows

Issues of homelessness are rarely covered, and solutions oversimplified, American University researchers say


Newswise — Issues of housing security and homelessness in the United States are being grossly under covered, oversimplified and misrepresented by the country’s “most-watched” television programming and “most read” newspapers, according to researchers from American University. 

The university’s Center for Media & Social Impact released Homelessness & Housing Security in U.S. Culture: How Popular Culture and News Depicts An American Challenge. The study analyzed 150 episodes from 50 television programs, and 5,703 news articles published by 12 news outlets. 

Among news coverage of the country's twelve "most read" newspapers, researchers found that homelessness and other housing stability issues garnered less than 0.002% of attention on the news agenda in 2018. And within this news coverage, researchers found that nearly 90% of the news articles published about housing stability in 2018 focused exclusively on one of three main issues (homelessness, affordable housing, or gentrification); only one percent of the news articles reflected coverage that engaged with all three of the interrelated aspects of housing insecurity.

“The deep challenges of housing insecurity face thousands of Americans, and yet, we don't know much about how this complex issue is portrayed culturally -- that is, through journalism and entertainment media,” CMSI Director Caty Borum Chattoo. “We believe it's vitally important to understand those reflections as homelessness solutions are debated and advanced at the policy level."

Additionally, researchers found that while more than 40% of people who experience homelessness in the U.S. are black, and about 39% are women and girls, the showrunners who produced the "most watched" TV stories of homelessness in 2018 were disproportionately white (87%) and male (76.1%). Shows produced by more diverse showrunners, however, are producing fuller and more accurate narratives of homelessness and housing security issues.

Among the "most watched" TV programs of 2018, the researchers also found that depictions of homelessness and housing security issues:

  • Oversimplified how to end homelessness: More than 60% of references to ending homelessness were related to supporting charity organizations. The next most common solution was for individuals to overcome their inclination for criminality (12%), to end their drug addiction (12%), or to get a job (12%). The least cited solution was for improvement in policies or systems of care (6%) related to housing stability and homelessness.
  • Didn’t let homeless characters speak. More than 80% of the homeless characters were one-episode only characters, and more than half of them had less than 10 speaking lines. Nearly half of the homeless characters depicted were either ‘seen’ or ‘talked about’; they did not speak.
  • Rarely acknowledged the existence of gentrification in American life: When gentrification is portrayed (3 out of 120), it is depicted as taking the form of changing communities and buildings, and as creating tensions between “outsiders and insiders.” It is framed as a “national” (rather than local) and “natural” (rather than deliberate or strategic) phenomenon.

 “Our findings are not ambiguous, many of the stories told about homelessness and housing security were either insufficiently covered or inaccurately told in 2018," said CMSI post-doctoral fellow David Conrad. "We hope that this work will help inform and jolt conversations within newsrooms and television writer rooms about how they can do better.”

To read the report in its entirety, visit: https://cmsimpact.org/report/homelessness-housing-security-u-s-culture-popular-culture-news-depicts-american-challenge/

About the Center for Media & Social ImpactThe Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI), based at American University’s School of Communication, is an innovation lab and research center that creates, studies, and showcases media for social impact. Focusing on independent, documentary and public media, the Center bridges boundaries between scholars, producers and communication practitioners across media production, media impact, public policy, and audience engagement. The Center produces resources for the field and academic research; convenes conferences and events; and works collaboratively to understand and design media that matter.

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