Years ago in a job interview with a local paper, I suggested that they consider covering homelessness with more depth — specifically, in a way that would be beneficial to people living outside. The paper was one of the remaining free sources of information — The Seattle Times had recently adopted a paywall — and one that was accessible not just to the general population but to the very population who needed the information the most. After all, who needs to learn about changes in homelessness policy more than people who are actually living outside and could benefit from new funding or programs?
I didn’t get the job. The paper didn’t get on board with covering homelessness thoroughly until it became a crisis.
Access to information is difficult to quantify and, often, difficult to attach value to. Plenty of people assume that those living in extreme poverty aren’t interested in reading the news or staying informed.
But for folks living without internet or a reliable smartphone, analog news sources (like this very paper) serve as a critical lifeline. Announcements about new funding packages or additional shelter spaces or improved access to mental health services don’t just make housed people feel good as they retweet them — they inform the people who will be directly impacted.
Announcements about new funding packages or additional shelter spaces or improved access to mental health services don’t just make housed people feel good as they retweet them — they inform the people who will be directly impacted.
And yet, much of the news about homelessness in Seattle is about just that — “homelessness” as a monolith, not homelessness as an experience. It’s about the big dollar figures and the fights in Seattle City Hall and the quibbling over budgetary items, not the difficulty of rapid rehousing or which shelter doors will be closed next week.
And the sources that do report on these issues are becoming leaner and less reliable. The Seattle Weekly is cutting back its reporting following a format change. The Seattle Times has dedicated an entire series to the realities of homelessness, but, of course, there’s that paywall. For national news, library computers serve as a valuable window into the digital world, but only insofar as a person knows what to search for and where to click.
There is a bottleneck not only in quantity but in quality of reportage that directly benefits people living on the margins.
There is also the question of media literacy and of literacy itself. Fake news, bombastic headlines and attention-grabbing Facebook posts are seductive to people of all political backgrounds, and even more so for those who are learning English or struggle with reading. There is a bottleneck not only in quantity but in quality of reportage that directly benefits people living on the margins.
This is a problem without a silver-bullet answer. Resources like Real Change can be vital, not only in the way that they provide jobs and community, but in the way that they telegraph information to those who need it. But at a time when trust in the media is sinking and the media market is shrinking, it’s worth asking: Who is the news for? Who gets to know? And who’s deciding?
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and policy consultant. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, Salon, Fast Company and Vice.
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