The NPR piece seemed straightforward enough. A teen shared his worries about being caught in the cycle of poverty. WNYC’s Radio Rookies, a youth radio program, produced the piece and its raw emotion grabs from the start as Jairo Gomez describes his family’s life – nine people living in a one-bedroom apartment.
There are so many valuable elements in the piece. We hear from a young person who struggles with going to school, the one piece of rope that will allow him to climb out of poverty. But family circumstances consistently pull him back. We hear the frustration in his voice as he explains how he wants to help his family, but he also wants to help himself. It is as if he’s given only two choices: If instead of going to school and staying at home to watch his brothers and sisters while his mom works, he’ll sacrifice his future. If he goes to school instead of helping his mom, then he’s being selfish.
Blaming the Victim
He blames his mother for putting him in this situation. If she didn’t have so many kids (seven in all), he says, they wouldn’t be in this situation. And here is where I have concerns about the direction of the piece. Not that Gomez shouldn’t tell his story, but Radio Rookies should be doing more to provide context – social context that helps explain the mother’s choices as shaped by her environment; historical context that helps the audience understand choices that have been laid before her family generations before; cultural context that provides insight into choices that are presented to people through their traditions and culture. Without these elements, it becomes easy for the audience to blame the victim, which social scientists say happens often in the news.
In 1998 Shanto Iyengar, wrote a seminal book, “Is Anyone Responsible?” on the impact of news frames on audiences. Think of a news frame as the picture frame around which journalists decide to focus the reader’s or viewer’s attention. This frame is established through the story angle, the sources spoken to, the placement of information and the emphasis on some details over others.
In “Is Anyone Responsible” Iyengar describes two prevalent news frames: episodic and thematic. In the episodic news frame, the story is told with the emphasis on the facts and details of the news event itself. A thematic news frame, however, includes contextual and background information to help the reader or viewer understand the news event within a larger social structure.
More often than not, much of the news we consume is episodic and therefore lacks the contextual framework to make sense of the event. Iyengar found that our reliance on episodic news frames promotes less empathy for the subjects of stories and we therefore tend the blame the victims for their own plight. In short, we fail to see the larger social and institutional structures at play in these people’s lives and think we as a society are not responsible, rather the individual is. This work has been followed up by other scholarship from social-psychologist Hazel Markus and her colleagues at Stanford and communications scholar Sei-Hill Kim at the University of South Carolina, just to name a few.
In the radio piece we hear young Gomez complain that his mother had too many children and refuses to take responsibility for raising them. We also hear briefly from the mother speaking in Spanish as she assesses the choices she has made.
She vacillates between guilt from the pressure she’s put on Gomez and defiance that her choices were selfless and for the greater good. Yet, we’re left with an uneasy feeling that there is so much more to the story. Her circumstances and reasons for any of her decisions remain unclear by the end. We know there is no father figure living in the family. We also know that Gomez’ parents split and that his mother subsequently had four additional children, presumably by another man. She cleans houses for a living. What we don’t know is why she decided to have more children, even though it was going to be difficult to care for them.
Structural and Cultural Factors
Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas in their book “Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage” explore the complex reasons poor women choose to have children despite the financial precariousness of their choice. They found that many are lonely and depressed and believe a child will provide them with validation, purpose and companionship. And most believe that even though they don’t have a lot of money, they can rise to the challenge of raising their children. It’s not clear if these are the principles behind Gomez’ mother’s choices. But wouldn’t it have been interesting to explore that?
First-person storytelling is important in giving voice to citizens who often live invisibly behind the social curtain. Such stories empower under-reported communities. However, such stories alone don’t necessarily empower the listener with information about how policies can be changed to better people’s lives. What are society’s options?
Radio Rookies and NPR were wise to provide some context in the introduction of Gomez’ piece. They mentioned that a third of children in New York City grow up in poverty and added that children like Gomez are so mired in a cycle of poverty that his ambition to escape feels insurmountable. It is a beautiful narrative he tells, but perhaps NPR could have combined the piece in a package about the lack of socioeconomic mobility among the poor and the barriers to mobility – in this case we might have learned more about what is perhaps a social-psychological barrier to the mother’s and Gomez’ success.
It is so easy for us to blame those in poverty for their own poverty and this piece inadvertently provides the talking points to do so. Poverty’s stronghold on 15 percent of the nation’s households much more complicated and until we help audiences understand the myriad factors that keep people poor, we’ll never be able to address it in public policy.