Earlier this month, I did a presentation at the annual Canadian Association of Journalists conference about how the media should be covering homelessness. My main point was that although often well intentioned, the media relies on formulaic stereotypes when covering homelessness and rarely gives homeless individuals a voice. Unfortunately, a lot of coverage does more harm than good.
Before hitting the streets, I wish reporters would work to gain a better understanding of who homeless people are and why they don’t have housing. For starters, most homeless people actually sleep under a roof. According to “The State of Homelessness in Canada 2013” report, at least 30,000 Canadians are homeless on any given night, but another 50,000 sleep in cars, couch surfing or live in unstable housing—a group often referred to as the “hidden homeless”.
Most news reporters also use a white, middle-aged man who lives outside as the typical homeless person in their stories. But we know from research that middle-aged men, while the most prominent group, make up less than half of all homeless people. We’re seeing higher rates of First Nations, youth and seniors without homes and we need these voices better reflected in coverage.
When the media does cover homelessness, they don’t give much space to homeless people. The story might start with a few quotes or pictures of a homeless person, but once they’ve given their sad story, the reporter moves onto homeless advocates, government officials or neighbourhood residents.
Barbara Schneider, a communications professor at the University of Calgary, monitored theVancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, and The Globe and Mail for a year and found that when these papers did cover homelessness, people who were homeless were only quoted 16.6 per cent of the time. Homeless “experts” were quoted 73.6 per cent of the time, while “citizens” were quoted 9.9 per cent of the time.
Homeless people are used for “colour,” but aren’t allowed to talk about possible solutions, give broader opinions beyond their own experience or be seen as members of our communities. As Schneider argues, this reinforces a sense of “otherness” that the public has about homeless people.
“Journalists may believe that in ‘telling someone’s story’ they can generate sympathy and promote more positive public perceptions of homeless people. However, sympathy and charity are in themselves ‘othering’, as it is only ‘we’, domiciled people, who can offer ‘them’, homeless people, sympathy and charity, not the other way around.”
While researching this presentation, I talked with Megaphone vendors who are homeless or who have experienced homelessness. Mostly, they were cynical about the media’s coverage.
If we are going to solve homelessness, we need to listen to those who are homeless themselves. We don’t need to patronize by speaking for them. Rather, we should stand with them and let their rich and important voices speak for themselves.