Background and Significance of the Study
This qualitative study offers multiple perspectives regarding the news media’s coverage of homeless people. Throughout, I hope to better inform you about the cultural phenomenon known as “homelessness.”
I look at a sample of homeless people; their characterization and description of themselves in the news media; journalists’ responses to those observations, and a sample of stories from the print and television news media that provide the dominant culture with accounts of the homeless and homelessness. The role of the media in depicting the homeless is a key issue here. As cognitive psychologist Richard Jackson Harris asserts, the mass media are “a ‘magic window’ through which we view the world, but also the ‘door’ through which ideas enter our minds” (2004, p. 3). The metaphor of the window is especially useful in understanding how ordinary citizens learn about homeless people and the state of being homeless. Most Americans have no personal familiarity with homeless people; therefore they depend heavily on depictions of the homeless in the news media. Thus ordinary citizens learn about the homeless and homelessness from the media, just as they learn about political candidates, the functioning of government and most other aspects of society beyond the range of the individual citizen’s senses. Media researchers Rivers, Schramm and Christians noted: “Undoubtedly, the most important role of the media is to feed the ground – to deposit layers of information, day by day, hour by hour, so that a base is laid for the knowledge on which we walk. Compared with the occasional great and dramatic changes we can attribute to the media, this slow, continuing, never-ending effect is immensely more powerful and significant” (1980, p. 28–9).
I deal with three key areas of focus: (1) an analysis of how the mass media informally educate their audiences about the culture of homelessness in the United States through their descriptions and presentations of homeless people; (2) the results of a series of interviews with a theoretical sample of homeless people that explores how they describe themselves and how they perceive their portrayal by the mass media; and (3) the results of a series of interviews
Homeless Culture and the Media
with a theoretical sample of Albuquerque, New Mexico-based print and broadcast journalists in which the journalists were asked to respond to the major concerns raised by the homeless interviewed for this project about the media’s portrayal of homelessness.
I have identified two major ways that the general public learns about homeless people: (1) through their portrayal in the print and broadcast mass media; (2) by the public’s own direct observations as the homeless appear in their local communities, perhaps while soliciting handouts or traveling about within local communities. This latter approach – directly observing the homeless – is the method least likely to provide useful information because many members of the general public, and especially those in moderate- to high-income brackets, may go for days, or even weeks, without seeing a homeless person. When they do see them, it is commonly only a glimpse of the person from the window of a passing automobile. Thus, media portrayals are the primary sources of information about the homeless for most Americans. I will:
• analyze how local and national mass broadcast and print media portray the homeless
• report on the responses of a theoretical sample of homeless people who were asked how they perceive themselves, how they feel they are portrayed in the mass media, and how they believe they are understood by the general public
• report on the responses of a theoretical sample of journalists based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who were asked to respond to the major concerns raised by the homeless interviewed for this project regarding the media’s portrayal of homelessness.
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