The University Record, March 11, 1997

Complexity of welfare reform makes reporting difficult, journalists say

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

While news coverage of welfare reform is often criticized for its lack of objectivity and its perpetuation of racial stereotypes, journalists say the issue may be too complex for them to report sufficiently.

"I don't think reporters do a particularly good job of covering welfare issues," says New York Times reporter Jason DeParle. "I think it's difficult to cover because it means different things to different people. It's a hard thing to get your arms around as a reporter."

DeParle's views were echoed by many of his media colleagues and other welfare experts who took part in a campus panel discussion last month on the media's role in shaping the national welfare debate.

Washington Post reporter Judy Havemann agreed that covering welfare reform is "tremendously complicated" and that there is no story that "we are less equipped to cover as a newspaper than one that occurs in 50 different states in thousands of different ways."

She said that it is too early to grade media coverage of welfare reform since the process is just beginning.

But M. Gasby Greely, vice president for communications at the National Urban League, said that it is time for the media to "right its wrongs" regarding its coverage of welfare reform.

Greely said the media have perpetuated the myth that typical welfare recipients are single Black mothers with many children who expect the public to take care of them.

Chicago Tribune columnist Rita Henley Jensen, a former welfare mother who is white, said that the stereotypes of welfare moms are the same as when she was on public assistance in the 1970s.

"The drumbeat hasn't changed," she said. "All the words that they're using these days are the exact same that I heard each day from policy-makers and media."

DeParle said, however, that regardless of how one feels about the welfare reform law, he believes that the democratic legislative process gave the American people pretty much what they wanted. He added that within this context, the media is not the "all-powerful shaker of public opinion."

"I think the best thing journalists can do is to go into this with an open mind," DeParle said. "The more time I spend in a ghetto environment, the less I understand about what may seem obvious."

The Atlantic Monthly's Nicholas Lemann agreed.

"I think the deficit among both the experts and the media is a lack of first-hand experience watching the welfare system," he said. "As a journalist, it's a little dicey to say that I am taking a position to be an advocate on this issue. What you can say is that I've identified an unanswered question in this area and here, in my judgment, is what the reality is."

The panel was sponsored by the Michigan Journalism Fellows, the schools of Public Policy and Social Work and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Other panelists included Sheldon Danziger, professor of social work and public policy; Kevin Fobbs of the Wayne County Family Independence Agency; Mickey Kaus of The New Republic; New York University politics Prof. Lawrence Mead; Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza; and Wendell Primus, former deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.