Virtual Voices
The homeless in San Julian Park in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles.
Associated Press/Photo by Jae C. Hong
The homeless in San Julian Park in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles.

Writing an ‘objective’ story about homelessness

Homelessness

The run-up to Thanksgiving week is a traditional time for newspaper reports about homelessness, and The New York Times yesterday did not fail.

The headline gave two sides: “As Homeless Line Up for Food, Los Angeles Weighs Restrictions.” The story was balanced: Some want to feed homeless individuals at a corner in Hollywood, but homeowners in the area are tired of folks defecating on their lawns. I counted quotations: Up until the penultimate paragraphs, 12 sentences favored the free feeding that draws crowds to the neighborhood, while 12 sentences opposed it.

The author, veteran reporter Adam Nagourney, tipped his hand (as reporters often do) by choosing a particular source to offer a pungent summary:

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“Aaron Lewis, who said he makes his home on the sidewalk by a 7-Eleven on Sunset Boulevard, chalked up opposition to what he described as rising callousness to people in need.

“‘That’s how it is everywhere,’ Mr. Lewis said. ‘People here—it’s their only way to eat. The community doesn’t help us eat.’”

Still, by traditional standards, the story was “objective,” with both sides well-represented.

But were there only two sides? I don’t know enough about the homeless problem in Los Angeles to say, but I have reported on homelessness in Washington, New York, Chicago, Denver, and elsewhere, and have often found three sides: Yes, advocates want to offer free food on the streets. Yes, nearby homeowners want homeless individuals banished from the neighborhood. But thoughtful Christians with respect for both sides offer an alternative both to street feeding and excommunication: They want to feed individuals inside missions and other homeless shelters where they can be urged to take their meds, pray to God, remember how to work, and change their lives.

I don’t know whether the capacity of Christian-run homeless shelters in Los Angeles is adequate, given the number of individuals drawn to the city’s winter warmth: WORLD will try to find out, but I won’t be surprised if the answer is no, and Nagourney would have a good case in saying he didn’t see a reason even to mention the missions.

But even if that’s so, this traditionally objective story does a disservice in balancing out only two sides. Even if Democrats and Republicans between them garner 90 percent of the votes in an election, a thorough reporter will at least mention the existence of third parties. And if two big programs fail but a third, smaller one has a track record of success, shouldn’t reporters let readers know?  

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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