Close your eyes and imagine a working class American. What pops up for you? A white man? A black woman? Someone from rural Kentucky or D.C.?
At Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) CAMP 2017, panelists on a session on covering the working class helped tackle stereotypes and provided important advice on issues to address while reporting the full story.
The idea of “white trash” is one that Mary Meehan is tired of hearing. Mary works with the Ohio Valley Resource, a regional investigative news site covering economic and social change in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. She also grew up in Kentucky and said people like her don’t get enough representation in popular culture and mainstream media. Mary said people assume the working class just need to get jobs while ignoring generational poverty, lack of access to education and lack of healthcare.
“We need to start talking about the rural poor and poor white people. There’s a need to address those issues that contribute to that,” she said.
She recommended reading the book White Working Class by Joan C. Williams, and for journalists from outside rural America to collaborate with rural journalists to get a true understanding of the issues they are writing about.
Tracie McMillan is a freelance writer who specializes in covering race and the working class. She talked about degree inflation and the gap in employment for workers based off their education level. College degrees are the standard measure of skill and experience, which neglects many Americans who can’t afford to go to college. According to the Harvard Business Review October 2017 report, less than half as many 16-24 year olds have been in registered apprenticeships since 1980. This barrier of entry especially hurts black and Hispanic adults ages 25 and up, Tracie said. For journalists interested in finding new stories, she advised probing popular mantras about the working class, following the money in education and looking for stories of unions and employee organizing.
Monica Potts examines women workers in her reporting, because they are underrepresented in coverage of the working class.
There is a growth of women in the labor force in all groups and in female- headed households where women are the sole providers. Jobs are still very segregated in the working class. Women are often working because they are forced to supplement their family income, but they and are still getting paid less than men, Monica said.
Good working class stories should also represent the vastness of women’s experiences, she addes. Women who are working in elder care or daycares represent the working class just as much as the men in construction hats.
“It’s not just a women’s story. It’s a story of the working class,” Monica said.
The panel ended with Lottie Joiner, editor-in-chief of The Crisis Magazine, who shared how recidivism (the rate of people returning to prison) is a misunderstood aspect in the working class experience. There are 48,000 legal restrictions for anyone with a criminal record, Lottie said. Though people need housing, professional licenses and employment to survive, Lottie said, our country denies formerly incarcerated people with the opportunities to better themselves. If they can’t get back on their feet, find shelter, manage their trauma and treat their addictions, these are all factors that contribute to higher recidivism rates.
While the panelists mentioned it can be difficult to get funding for these kinds of stories, especially as a freelancer, covering the working class is vital reporting that needs to be done more and with care and consciousness.