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Study by Center for Media & Social Impact Examines Racial Disparities in News Portrayals of Homelessness

As housing insecurity and homelessness continues to rise in the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, researchers at the the Center for Media & Social Impact designed and completed an award-winning peer-reviewed study.

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As housing insecurity and homelessness continues to rise in the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, researchers at the the Center for Media & Social Impact designed and completed ”The Rent is Too Damn High”: News Portrayals of Housing Security and Homelessness in the United States, an award-winning peer-reviewed study published in the highly-ranked academic journal, Mass Communication and Society.

The study, which was published in January 2021, was led by School of Communication (SOC) Professor and CSMI Executive Director Caty Borum Chattoo, along with CMSI Research Director David Conrad-Perez, CMSI Research Specialist Aras Coskuntuncel, and Lori Young, PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication. An earlier version of the article was awarded the Top Poster Paper Award in the Journalism Division at the 2020 International Communication Association conference. The research was funded through an external grant from the Funders for Housing and Opportunity, a consortium of foundations in the United States.

Study Identifies Racial Disparities in Leading Print News Outlets’ Depictions of Housing Insecurity

Through quantitative content analysis, the research team examined news stories related to housing security, gentrification, and homelessness published by 12 of the highest circulation metropolitan print news outlets in the United States in 2018, a year in which previously dropping rates of homelessness stagnated and began a slow increase for the first time in years. The study ultimately concluded that the most-read print news outlets in the U.S. are failing to identify the interconnectedness of increasing rent costs and gentrification with homelessness, and they are contributing to racialized portraits of homelessness. Further, the studied news outlets often framed housing-insecure individuals as morally deficient. Previous peer-reviewed studies have neglected to analyze racial disparities in news framing about homelessness or housing insecurity.

Author Q&A Session

The following Q&A session with the authors -- Caty Borum Chattoo, David Conrad, Lori Young and Aras Coskuntucel -- dives deeper into the study, examining the researchers’ findings regarding racialized news portrayals of housing insecurity.

Q: What inspired your team to conduct research in this area? 

A: We had distinct and valuable vantage points on this project among our research team at the Center for Media & Social Impact. Between our past work studying news and entertainment TV portrayals of social justice issues, as well as journalism experience within our group, we knew the issue was understudied. The housing crisis in the United States is dire, particularly given the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we felt this was an important contribution and public service. All of our research and creative work at CMSI focuses on social justice and equity, so this line of inquiry was very much in line with our values and motivations. 

Q: What did you discover regarding race-based discrepancies in housing portrayals in U.S. print journalism? 

A: There is a long history of race-based discrimination and structural racism built into housing in the United States, and so it's probably not surprising to know that there is also a large body of research that shows that racial and ethnic minority groups are also disproportionately impacted by housing insecurity. This was work with which we were already familiar, but what was probably a new discovery for us was the level of race-based discrepancies in housing today. Black people are ten times more likely to become homeless than white people in America. And that's a recent finding; that's 2020. So learning more about the sheer scale of the race-based discrepancy in housing in America, and just how acutely research is able to pinpoint it, was one thing we discovered. We also discovered that news coverage here served as a distorting force, rather than a corrective or accurate one, when it came to racial disparities.  

Q: How does news media unfairly stigmatize members of historically marginalized racial and ethnic minority groups experiencing homelessness?

A: Communities of color, those from historically marginalized racial and ethnic minority groups, are stigmatized by newspaper coverage of homelessness in several ways. Generally speaking, we found that while these news outlets often invoke race in their coverage of homelessness, they continually miss one of the biggest stories related to race and homelessness, which is not that a disproportionate number of people experiencing homelessness are people of color, but that people are often forced into homelessness in America because they are people of color. In other words, research shows that there are systemic reasons behind the homelessness problem in America, which is rooted in failing social and housing policies that disproportionately impact people and communities of color. This is an old story in America, but one that is still painfully real and increasingly urgent. Yet this is not the story that leading print news outlets tend to tell, at least not according to our study.  

Instead, we found that when race or ethnicity was invoked in news coverage of homelessness, it was almost always used as a descriptor for people living in encampments. In other words, the print news outlets we analyzed rarely mentioned race or ethnicity in stories about public policies related to homelessness, but instead they tended to only invoke race when they wanted to say something like “this homeless individual was Black,” for instance. And when this happened, that individual was almost always someone living in an encampment. We found that over half (54%) of all mentions of race or ethnicity in news about homelessness was found in stories about encampments, meaning stories about the people who we see experiencing homelessness in the subway or on city sidewalks, or stories about tent cities, drug use, police sweeps, or health scares. In other words, these news outlets rarely invoked the language of race when they were covering an issue about homeless shelters or about a housing issue related to policy, but if the story was about a criminal act or a problem with homelessness in the streets of a city, then the language of race entered the picture.  

Q: What impact do you hope this study will have? 

A: We hope that this study will lead to greater reflection and real reforms within newsrooms. We also hope that it will lead to more studies on this topic. Unfortunately, just about every indicator we have says that homelessness is only going to become a more urgent and dire problem in America, and it's critical that all of us—both the makers and thinkers of media content--work to understand this issue. We were surprised to learn that the first entry on homelessness in the Associated Press Stylebook—which is one of the most important daily guides for journalists—didn't appear until mid-2020. It now says that journalists should avoid referring to "the homeless" and should instead acknowledge that they are people, although it still doesn't touch the real issue here, which is that homelessness is not simply a descriptor of people, but of failed systems. That's just indicative of how neglected this issue has been within the media industry. And the same goes for academia. The fact that a study of this modest scale hadn't been done before, looking at news coverage from 12 of the “most read” newspapers in the country, says that we are also lagging as media researchers. 

The Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI), part of American University School of Communication (SOC) is a creative innovation lab and research center that studies, showcases, and creates media for social change and social justice. To learn more about CMSI, visit https://cmsimpact.org or follow @cmsimpact on Twitter.