A journalist’s guide to reporting on homelessness
Note to readers: This guide is a work in progress. This is the first piece of a much more comprehensive guide we are building with input from newsrooms across the country. It contains what we believe are the core tenets journalists should keep in mind while reporting on homelessness. We would love to have your feedback.
Who are we and why did we build this guide?
Street Sense Media is a nonprofit newsroom based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 2003, we produce solutions journalism on issues related to poverty and homelessness.
We built this guide to improve the broader public conversation around homelessness. We think that if journalists do a better job of reporting on homelessness then the public will have a much better, nuanced understanding of the issue.
Many local newsrooms and reporters turn to us for guidance when reporting on homelessness. Often, journalists want to know what language they should use or how they might be more thoughtful in their reporting.
How we put this together
In summer 2022, our team conducted around 30 interviews with journalists, homeless rights advocates, government officials and homeless people from across the country. We also conducted a survey to gather input from the broader public about how they feel homelessness is covered in the media and what journalists can do better.
This guide is not prescriptive. It provides a list of broad principles and considerations for reporters and draws its inspiration from the Society for Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.
A journalist’s guide to reporting on homelessness
Be aware of the many clichés and tropes used to inaccurately describe homeless people.
Clichés and stereotypes often define stories about homeless people. These may include any of the following characterizations: a drug addict, a mentally ill person, a criminal, an alcohol abuser. These struggles are not unique to homeless people and many people who live in stable housing grapple with addiction and mental illness.
When broad stories about homelessness center on the experience of a single source’s experience with addiction, it perpetuates inaccurate stereotypes and disregards the complex and multiple reasons why a person may become homeless.
When reporting on homelessness, journalists should consider the role poverty plays in a person’s life. Many people become homeless due to their inability to make a living wage and to afford a place to live.
Speak to people with first-hand experience with homelessness.
It is important to consider the perspectives of the sources you include in a story and equally important to consider the perspectives you leave out. When producing a story about homelessness, it is best to solicit input from people with first-hand experience. It may help to ask a local homeless services nonprofit or street paper for help with connecting with someone who is homeless.
When describing homelessness, be specific.
In the United States, there is a pervasive, negative social stigma attached to the word “homeless.” Some people view the term as offensive and associate it with dehumanizing stereotypes. Alternative terms and phrases are often used as a way to draw attention to an individual’s humanity (such as in the case with people-first language) or a person’s lack of access to housing (as in the case with terms emphasizing lack of physical housing).
News outlets may use different terms, including:
- unhoused people
- houseless people
- people experiencing homelessness
- people experiencing housing instability
While these terms can be helpful and sufficient to describe homelessness in general, consider that they are usually insufficient for fully describing a person’s living situation. Homelessness is a spectrum and can assume many forms. For instance, the experience of a person sleeping in a tent on the sidewalk is vastly different than that of someone who couch surfs. We advise journalists to be as specific as possible when reporting on homelessness.
Finally, some critics argue that using people-first language draws attention away from the deeper issue of homelessness, and that alternative phrases such as “people experiencing homelessness” carry the same stigma as the term “homeless person.”
Be upfront with your readers and your sources.
What do you do when someone asks for money in exchange for an interview or a photo? What do you do if someone asks for food in exchange for an interview?
We posed these questions to everyone we interviewed and found there is no clear consensus amongst journalists. Some journalists work in newsrooms and have editorial budgets that allow them to take sources out to coffee or lunch. They generally responded by saying that they felt it was more ethical to provide food to a person than money. However, others said they would never — under any circumstance — give someone food or money in an exchange for an interview.
However, most of the homeless people we interviewed are strongly in favor of compensation.
They argued that since journalists are paid for their time, they also deserve some form of compensation. After all, time is money. Many of the homeless people we interviewed expressed frustration with the extractive nature of journalism and felt that asking a person to recount a traumatic personal experience without any compensation was in itself unethical.
When speaking to sources for a story, it is important for reporters to be upfront about their expectations. Journalists should also be transparent with their audience about anything they exchange with sources when producing stories.
Hold people in power accountable.
Many of the homeless people and social workers we interviewed for this guide said they wished journalists were more critical of both homeless services nonprofits and government agencies. Some people we interviewed asked that reporters steer clear of advocacy and simply describe situations as they uncover them.
Treat everyone with dignity and respect.
Reporters should practice the golden rule by giving homeless people the same respect they would for a source who lives in stable housing.
In our interviews, we’ve heard stories about TV news crews showing up to homeless encampments at 4 a.m. to set up for live shoots without providing any of its residents advanced notice. Others talked about how they feel infantilized, mistreated and sometimes, exploited by journalists.
Seek informed consent and consider anonymity.
Whenever possible, introduce yourself to a source before snapping their photo or asking them questions. Many people living in homeless encampments and shelters have a variety of valid reasons why they might not want to have their image broadcast on TV or published in a newspaper. Some people may be fleeing domestic violence situations. Others may be fearful of retribution from employers.
Additionally, journalists should consider whether a source is in a stable emotional or mental state to provide them with consent for sharing their story. In this same vein, they should also refrain from infantilizing sources and allow them to speak on their own terms.
Newsrooms should consider using anonymity for sources in cases where a person could face retribution or face violence upon publicly speaking out about their situation.
Consider the impact of your reporting.
Journalists should seek to be trauma-informed in their reporting. This means being mindful of the way reporters ask sources questions intended to uncover deeply traumatic experiences. In general, reporters should refrain from interviewing sources who are homeless the same way they would a public figure deserving of more scrutiny.
Some sources we interviewed for this guide cautioned about the potential recurring negative impact of reporting. For instance, there may be cases where a source agrees to an on-the-record interview about their living situation and struggle with addiction. However, years later, that same source recovers but has a hard time finding a job because when employers look up their name on the internet, they find a story about their history with homelessness.
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