former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Archive for February, 2013|Monthly archive page

Journalists Should Stop and Do the Math on Minimum Wage

In Blog on February 13, 2013 at 1:31 pm

In last Saturday’s Washington Post, Matt Miller of the Center for American Progress authored a very thoughtful oped proposing that we raise the minimum wage, which currently is so low that it forces people who work full time to live in poverty.  Miller argues that increasing the minimum wage is a much simpler solution to the problems of the poor than the raft of federal programs out there to help alleviate poverty.  Plus, if the minimum wage were increased, thousands of workers would have the discretionary income to increase their consumer spending, improving the economy.

So what does Miller’s proposal have to do with journalism? In my mind, quite a bit.  Here’s the problem. Most journalists haven’t been paid by the hour since they were teens babysitting or mowing lawns.  When they report about the working poor, they fail to do the math, and since they thought $9 an hour was pretty good when they were 15, the reality of how little the minimum wage is and how inadequate it is to support a family is lost on them, and their readers and viewers.

So let’s do the math. A full-time worker earning the federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25 earns a princely $15,080 a year.  Let’s boost that figure up a bit, to the hourly wage of $10.  Annually, that amounts to $20,800.  Could you live on that?  Would that be enough to pay for food, clothing, and shelter?  (Let’s assume that your employer gives you health benefits, which isn’t too likely.)  When you live this close to the bone, losing a dollar bill or a metro card that drops out of your pocket is a disaster.  You can’t afford any sick time.  A vacation is a faraway dream. No restaurants with tablecloths.  No books.  No movies.  There is no margin for error.  God help you if you thought you could raise a child or two, or live in a decent neighborhood.

So here’s my plea, all you journalists out there.  Whenever you are doing a story about a minimum wage worker, do the math, and translate that hourly wage into what most of us are lucky to earn, an annual salary.  It will not change national policy, but maybe it will give the rest of us just a little more empathy for the burdens of the working poor.


Washington Post Ombudsman Lowers the Bar for “Great” Journalism

In Blog on February 7, 2013 at 3:10 pm

I often agree with Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton. But not this week.

He begins his column with a question: “You know what makes The Post great, on its best days?”

The answer? “Reporters reporting.”

Uh, right. Presumably, however, reporters also report for The Post on its worst days and on all the mediocre days in between. So perhaps Pexton had in mind some extraordinary examples of great reporting.

No such luck. “It is reporters” he points out, who sit “through hours of a city or county council session or a congressional hearing,” to get the quote or fact that prompts a surprising news story. “It is reporters” who wait until (egads!) “after midnight” to witness a controversial zoning decision vote. “It is reporters” with “ringing ears” no less, who make phone calls to talk to sources to get the information they need to write a story they were assigned to that morning. “It is reporters” who have to go to “bloody crime scenes” and encounter “people who are upset, stressed and crying.”

This is what supposedly “separates” the work of Post reporters from the “…thin reporting that passes for journalism in media land.”

I agree there’s a lot of “thin reporting” out there. But the work Pexton describes is so basic to plain vanilla journalism that it should not be cast as heroic. It should be the floor for the profession, not the ceiling.

Pexton could as easily have written, “It is dentists” who “bravely attack tooth decay, put their hands into dirty mouths, and who have to extract dead, bloody teeth from people who are upset and stressed.”

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