“Bad For Business:” An Interview With Journalist Carolyn Carlson
As a reporter, I often think about how news outlets fail vulnerable, minority, and/or marginalized communities. They're often underrepresented, mischaracterized, criminalized, or forgotten entirely. Though I do see some progress, especially from independent and public media, a majority of the stories we get from our TV, newspapers, and push notifications are still produced by and for white middle-to-upper-class audiences.
I'm a volunteer writer and editor for Albuquerque’s street newspaper Two Way Street, which strives to cover issues related to folks experiencing homelessness, poverty, and housing insecurity. TWS is a new operation, so I wanted to ask a veteran journalist: What’s the state of coverage of homelessness in New Mexico? How can we as media-makers do better?
I sat down with Carolyn Carlson, who’s been a journalist in New Mexico for more than 30 years. Born and raised in Albuquerque, she’s run a small-town newspaper, covered crime for the mainstream daily Albuquerque Journal, and currently covers city council for the local independent Weekly Alibi.
Carlson also has firsthand experience with poverty and homelessness. She says her family was one of the first in New Mexico to be on the new food stamp program in the mid ‘60s. “If not for that welfare program,” she says, “after my father died, my mom and my sisters and I probably would have been homeless.” In recent years, as a parent, she has watched her oldest son struggle with drug addiction, homelessness and stints in prison.
Hannah Colton: What’s your impression of media coverage of homelessness and poverty in general?
Carolyn Carlson: It’s almost criminalistic. It’s just polarization. Unless you’re doing a feel-good story, you’re criminalizing the homeless or the near-homeless. Myself included, as a reporter. I have not walked up to someone on the street and just asked “Why are you here? What do you need?” …to do more than just a fluffy Christmas or Easter story.
And it’s not easy, right? As a journalist, with so many stories you go to a designated Public Information Officer, or to a source whose cell phone number you already have. Approaching people who are unhoused can be more time-consuming; for women there’s a perceived safety component… there are so many barriers. Why else do you think outlets don’t pursue that kind of coverage?
Just the backlash from readers. If you’re going to pursue something as ‘sad’ and ‘culturally dirty’ as homelessness, you’re gonna have to angle it to the dinner and breakfast that people are used to. You don’t want your readers to go “oh, that makes me sad.”
The Albuquerque Journal, the TV stations, they don’t want to make people sad.
But most media outlets don’t shy away from wanting to make people angry.
Correct. That’s the criminalization side. You can make people angry at the ‘dirty’ homeless person on the corner and say “don’t give them money,” but anger is different. Anger is a safe thing to cultivate for the media. Sadness isn’t.
I think maybe we’re seeing an odd view of that with the aftermath of this Parkland shooting. It’s hard to be mad at these kids, even for the crustiest people. So people are feeling a little sad. And that’s why things are changing, I think. Because—we’ve been mad after every single shooting. But we haven’t had all these kids [in the news] before, who could be our children, our grandchildren. And that brings this other emotion into it.
The majority of homelessness is short term. So it really is true that people on the streets are our sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, friends. Why doesn’t the media characterize it that way?
Well, “if it bleeds, it leads.” The media is based on advertisers and advertisers are only going to put up money if the story sells. And violence sells. It is sad to say we human beings will pick up a newspaper with a bloody story at the top over a story about the great 4-H kids. We will. So [coverage of homelessness] is bad for business. And that’s one of the biggest unspoken rules. Editors don’t let reporters really cover homelessness, because it’s bad for business.
Many of the main causes of homelessness are also things that we as a society don’t like to talk about, right? Mental illness, disability, veterans struggling with PTSD… these are already things that aren’t discussed openly.
Well, except with veterans: the media knows you can use that. Because what kind of person are you if you don’t want to help the veterans?
Sometimes I get so discouraged about the chances that a wide audience will ever get consistent, fair information about their homeless neighbors.
That’s right. They won’t.
And that’s just the way it is?
Well, I think what [Two Way Street] is doing with the street news is one way of getting those messages across. And the next way is forming partnerships. There’s a way you can spin the stories to make them more palatable to mainstream media. A lot of times journalists want to shove their message down people's’ throats… no. You gotta get people to think like you. So you have to do it with a smile on your face and a non-threatening message.
Actually, I recently came across an excellent fairly recent series I had missed—done by the Albuquerque Journal—on the unsolved rash of homeless murders. So maybe I’m being a tad harsh on them. That piece is an example of what they could do if they let some of their talented writers loose to follow their instincts.
Given what your oldest son has gone through, what do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions that keep people from empathizing?
It’s thinking, “it can’t happen to me” or “can’t happen to my family.” It’s the old Christian “by the grace of God, go I.”
With my kid, I truly believed that if we put him in the best school, he would not be exposed to the big bad stuff. But I was wrong; it was everywhere.
[The misconception] is denying that each one of us is, if not a paycheck away from being homeless, then a year. My husband and I, we couldn’t make it a year on what we have now.
One paycheck, one simple mistake, one bad influence – and anyone could be homeless.
Right, or an illness! And those are the stories that should be told, and the eyes people should look into.
But it’s hard. It hurts your heart, because you want to help and you don’t know how.
That’s what you’re up against with getting people engaged with this issue. Because if they don’t read about it, if they don’t look in those eyes, if they don’t humanize those people, then it’s “us and them.” It’s complicated.
Editor’s Note: This interview was first published in Two Way Street's Issue 6 and is printed here with permission. It has been edited for length and clarity.