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Reporting on poverty a unique job for journalists

By Nicholas Hautman (Special to the Chronicle) Sometimes journalism isn't about reporting on the rich and famous or on breaking news – sometimes it's about reporting on the down-and-out.

When journalists cover poverty, they are “covering the people that nobody listens to,” according to NPR national desk correspondent Pam Fessler. These stories were the subject at the Covering Suburban Poverty conference last Thursday, where Fessler related her own work at Hofstra University.

In a room filled with both aspiring and experienced journalists, Fessler explained how she has spent significant time following homeless people around, learning their stories and eventually sharing those stories with her readers.

“People are incredibly happy to tell their stories and share details of their lives,” Fessler said. “They [are] just so amazed that somebody actually [wants] to know what they’re going through.”

Fessler spends days in the streets with each of her subjects. Before doing so, she gets approval from each of them to ensure that her subjects are okay with their stories being shared for the world to hear.

“The people understand that they have made mistakes. One advantage that I have is I am an empathetic person. I truly want to hear their stories,” Fessler said.

During the conference, Fessler revealed several statistics. The average life expectancy of a homeless person is only 65 years old. Also, here in America the population of homeless people is aging substantially. Most of the homeless people that have shared their stories with Fessler are 47 or older.

While the public’s response to the homeless is not always pleasant, Fessler indicated that there are many helpful people whom she finds on the streets. She told the audience about one volunteer who “spends all night on the street, seven days a week, handing out blankets and water to the homeless.”

After Fessler concluded her speech, author and former New York Times reporter Gary Rivlin took the podium. He recently published a book titled "Broke USA," which explains how Americans take advantage of the poor to make billions of dollars.

When Rivlin writes about the homeless, he said that he thinks of them as characters in a story. Because of this, he indicated that he never does a follow up story. Rivlin prefers to avoid developing personal relationships with the subjects of his interviews.

Fessler joined in on the conversation once more as Rivlin shared his view. Journalists “can’t get tied down to people,” Fessler said. Nevertheless, she believes there is value in following up on previous interviewees because they “always gave [her] a hug and a kiss at the end.”

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