Homelessness in the media

Representations of homelessness in print news today promote the social exclusion of homeless people, claims a new study done at the University of Calgary by Barbara Schneider and Chaseten Remillard.

Looking at the Calgary Herald, Vancouver Sun and Globe and Mail over the course of one year, Schneider and Remillard found that homelessness is significantly underrepresented in newspapers.

Of 270 articles that were examined, homeless people spoke only 15.3 per cent of the time, while experts accounted for 73.6 per cent of attributions and citizens comprised the rest of the sources. Schneider sees this as a major problem.

“Media is a shared site of public debate,” said Schneider. “If you don’t have access to that, then you don’t really have a full citizenship.”

The study found that homeless people only have a significant degree of say when the subject is homelessness itself, speaking 27.7 per cent of the time in these cases. Even then, homeless people only contribute their personal experiences of homelessness. The experts are the ones commenting on causes, effects and solutions.

“Homeless people are relegated through a very specific and distinct kind of voice, and a devalued voice,” said Schneider. “Homeless people are in fact displaced from the larger societal story of homelessness and experts are the intermediates that translate to readers the facts and experiences of homeless people.”

The study also examined photographs of homelessness in the Calgary Herald. There was a very clear distinction between the representation of homeless people and volunteers that were assisting them in the images.

“In the pictures of volunteerism, the viewer gets a sense of community, family and joy. Whereas in the pictures showing homeless people as isolated and without a shared acknowledgement of the camera,” said Remillard. “Such images imply that homelessness is not only devoid of shelter, it is also devoid of community and social interaction.”

In doing their part to change homelessness’ representation, Schneider and Remillard established a network with Salvation Army members and created a blog to give homeless people a place to voice their opinions. Tim Barber is one of the bloggers.

“Being homeless is not easy,” said Barber. “I was 17 the first time I was in a homeless shelter and I’ve been homeless now for four years, on and off. Right now I’ve written about six blogs. What I want is for people to start getting on this blog and give opinion on stuff that we write.”

Schneider and Remillard believe that things can change. The first step is for the journalists to rethink media conventions and begin quoting homeless people differently. Only then will homeless people begin to take part in public discourse and have the same ability to comment on political and social issues as other members of society.

The study will be published later this year.

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