Issues of housing security and homelessness in the United States are being grossly under covered, oversimplified and misrepresented by the country’s “most-watched” television programming and “most read” newspaper coverage, according to our new CMSI study, part of our ongoing examinations about portrayals of pressing social issues in news and entertainment.

The report, Homelessness & Housing Security in U.S. Culture: How Popular Culture and News Depicts An American Challenge, provides a close examination of how issues of homelessness, affordable housing, and gentrification were depicted in U.S. news coverage and television programming in 2018.

The study’s results stem from an analysis of 150 episodes of television, aired by the fifty “most-watched” 2017-2018 television programs in the U.S., along with an investigation of 5,703 news articles, reflecting every news story on a housing security issue published by the country’s twelve “most read” newspapers in 2018. The study also points to a small subset of new television programming, led by a diverse group of showrunners, which are producing more nuanced narratives on homelessness and gentrification-related issues and could serve as an industry-wide model for improvement.

Before this study, very little was known about what American audiences were seeing or learning about homelessness and housing security issues from the news and entertainment ecology, said CMSI director Caty Borum Chattoo, who directed the study, supported by a grant from the Funders for Housing and Opportunity, a funding collaborative interested in bettering life outcomes for those struggling with affordable housing or experiencing homelessness. CMSI’s post-doctoral fellow, David Conrad, served as research team lead on the project.

“Yet, understanding the large-scale portrait of a social issue like housing security and its associated constructs, like homelessness, is vitally important as a foundation for developing appropriate intervention and response strategies,” said Borum Chattoo. “Entertainment and news together comprise the dominant cultural mechanisms by which we understand complex social problems like homelessness, and it’s hard to imagine policy intervention without first understanding what the American people see and hear about them.”

To identify and better understand the kinds of stories on housing stability that Americans see and experience through media reflections, a team of five CMSI researchers — Conrad, along with Lori Young, Aras Coskuntuncel, Sarah Huckins, and Samantha Dols — explored three central research questions:

  • How are issues of homelessness and housing security portrayed in the landscape of U.S. entertainment and news, if at all?
  • When issues related to homelessness and housing security are portrayed in U.S. pop culture and news, how are they framed?
  • Who is telling the stories? And how does this matter?

“The fact is that the stories that journalists and television writers produce on important social issues like homelessness and gentrification have a real impact, they actively shape, how many people come to understand and respond to these issues in their communities,” said CMSI post-doctoral fellow David Conrad, the study’s lead writer. “And our findings are not ambiguous: many of the stories on these issues were either insufficiently covered or inaccurately told in 2018. Analyzing hundreds of television programs and thousands of news articles took a lot of time and careful attention by our research team, but by completing a rigorous study like this, which captures and names the specific, harmful patterns and stereotypes that have come to define these stories, we hope that this work will help inform and jolt conversations within newsrooms and television writer rooms about how they can do better.”

Some highlights of the study’s key conclusions and findings are described below.

Three key conclusions of the report:

1. America’s “most-watched” television programming is producing an abundance of (harmful) narrative stereotypes of homeless victims and charity saviors.

Prevailing television narratives around homelessness produced by the 50 “most-watched” tv shows:

  • didn’t let homeless characters speak — more than 80% of the homeless characters were one-episode only characters, and more than half of them had less than 10 speaking lines
  • misrepresented the causes of homelessness — 76% of the narratives pointed to the characteristics and behavior of the homeless person as the sole cause of their homelessness, rather than any contributing social or structural factor
  • mischaracterized homelessness as a national issue that looks the same across the country
  • oversimplified how to end homelessness — more than 60% of references to ending homelessness were related to supporting charitable organizations that provide shelters
  • overrepresented two categories of homelessness — a foster child or veteran experiencing homelessness was present in 63% of the episodes containing at least one homeless character

2. A new crop of television shows, produced by more diverse showrunners, are producing fuller and more accurate narratives of homelessness and housing security issues.

The study notes that one explanation for the lack of more diverse and authentic narratives around issues of housing security is likely connected to the lack of diversity among the storytellers. While more than 40% of people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. are black, and 39% are women, the study found that the showrunners who produced the fifty “most-watched” TV programs were disproportionately white (87%) and male (76.1%).

Prevailing television narratives around homelessness produced by 10 new television shows (from a more diverse group of showrunners):

  • let homeless characters speak — EVERY homeless character that was depicted in these shows were series regulars or recurring characters, and all but one had more than ten speaking lines.
  • identified social systems and structures as potential causes of homelessness — the cause of homelessness was predominantly placed on inequities and failures of social systems and structures (67%), and less frequently on individual characters/choices/actions (33%).
  • anchored narratives in specific neighborhoods and cities: All but one of these programs contained storylines of homelessness and/ or gentrification that were rooted in the unique contexts of specific cities and neighborhoods.

3. U.S. newspapers are grossly underreporting issues of homelessness, affordable housing, and gentrification. When they are covering these issues, they are predominantly reinforcing oversimplified and harmful stereotypes.

America’s “most read” news outlets, from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2018:

  • grossly underreported issues of homelessness, affordable housing, and gentrification – homelessness and other housing stability related issues garnered less than 0.002 percent of attention on the news agenda in 2018. Just 1,696 news articles were published, in total, on housing stability related issues across 12 of the country’s “most read” newspapers in 2018.
  • oversimplified and isolated housing stability issues — nearly 90% of articles about housing stability focused exclusively on one of the three main issues (homelessness, affordable housing, or gentrification). In other words, the intersections and relationships between these issues are overwhelmingly being ignored. A mere one percent of the news articles included a thematic engagement with all three aspects of issues surrounding housing insecurity.
  • covered housing stability far less if its political partisanship leaned center or right — Center and right-leaning newspapers covered housing stability far less than left-leaning newspapers. The newspapers which covered housing stability the most were left-leaning outlets on the west coast.
  • primarily represented homelessness as a policy story — the most common subtopics within news coverage on homelessness were policy conversations (33%), followed by philanthropy (19%), shelters (18%), encampments (14%), crime (14%), and, lastly, profiles of individuals who were experiencing homelessness (7%).
  • rarely acknowledged the existence of gentrification in American life — 70% of news articles on housing stability focused on or mention issues relating to homelessness; 38% focused on or mention issues relating to affordable housing, and less than 7% included some mention of gentrification.

The full report and findings can be found at cmsimpact.org or by clicking here.