Advice for writing about Poverty

Andrew Darnton’s research report on ‘Comic Relief: Public Perceptions of Poverty’ (2007) has some tips for writing about poverty…

People’s responses to stories are complex and subjective. Nonetheless, on the basis of this research it is possible to suggest a number of key elements for what makes a story about poverty effective in engaging the general public.

  •  A sense of progress

Showing that all is not lost. Underpin this message with a sense of empowerment, that people and political will can make a difference.

  • Solutions

Show solutions to poverty problems, big (education) or small (tree planting) – but always give some suggestions in order to combat disengagement.

  • Surprises

Giving people ‘the same old’ only helps them switch off.  Provide things readers and audience did not know or had not thought of before (ideally with some positive angle). Successful examples include eloquent African children, urban poverty, or tree planting schemes.

  • Background and context

Provide answers to readers’ inevitable ‘why’ questions

  •  Contrasts and comparisons

Showing the scale of poverty can be impactful, but always give a point of comparison to help the public interpret any stats; also describe the direction of travel (whether something’s rising or falling etc).

  • Poignant Humanity

Build empathy through little details and hidden truths including shared hopes and dreams, personal habits of daily life, or psychological strategies for coping.

  •  Helping people help themselves

This theme has a double benefit: it builds a link between readers who care and poor people, and it confounds stereotypes of poor people as weak victims (thus setting up a new view of the developing world). This approach challenges the assumption that the only way to tackle poverty is through our donations.

  •  A sense of unfairness

The dynamic of a big person taking advantage of a little person (who is not a victim, but is unfairly dealt with) always engages the public.

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