Blog Article

Written off: Exploring homelessness through a news literacy lens

This story originally appeared in the website Why News Matters

Are some groups in society written off by the media?

The answer hinted at in “Written Off?: A Staged Reading and Discussion of the Play, SHELTER/CHICAGO”—presented April 29, 2014 at the Chicago Cultural Center—is yes.

Both the play and panel discussion that followed were part of the Illinois Humanities Council’s Public Square Media Remix series. Both addressed the ways that homelessness is treated in the media, particularly to highlight what’s missing from current coverage. The goal of the Media Remix series is to spark curiosity for the public to better understand news-related issues.

In the play, the audience experiences the issue of homelessness through the perspectives of a student, journalist, homeless Chicagoan and worker at a homeless shelter.

Comparing the recent recession to the Great Depression, the play opens with Barack Obama’s voice asking, “As Americans, it’s not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us.”

In the backdrop is a large screen on which a nameless face appears periodically to offer statistics and data such as the fact that “doubled-up” kids—kids living in someone else’s home—encompass the largest number of homeless children in the Chicago Public School system. In contrast, a young girl and her mother traveling from a homeless shelter to school one morning spark the interest of a newspaper reporter on the same bus.

The play is also about the many tensions in mainstream reporting.  An editor pressured to fill space and meet deadlines struggles with a reporter who wants to tell an important story. The editor calls the story “old news,” a theme that becomes central to the challenge of covering a social problem that never really goes away.


Following the play, a panel of distinguished local reporters discussed the issues that shape coverage of homelessness. Below are some key comments made in that discussion.

“I can’t go quite as in depth as I would like, but I believe over time I’ve built up a knowledge of issues I bring to the table. I try to put a face on homelessness.”

– Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown

“There are so many issues that this project is ripe for exploring. That’s why I signed on.”

– Chicago Tribune religion reporter and consultant to SHELTER/CHICAGO Manya Brachear Pashman

“There’s even more pressure to do a quick hit story because you’re worried about losing your job.”

– Chicago Sun-Times columnist and panel moderator Laura Washington, referring to the editor’s role in the play

“What the media does when we do it well – we put a human face to [issues]. They’re human beings and they have stories. Good and bad, just like us.”

– Sandra Ramsey, executive director of Cornerstone Community Outreach

“The media has an obligation to present the story in a powerful, positive light.”

– Formerly homeless Chicagoan Richard Thompson, who wrote and acted in SHELTER/CHICAGO as part of The Living News Project

“You wouldn’t believe how many homeless people I’ve talked to who sold the Sun-Times at one point or another.”

– Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown