Mar 17, 2009

Katherine Boo: Reporting Across the Income Gap

Much as I love narrative journalism, it sometimes makes me uncomfortable. This happens when journalists spend days collecting picturesque details, yet never seem to wrestle with the fact that the people who they’re talking to are suffering.

Take one of last month’s New Yorkers, with a pitch you could have seen coming a mile away: Slumdog Millionaire is about to win a bunch of Oscars, so the New Yorker gets one of its reporters to go interview a real live Mumbai slum kid. (Abstract here.)

Just more poverty tourism, right—except the reporter was Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer-prize winner who has written about welfare moms, survivors of Hurricane Katrina, and Texas factory workers who lost their jobs to outsourcing.

One of the things I admire about Boo—a former speaker at this conference—is that she acknowledges that “Journalism about poverty can be a morally dodgy business.”

A woman in a post-Katrina evacuation shelter once told her, “Wait, so you take our stories and put them in a magazine that rich people read, and you get paid and we don’t?”

“That’s some backward-ass bluffiness, if you ask me.”

Boo doesn’t dispute this—she once
told a group of Northwestern students that writing about poverty for the New Yorker was “bizarre”—but her pieces are deeply grounded in respect for her sources. She never parachutes in, collects a few heart-wrenching anecdotes, and leaves: she hangs around, building up a fuller picture of the lives she’s trying to depict.

So while Boo’s slum kid piece opens with the predictable contrast between the Gautam Nagar slum and the $1,000 a night rooms at the airport Hyatt right next door, she doesn’t keep banging the wealth disparity drum.

Nor does she jump right into talking about how her subject, 13-year-old Sunil, struggles to earn a few rupees a day by picking up garbage or stealing pieces of metal from airport construction sites.

Instead she opens with a scene that’s almost familiar: Sunil playing a videogame and losing, just like any 13-year-old American kid.

"There is a tendency in journalism to -- is this a word? -- exotify. To stick to the anomalous,” Boo said in a 2002
interview with Michael Miner. “We have an eye for the anomalous that causes us to miss what's the same... So you re-create sort of a lopsided cosmos. You create all these anomalies, when, in fact, you walk into a low-income person's house and you might notice that 90 percent of it is like your house."

“I guess I think that in writing about the poor, so often there's an idea that it's a completely alien, anonymous culture, and it's not really part of, quote, our culture. That makes for better stories, but it distorts the connective culture that there is in this country."

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