Five Tropes Local TV News Uses to Dehumanize Homeless People

Rightwing demagogues like Tucker Carlson incite against the homeless on a nightly basis, but mainline outlets also help stigmatize the unhoused, only with more subtlety.

It’s understood that American right-wing media is now defined by overt white nationalists who regularly traffic in sensationalist, dehumanizing coverage of the homeless. In addition to the inherent ideological motives behind smearing the unhoused, inciting against homeless people, more often than not, also doubles as a bludgeon against “blue city mayors” and liberal leaders like Nancy Pelosi.  Look at all the filth, drugs, crime, and poverty in New York and San Francisco: This will be your future if you vote for these socialists.

This line is frustrating for obvious reasons—namely, that centrist and liberal big-city mayors, despite their polite rhetoric and feel-bad box checking, have largely continued to crack down on the homeless, offer insufficient mental health and drug use services, uncritically back the police, and take millions from the real estate interests driving housing crises. But, like all right-wing grievance lines, the line’s all fake, misdirected outrage that, while fitting neatly into a partisan box, doesn’t do much in the way of addressing the totality of how our media dehumanizes the unhoused. 

The right is going to churn out Der Stürmer garbage, and this is worth documenting and combating (as Media Matters’ Courtney Hagle, Madeline Peltz, et al. have done an excellent job of over the past couple years). But it’s also worth highlighting the ways mainline media outlets engage in more subtle modes of dehumanization. As the eviction moratorium sunsets, and expanded unemployment insurance evaporates for 7.5 million people, anti-homeless sentiment from supposed mainstream, kind-minded people is poised to do real, material damage. Here are five common tropes:

1. Only leading with the housing status of homeless people who commit crimes, creating a sense of collective guilt.

One stark practice that serves no other purpose than to imply collective guilt is leading with the housing status of the homeless when reporting on a crime (something I noted for the Appeal in January 2020). 

We’ve seen particularly egregious examples this past week alone, coming from cities with staggering income inequality and, relatedly, housing crises, emitting from news outlets that are not broadly viewed as rightwing:

How is the housing status of the alleged assailant relevant at all? Why does one never see “Housed man arrested after murdering wife'' or “Housed woman wanted for slamming car into pedestrian”? The answer is that mentioning the housing status of those committing crime has no functional purpose other than smearing or inciting against unhoused people. While obviously not a one-to-one comparison for historical reasons, imagine if the media routinely said “Jewish man attacks woman” or “Black man robs drug store” but never mentioned the race of white assailants (something papers routinely did during Jim Crow). What would be the functional purpose of this, other than to smear minority communities? 

If the victim is homeless and was targeted or made vulnerable due to their housing status, then housing status is a relevant fact to the crime. But if mentioning housing status is a non sequitur, as it is with all the above headlines, then such mention only exists to dehumanize unhoused people in general. And if a particular media outlet is going to insist upon noting the housing status of unhoused people who commit crimes, then it absolutely should note the housing statuses of the millions of crimes committed every day by the housed. But press outlets, of course, would never do this because it’s broadly assumed criminality is inherent in unhoused populations rather than inherent in humanity more broadly. 

2. Portraying homeless people as invading foreigners rather than as part of the local population.

Here is a typical headline from last month that casually portrays unhoused people as non “locals” and thus an invading force:

The article itself is a perfectly fine “both sides” breakdown of the political battle in Los Angeles over how to respond to homelessness. But notice how the framing (headlines are often not chosen by the writer) pits homeless populations against “locals” who are presumed to be the relevant moral consistent. Other headlines such as LA Times’, “Newport Beach locals express sympathy for the homeless on their streets, but say enforcement still needed” and ABC7’s, “Homeless camps near Hart Park scaring locals from visiting the area” engage in the same trope. These articles provides zero evidence to support the claim the unhoused populations are, by and large, not “local”: It’s just casually assumed they are a foreign entity impeding on the “locals.”  

This serves to further Other the unhoused, and effectively exclude them from the conversation. After all, those who are not “local” to Venice shouldn’t have a say in its politics. This device removes homeless people from the democratic process of deciding their fate and treats them as a “problem” to be solved (read: removed) rather than as humans contesting public space for a place to live. If homeless people, by definition, can’t be “local,” that’s all the more justification to the communities they live in but, for some reason, will never be considered part of.

3. The oppressed party is “residents,” “homeowners,” and “business owners” rather than those living without secure housing.

Homelessness is, itself, a social crime imposed on the homeless. As of January 2020, there were 580,466 homeless people in the United States, despite the fact that this country has more than enough resources to provide free housing to all who need it, and other countries with the will to do so have effectively ended homelessness. The U.S. failure on this front is a political choice, and every story about the problems resulting from massive unhoused populations should center this fact. But it’s almost never mentioned: Instead, the victims of news stories involving the homeless are not those suffering a lack of secure and safe housing, but those annoyed or inconvenienced by their existence. 

Just this past week, here are typical examples:

This Sept 24 NBC4 Los Angeles segment entitled “Streets of Shame” led off with the anchor telling the viewer that, “NBC 4’s John Cádiz Klemack spoke with some homeowners who say they are looking forward to fewer tents and fewer trash.” Needless to say, no homeless people or homeless advocacy groups were quoted in the story. It’s simply taken for granted that the most important moral constituent in a story about displacing homeless people (some of whom may or may not end up in shelters, according to the report) is the “homeowner,” rather than the party clearly suffering from massive social failures of the state and housing market. 

With rare exceptions, the “homeowner,” “business owner,” or “resident”—assumed to be in good social standing—is centered as the grieved party in urgent need of restitution, rather than the the population suffering, disproportionately, from substance abuse issues, vulnerability to sexual violence and assault, and—by definition—a lack of secure housing. This “homeowner” or “resident” vox pop will sometimes be paired with liberal platitudes about “finding long-term solution,” but the thrust of the report is always the same: Get the human blight out of sight and moved elsewhere. 

4. Filth to be “cleaned up,” rather than people being displaced.  

In local and national media we consistently hear about homeless camps being “cleaned up”. From this past week:

This implies that living spaces where people live are mere trash and, by implication, those living there are filth to be “cleaned.” While homeless camps no doubt have sanitation issues—their lack of toilets, clean water, and other infrastructure all but guarantee this—the mass removal of populations should never be referred to as “cleaning up” an area, given the historical connotation of reducing homeless or transient populations to refuse. Moreover, the primary thing being “cleaned” is the population itself. NPR, in particular, frequently refers to homeless population displacement as “clean ups”.

Also popular is the equally anodyne “sweeps,” a framing that gives the impression a street sweeper is just coming through and removing trash, as seen in NPR’s use of “Sweeps Of Homeless Camps In California Aggravate Key Health Issues”. 

Reporters should be specific in their language, rather than adopt police-fed euphemisms. These are not “clean ups” or “sweeps”—they are the removal of humans and should be referred to as such. The above NPR headline would be meaningfully improved—and better convey the real human stakes—if it were to say instead “Mass Removal of Unhoused People In California Aggravate Key Health Issues.” It’s unwanted humans being displaced, not an abstract filth. 

5. Scam artists, freeloaders, welfare queens 

There’s nothing local media loves more than a tale of scamming homeless people. This not only serves the routine function of dehumanizing the homeless, but makes its viewers feel better about the human suffering they pass by every day on their way to work. “Worry not,” viewers are told by a reassuring anchor, “the panhandlers you see begging for money are actually well-off scam artists getting one over on the working man.” 

There are countless examples of local media rushing to find these “scammers,” often with little evidence beyond allegations by police or “city leaders”: 

The most nakedly cynical example of this trope was this July 2019 report by WFLA Tampa NBC8, that helped a clearly hostile “local businessman” harass a homeless panhandler for not accepting an alleged offer of “work”. Watch the entire segment below:

As I noted in my June 2019 Appeal article on the report, at no point does the vigilante “local businessman” being heralded in this segment, Ryan Bray, provide any evidence he offered work in good faith, nor was there any effort by reporter Melanie Michael to verify his central claim (the homeless man in question denies any offer was made). Bray, driven by a misplaced sense of self-righteousness, just starts harassing a panhandler, and for that is held up by multiple news reports as a populist hero taking on Big Panhandler. The tale was reported glowingly in the Orlando Sentinel, WATE Knoxville, Kentucky, KAMR Amarillo, Texas, KIRO Seattle, WSVN Miami, WTHR Indianapolis, WSB Atlanta, ABC 15 Arizona, and dozens of other outlets throughout the country—never with an ounce of skepticism. The “local businessman” was simply taken at his word. 

Important context was left out of the Appeal article (because Bray threatened to sue the Appeal) but noted in a subsequent episode we did for Citations Needed podcast:  Bray had himself been accused of harassment in a 2013 Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) complaint. According to Bank of America, he had “threatened the lives of BoA’s employees.”  Bray, who said homeless people “want money” and “don’t want to work,” has also had his financial brokerage license suspended at least four times in the past, for failing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in connection to regulatory complaints against him. 

Needless to say, these transgressions didn’t make ABC8 WFLA’s evening news, nor were they mentioned in any of the dozens of reports that rested entirely on Bray’s character assessment of a random homeless man. Someone with a history of harassment accusations and financial misconduct is allowed to smear and libel a homeless person for these very same crimes. But because the accused is unhoused he is, by definition, powerless and unable to sue or respond in kind. 

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