The crashing ocean waves were the score to my quest on a Saturday night five years ago, at a quiet seaside housing development on the Washington coast. I excused myself from our little multi-family gathering around 10 p.m. to go stake out the central office, in search of an Internet connection. Though it was after hours and the building was closed, the wifi was still on. I lugged my heavy, ancient laptop to a pillar with a ledge and propped it up, typing into the search bar “www.seattletimes.com”… Would it be there? And what would it say?
Homelessness does not take a vacation. Even when we advocates take a break, our minds and hearts are still heavy with the work that we do. So it was on the night of Aug. 28, 2010, as I braced myself for the impending online publication of what promised to be a landmark journalism report on family homelessness in our region. The “Invisible Families” series, by the Seattle Times team who participated in our Seattle University Journalism Fellows on Family Homelessness program, was set to run in the Sunday edition the next morning, and the online version would be posted first, that Saturday night.
When you ask journalists to shine a light on a social issue, you can’t control the outcome. We trusted the professionalism of the Times team and we were impressed with what we were hearing about the diligence of their investigation. We knew they planned three days of front-page coverage.
But still, for me personally, there was some anxiety mixed with the anticipation. When we hear that hundreds of families in our region are living on the street, we know that is unacceptable and that something’s not working. I hoped that the coverage would elevate public understanding of family homelessness — the complexities, challenges and solutions, and what I’d learned about the hard work of many smart people — and stimulate the kind of community response we need. I’m sure every communicator can relate to that feeling of hopefulness tinged with apprehension about impending media coverage.
Challenges for the Times team and the other journalists in the program
We knew the Times team, including reporter Lornet Turnbull, communities editor Nina Pardo and photographer Erika Schultz, were seasoned professionals who had worked for months preparing this series. Like the five other news organizations and independent journalists in our Journalism Fellows program, they had attended our seminars at Seattle University and heard from subject-matter experts, visited providers during our “field trips,” joined in discussions about the challenges of reporting on families in crisis, then set out to explore the issue in depth on their own. We knew they would examine the issue with clear eyes and report on both the progress and the obstacles to progress.
And they would tell the stories of the families who are affected. From the seminar discussions, we knew the journalists faced many barriers to finding those stories. For instance, journalists often like to follow a story in progress, not necessarily talk to the provider-recommended successful family on the other side of homelessness. But, as we discussed, families in crisis are very vulnerable, and while they’re in day-to-day survival mode it might not be the best time for them to open their lives to that kind of public examination. Some families were unable to continue participating, or left the area to look for housing elsewhere, or realized they did not want to be exposed in that way. One case manager even insisted one of the journalists should pay a mother for telling her story. (As it is an ethical violation, our Fellow said no thanks and moved on.)
The journalists also wrestled with privacy issues; for example, how could they visually tell the story of the family and the children — via photos and video — without stigmatizing them? What if the children were to log in to the story online and see what might be negative, uninformed, mean-spirited comments about their family?
One of the greatest benefits of this program was that journalists could focus on these reporting challenges and talk about them with colleagues. In a way, outside the classroom, they were competitors in the media landscape. But as Fellows, they were collaborators. Two of them even ended up partnering on their project. (More on that later.)
The depth and breadth of coverage — unparalleled
On that night of Aug. 28 just after 10 p.m., on my crappy laptop, the page finally loaded, and Erika’s stunning image of Cherie and Cody in their truck flashed onto my screen. It is an iconic image of poverty in America today, one you cannot forget. It still brings tears to my eyes.
And as others logged on and the print edition hit newsstands and front porches, everything about what our community understands about family homelessness began to change.
The Times series continued for two more days of front-page stories and accompanying content, including a look at family homelessness among refugees and immigrants, and how our community was responding to the need. They visited First Place School. They reported on the challenges of single fathers who are homeless. One of the most memorable stories, in addition to that of Cherie and Cody, was the video and photo essay about Jack, a spirited little boy living in Nickelsville with his mother. The depth and breadth of the coverage was staggering — photos, videos, infographics and stories in partnership with neighborhood news partners, some written by the Seattle University students who we had selected to work with the Times team as their research assistants. The team also reflected on their experience as part of the series.
In all, it was a project to which the Times devoted major newsroom resources and the work of many people. In addition to the core Fellows team, key staff included metro editor Mark Higgins, managing editor Kathy Best and video producer Danny Gawloski.
“It was a life-changing experience,” Nina Pardo told me that fall.
Readers React to the Series, Times Responds
Readers immediately began to contact the Times, asking what they could do to help these families. In response, the Times team created a page connecting readers to action. They hosted an online chat about the experience, in which readers asked questions and providers challenged them on editorial decisions (which I highly recommend you read, to get a pulse on public sentiment still evident today). The Times editorial staff wrote an editorial calling for compassion. The team wrote a follow-up story in September about the results of the story, and talked about the impact during our Town Hall event that fall (watch the full video here).
The Times series won much-deserved honors, including a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism for the multimedia package.
Five Years Later
Even with all our public outreach since then, and major projects like StoryCorps, the Journalism Fellows program is still how many people know about our program. It’s not surprising; with the astounding coverage from all our Fellows that started with the Times in August 2010 and concluded in summer 2013 with the South Sound Magazine cover series by Jeff Burlingame, this program yielded, I believe, the most comprehensive coverage on family homelessness ever created in our country.
You can re-visit all the fantastic work by the Journalism Fellows here, including Lee Hochberg’s PBS Newshour story on homeless children in school; Dan Lamont’s photo series; Dominic Black’s KUOW radio documentary; Carol Smith’s series for Investigate West that was picked up by numerous online outlets; the Herald of Everett’s reporting on homelessness in Snohomish County schools; and Rosette Royale’s four-part Real Change series “Gravity of Abuse.”
Today, there is still much work to be done. We know that the families in the stories found housing; we don’t know if they were able to stay in it. (Do you know?) Even with the systems improvements of the past five years, there are hundreds of families like Cherie and Cody living in their vehicles or on the street, and thousands of schoolchildren like Jack going back to school soon without a place to lay their heads at night.
You can find some easy ways to take action here. At the very least, share the stories like those told in the “Invisible Families” series. You can request a 24-page reprint of the series by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We encourage you to keep advocating with us, and support the work of our partners, so that five years from now we have a much different story to tell.
The Journalism Fellowships on Family Homelessness were funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.