Mobilizing Media to Re-think Poverty

Mobilizing Media to Re-think Poverty

Rutgers' journalism and media studies professor shares Clarion Award for investigative series

Todd Wolfson
Todd Wolfson, assistant professor of journalism and media studies
When The Association for Women in Communications recently gave its Clarion Award for investigative journalism to the Philadelphia Daily News series Tapped Out: How We Lost the War on Poverty, it validated an idea Rutgers professor Todd Wolfson had championed for more than a decade: that the stories of poor and working people should be told by them, not just about them.

Started in 1972, the Clarions symbolize clear, concise communication, and honor excellence in more than 100 categories across all communications disciplines.

In the mainstream media, Wolfson believes, the poor show up as perpetrators or victims of problems. “What’s missing in the mainstream media is some idea of what it’s like to live a life in poverty or near it, day in and day out, working, raising children, and struggling to get ahead,” said Wolfson, an assistant professor of journalism and media studies in the School of Communication and Information and co-founder of the Media Mobilizing Project, an organization that has worked to break the digital divide with poor and working communities for nearly 10 years.

Tapped Out – a collaboration among the Daily News, WHYY-FM, Axis Philly and Temple University and the Media Mobilizing Project  -- combined an in-depth look at the structure of poverty in Philadelphia with the first-person accounts, in video and prose, of people who struggled with it every day: a homeless teenager who managed to stay in high school while living on the streets; a single mother of six who endured eight months of homelessness but kept her family together; an insurance broker who lost his job while winning a fight against cancer.

The series grew out of a conversation between Wolfson and Sandra Shea, the editorial page editor of the Daily News. Shea received a Pulliam Fellowship for Editorial Writing that allowed her to dig deeper on a story of her choice. She chose poverty.

 Wolfson contributed an Op Ed to the series.

Sandra Shea
Sandra Shea of the Philadelphia Daily News
Photo credit: Philadelphia Daily News
“We have a lot of poverty in Philadelphia,” Shea explains. “And when it comes to poverty in Philadelphia, Todd Wolfson is way up there on the list of people to talk to.”

The Media Mobilizing Project is the fruit of Wolfson’s decade-long work studying and covering poverty in Philadelphia. The project has three continuing goals: to build a media infrastructure with which poor and working people can tell their own stories; to train them to tell those stories; and, to build a network of community organizations in Philadelphia. Wolfson counts the first two goals as met.

“We’ve made more than 50 short documentaries and we’re working on an hour-long documentary,” Wolfson says. “We write and do a lot of social media work. The communities we work in are not as online as you might think, so our website is not as bustling as we would like, but we do a lot of community screenings of our documentaries and use low-power radio and local-access television a lot.”

The third goal – a network of community organizations united around common interests –is more elusive. Coalitions built to address one issue are hard to hold together.

“A project like the one we did with the Daily News is designed to speak to everyone,” says Wolfson, who contributed an op-ed to the series and whose organization trained local people to shoot video for the project. “But we want to find ways for poor and working people to speak to each other.”

Shea believes Tapped Out has brought the discussion of Philadelphia’s poverty to some surprising places. “The Economy League (of Greater Philadelphia), a business group, held their summit this year on the subject of equity,” Shea says. “I can’t directly tie our series to that, but it’s interesting to see that we’ve all come to realize the seriousness of poverty at the same time.”

Wolfson and his students are working on a project in New Brunswick, shooting an hour-long documentary about the effort of a group called New Labor to organize workers in the city, largely from the Mexican state of Oaxaca and often undocumented, who work in the dozens of huge warehouses in Middlesex County. “They do things like pack toothbrushes or assemble appliances shipped in from overseas,” Wolfson says. “We have a grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, so we’ll be able to pay a videographer, who will both shoot video and teach students to shoot. Also, with support from NJ Advanced Media, we plan to hire an investigative journalist.”

Media contact: Ken Branson,; 848-932-0580; cell 908-797-2590