Homeless and Hopeless: Resignation in News Media Constructions of Homelessness as a Social Problem

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Journalism Studies
Mass Communication
Social Influence and Political Communication
Social Policy
Social Welfare
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McNulty, Bernadette R

This dissertation examined news constructions of homelessness as a social problem to identify how news stories communicate notions of what constitutes homelessness; how many and what types of people are homeless; and who can, should or must do something about this social problem. The study entailed a narrative analysis of 92 news magazine articles and 111 CBS news broadcasts about homelessness. The dissertation included a frequency analysis of homeless-related citations appearing in Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, Television News Index and Abstracts and the Social Science Index from 1976 to 1990. News stories present no explicit definition of homelessness and use the term to describe multiple and diverse populations. Imprecise language regarding homelessness leads to variance and contradiction yet meager debate about the nature--or size--of the homeless population. News stories portray homelessness as related to or "enmeshed" in several other social problems and rarely clarify whether homelessness is a cause, effect or symptom of such problems. News stories thus portray homelessness as a vague, incomprehensible and intractable problem. News constructs five central images of homeless people by focusing on social actors, relationships, behaviors, conditions and causes of homelessness. Homeless people appear as "institution avoiders," "mentally ill individuals," "families and children," "runaway or abandoned teens," and "threatening villains." Biographies and vignettes, journalistic commentary, visual techniques, and the presentation of numerical and research information are conventions establishing news stories as factual. Images portray unambiguous sets of victims and villains, emphasize individualistic problem causes and contribute to resignation about homelessness. The study proposes two models of communication about homelessness: a "social action model" presenting a problem about which someone must do something, and a "hopelessness model" suggesting an unchangeable problem. Overall, news stories exhibit resignation that nothing can be done to alleviate homelessness; they lack calls for action, responsibility and remedies regarding homelessness. A proposed conceptual continuum describes four levels of resignation about homelessness; each level reflects a different configuration of the two models. The study suggests directions for future research.

Charles Wright
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