Good Journalism

A Short Analysis of Andrea Elliott’s “Invisible Child”:

Like Jacob Riis’s “How the Other Half Lives,” written well over a century ago, Andrea Elliott’s “Invisible Child” takes aim at public housing that is overrun with mice, ill-heated in the winter, deadly hot in the summer. Elliott’s five-part series demonstrates the best of what empathetic writers are doing today and reflects a return to what writers such as Riis tried to accomplish more than a century ago in “How the Other Half Lives.”

Elliott addresses the nation’s growing income inequality and its consequences through an intimate look at the life of an 11-year-old girl, Dasani, who lives in public housing designated for the poor and the homeless in New York. She pushes the reader to think about the tragedy of an individual’s human capacities being thwarted by poverty: A lively, curious, and intelligent child, Dasani has much to offer the world. Though Elliott uses a largely narrative approach, she lines her storytelling with expository information—definitions, analysis, comparison/contrast, description, and striking statistics—creating a combination of the story and information models described by Schudson. While the information model “lays claim to prompt verifiability” (139), the narrative takes one into the intimacy of personal experience and seems less amenable to a process of verification and a claim of accuracy.

As of late 2013, Elliott’s five-part series, Invisible Child, was slated to become a book, its story the result of 15 months that Elliott and Ruth Fremson, photographer for the Times, spent with Dasani and her family at Auburn Family Residence in Brooklyn, a homeless shelter designated for families. Elliott took some heat for her reportage, particularly from Mayor Bloomberg, who claimed she had chosen an “atypical” situation to represent the lives of children in poverty. The reader can reach his or her own conclusions, basing them on the depth of Elliott’s reporting (Is there reportage under every sentence?). Is her characterization of Dasani based on particulars—on what she says, does, thinks—and on her use of expository information that allows one to see Dasani’s life within the larger reality of poverty? Does her interpretation invite the reader to generate meaning in a fair and balanced manner?

The journalist who understands and employs empathy, deliberately and/or naturally, seeks to restore humanity to those perceived to be different and therefore lesser. Journalists seek to tell stories that relay truths about the culture we have created and continue to create. In this story, the child does not assume the status of an object to be pitied, largely because the headline and the story are not sensationalized. She does not remain “Other.” The story’s headline—“Invisible Child – Girl in the Shadows: Dasani’s Homeless Life”—is poignant yet lacks exaggeration and the sort of exciting, shocking language meant to lure a reader to the story. (The Times might have said, “Poor child sleeps with mice, uses mop bucket as toilet!”) As the story progresses, we come to know Dasani as a spirited girl who is to be admired for her determination, her intelligence, and her capacity to care for others. Elliott’s rhetorical purpose is clear: She paints a portrait of the stark reality of life at Auburn, particularly for children, in an effort to create awareness, to awaken understanding and, perhaps, to provoke moral outrage. She does not sensationalize; she uses facts and an ability to connect with the inner world of Dansani to tell the child’s story and to find a vantage point from which to address homelessness in New York.

Hartsock noted that the goal of the sensationalizing journalist is to create “repugnance, horror or terror” by emphasizing difference. Of course, in stories that examine and attempt to explain marginalized, invisible individuals or populations, the writer must point to differences. It is in the everyday, concrete differences that one can measure inequity, and it is through the details and explanations provided by the author that one can reach conclusions regarding the just treatment of the Other. An accounting of the differences, though inevitable and essential, must ultimately function not to highlight differences but to illuminate the humanity of the Other, a critical turn that disrupts an individual’s inclination to objectify. Of course, alongside concrete differences are the commonalities: She lives in poverty yet dreams of abundance; she feels isolated yet years for friendship; she is overwhelmed by work and aches for rest.

Into her narrative Elliott layers facts that reveal the larger contextual reality of poverty in New York. Elliott described the Auburn Family residence as a place that “is no place for children” yet is home to 280 children who are part of a “vast and invisible tribe of more than 22,000 homeless children in New York, the highest number since the Great Depression, in the most unequal metropolis in America.” The 10-story brick building, built nearly a century ago, had once served the area as Cumberland Hospital, until the facility fell prey to a budget crisis in the 1970s that left New York unable to pay its bills. Frederick Greisback, director of the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group, described the unstable beginnings of the shelter designated for homeless families, which were being moved to the new shelter from an older one that would be made available to more homeless men: ”This is crisis management at its worst. Shuttling families around like this is unconscionable.” Elliott’s took readers into life in the shelter through descriptions such as the following: “City and state inspectors have repeatedly cited the shelter for deplorable conditions, including sexual misconduct by staff members, spoiled food, asbestos exposure, lead paint and vermin. Auburn has no certificate of occupancy, as required by law, and lacks an operational plan that meets state regulations. Most of the shelter’s smoke detectors and alarms have been found to be inoperable.”

Elliott’s words in 2013 became an echo of Riis’s descriptions of the tenements in 1890. Between 1836 and 1914 nearly 30 million Europeans came to the United States, all in need of homes and a way to make a living. Of the tenements, Riis wrote: “The poorest immigrant comes here with the purpose and ambition to better himself and, given half a chance, might be reasonably expected to make the most of it. To the false plea that he prefers the squalid homes in which his kind are housed there could be no better answer. The truth is, his half chance has too long been wanting, and for the bad result he has been unjustly blamed.”Initially, at least, wrote Riis, the tenements may have been a “blessing,” but “[a]s business increased, and the city grew with rapid strides, the necessities of the poor became the opportunity of their wealthier neighbors, and the stamp was set upon the old houses, suddenly become valuable, which the best thought and effort of a later age have vainly struggled to efface. Their large rooms were partitioned into several smaller ones, without regard to light or ventilation, the rate of rent being lower in proportion to space or height from the street . . . “(1).

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