Does the Press Make Us More Giving and Philanthropic?


In March, the New York Times public editor wrote a column about the extent of the paper’s coverage of poverty. Is it enough? She queried.

The column was very interesting and informative, but the press needs to dig deeper and ask, are the articles about poverty appearing in the newspapers having an impact on readers such that they actually do something to decrease poverty? After all, if an unfortunate situation is reported on and nothing changes, what’s the point? It is undeniable, however, that stories about poverty in the aggregate probably do have some impact on a society’s conscience and willingness to help others.

Coincidentally, in the same edition of the Times, Maureen Dowd wrote about the exploits of Patty Stonesifer. After rising to a very senior level at Microsoft, this woman helped Bill and Melinda Gates organize their foundation, which has been endowed with $39 billion and donates to fight some of the most pressing problems affiliated with poverty globally. Stonesifer’s inspirational efforts to help the less fortunate in other ways are beautifully documented by Dowd in her piece (click here to read the op-ed).

When the Times or any other news outlet reports on poverty, does anything really happen? Is anybody motivated by these stories? Do politicians immediately look into unfortunate situations exposed by the press? Seriously, does anyone give a damn about decreasing poverty after reading a newspaper article?

Such articles touch many. But a normal person could hardly make a dent into the problems around us. When I read about an injustice, say a slumlord bilking poor people, I am outraged, but what the hell can I do? Should I immediately pump up my charitable contributions or contact my representatives in Washington in response to a newspaper article?

I hate to rain on the public editor’s parade, but I’m skeptical about the impact of newspaper reporting in the fight against poverty. Please do not misunderstand my position; I am not suggesting the press shun poverty and inequity. Rather, I question the return to society from these articles.

This begs the question: how do organizations like Robin Hood and the Gates’ Foundation , which have a huge impact on poverty and disease, come into being? The answer is leadership.

Certainly, Bill Gates is strong leader, yet his impact is made possible because he earned billions and gave away a huge chunk of it. And then he convinced Warren Buffett to add even more to his foundation. Paul Tudor Jones founded Robin Hood with own money as well and then bludgeoned his wealthy colleagues in the financial community to pony up millions of dollars for the poor in New York City.

Gates and Jones probably did not decide to fund mega-charities because of articles they read in the paper. It happened because they had a sincere desire to help those who are less fortunate, and they are tireless in accomplishing their missions.

I have a suggestion for the Times and the rest of the media. They should definitely continue to report on the needy. But, in addition, they should write more stories about the efforts and motivations of people like Stonesifer, Gates, and Jones to create new organizations. By the way, most philanthropic innovators are not billionaires. Perhaps more people with extra cash who are sitting on the sidelines will be motivated to create another eleemosynary organization that helps those in need.