This article originally appeared at TalkPoverty.org.
On February 17th, Washington Post reporter Chico Harlan wrote a piece that analyzed the human impact of the 25-cent minimum wage increase in Arkansas. The article prominently featured the experiences of Shanna Tippen, a grandmother who worked in a variety of roles at Days Inn and Suites such as attending the front desk and troubleshooting issues for guests.
While Tippen’s life would improve modestly after receiving the small wage increase, it was clear that the raise would not lift her and her family out of poverty. Even so, she did not make any negative comments about her employer. The story also featured a quote from her manager, Herry Patel, who opposed the small increase because “everybody wants free money in Pine Bluff.” In contrast, other businesses noted that the increase would not force them to lay off employees.
Only one month later, Harlan reported that Tippen had lost her job. She claims that Patel fired her in retaliation for speaking about her experiences to The Washington Post. This event illustrates a real tension in poverty reporting, especially when stories involve vulnerable low-wage workers.
Ben Casselman, who is the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight (an outlet that uses statistical analysis to cover stories), is absolutely right to be concerned. Journalists should consider the impact that their reporting could have on their sources. This is an ethical and strategic consideration—if workers feel that they will experience negative effects, they may be less likely to come forward. In this particular instance, Tippen might have benefited from the protection of anonymity. However, Harlan’s account clearly states that Patel invited him to speak to Tippen, and therefore it would have been difficult to anticipate that she would experience retaliation for her comments. The blame here lies with the employer, not the reporter. Days Inn and Suites should reinstate Tippen immediately.
If anything, this story demonstrates that we need more coverage, not less. Harlan’s reporting makes an important point in its own right—a small minimum wage increase is not enough to lift families out of poverty. It also avoids elevating incorrect arguments which insist that increases in the minimum wage lead to layoffs.
But its Harlan’s follow-up reporting that makes an even more important point—abusive employers should be held accountable. When Tippen told Harlan that she believed she was fired for talking to him, Harlan gave her a platform to speak out. He also repeatedly followed up with Days Inn and reported on their sustained attempts to dodge his calls. Finally, Harlan made it clear that this action by Patel will have a real impact on Shanna Tippen’s life—with the loss of her job, her money “won’t last past March.”