Those who have been following me for some time know that I enjoy exploring the use of language as a way of interpreting changing views about rental housing. I've previously analyzed Twitter posts to find out what renters think of apartment hunting and landlords. I've also used an online corpus of published words to analyze the most common adjectives describing landlords and tenants in news articles, blogs and TV shows.
The good folks who maintain the English Corpora website have released a new database tracking words used in news articles related to COVID-19. Today I'll be using that new database to investigate how news coverage of evictions has changed since "Miss Rona" came to visit the world.
To begin my analysis I took a sampling of 200 news articles including the word "evicted" and used the context provided to determine the general subject matter that prompted use of the word. Half of the articles were from the Coronavirus database. All of these were published in May of 2020. The other half were pulled from the more general News on the Web database. All of these were published one year ago during May of 2019. Both databases search the same global collection of news sources.
I ignored articles that used the word "evicted" in a way that doesn't reference the process of removing someone from their home through legal or illegal means. For example, I ignored mentions of how cuckoos evict young birds from nests, the latest evictions on the TV show "Big Brother", and stories about people getting tossed out of sporting matches, parliament, or other public venues.
Once I had processed all 200 samples, I counted the occurrence of each contextual topic. The lists in order of descending frequency can be found below.
Before Coronavirus, May 2019
- Non-legislative Government Actions: 27
- Squatting: 11
- Celebrities: 8
- Discrimination: 8
- Demolition or Condemnation: 6
- Poverty/Homelessness: 6
- Criminal Activity: 5
- Behavior: 4
- Illegal/Without Notice: 4
- Laws: 4
- Employer-owned housing: 2
- Property Sale: 2
- Campaign platforms: 2
Issues mentioned in one article each were activism, death, a film synopsis, hoarding, nonprofit initiatives, seniors in private housing, seniors in closed nursing homes, rent inflation and research.
By "Non-legislative Government Actions" I mean actions taken by governments to evict large groups of people from their land. Remember that these searches covered news outlets from around the world. This topic includes eminent domain actions, tribes acting against other tribes, the effects of Western colonialism and the actions of certain oppressive regimes against their people.
Prominent celebrities mentioned during news coverage during this period were R. Kelly, who was in court at this time, and Julian Assange, who was removed from the Ecuadorian embassy in London a month earlier.
After Coronavirus, May 2020
- Laws and legislation: 29
- Payment/Non payment: 10
- Squatting: 9
- Non-legislative Government action: 9
- COVID fears: 6
- Lockdown Privations: 6
- Eviction Moratoriums: 6
- Nonprofit Initiatives: 6
- Healthcare workers: 5
- Activism: 3
- Letters to Editor: 3
Other issues which appeared once each were shelter closures, epidemiology, parenting, owners reclaiming property for personal use, eviction from employer-owned housing as a result of business closures, condominium conversions and behavior which violated lease covenants.
This is not a perfect comparison. I'll admit that outright. The Coronavirus Corpus only surveys articles which mention the virus while the News Corpus includes all articles across the board. News unrelated to COVID-19 has continued to trickle out during the past five months and all of that content was summarily ignored for the purposes of this survey. I also used the word "evicted" rather than "eviction", which limited the search somewhat since very few people are actually getting evicted during coronavirus shutdowns. Regardless, I think there are some interesting conclusions we can pull from the data.
The first thing that struck me is how different the concept of "eviction" is in developed countries. In coverage from the US, Canada, Singapore, the UK and Ireland nearly all discussions of eviction involve the actions of private landlords. But for developing world "eviction" tends to describe the actions of governments against large groups of people. Even with the diminished focus on non-legislative government actions within the 2020 sample, there remains an equal focus on eviction of squatters in both years. What we can glean from this is the scope that an eviction case must have in order to earn news coverage. An eviction of one family has little draw for journalists unless the cause is truly salacious or heartwrenching. Only the evictions of large groups get widespread ink.
The second thing I noticed is that it took a global pandemic for journalists to start looking at the relation between poverty and eviction, a link which has been well-established in public policy and statistics circles for years now. A year ago the large groups of people getting evicted were tribes and oppressed people in developing nations. Now the large group of people getting evicted are those living on the verge of financial collapse in developed countries. It always has been those people but only now when the scale of the problem has reached epic proportions is it something worth discussing in the news.
Then there's the issue of what is considered a "truly salacious or heartwrenching" reason to evict someone. A year ago it was property demolition, eviction without notice, eviction for criminal activity, eviction because of discrimination. In other words, eviction for any reason other than inability pay due to low wages and rising rents. Now the extreme cases are mostly ignored. The focus is now on people at risk of eviction if they don't go to their high risk jobs. People getting evicted because their landlords are afraid of COVID, or because they work in healthcare. Most of the time stories about people living in poverty don't sell newspapers and they definitely don't sell advertisements. But when a huge segment of news consumers have suddenly been thrust into that group of "people living in poverty," journalists had to shift priorities.
Eviction has always been cast as a worst-case scenario in developed-nation news coverage. "His dog died, his ex-girlfriend trashed his car, he lost his job AND he was evicted." It's always the last thing in the list, the denouement to a buildup of compounding tragedy, because eviction in the Western world invariably implies the privations and disenfranchisement of homelessness. But a year ago that worst-case scenario was tacked on to the stories of people outside the norm: seniors, LGBTQ, refugees, tribal groups. Or it was a starting point for rags-to-riches celebrity profiles. For news consumers in developed countries, eviction is no longer just the worst-case scenario for "abnormal" people. It's a lot more of a pressing concern when the worst-case scenario is looming for someone like you in your country or your town.
This is not a case of developed-nation media shifting its focus from eviction in developing countries to eviction within their own borders. Developed-nation media casts the government as a source for laws and legislation. Developing-nation media sees the government as another tribe that can boot you out of your family's ancestral territory. The coverage of evictions in developing countries was found in newspapers from those countries. Those stories came from the newspapers of Kenya, Myanmar, Nigeria, Colombia, Pakistan and South Africa. The leap in focus on laws and legislation is due to developed-nation news venues starting to talk about large-scale poverty based eviction in the first place. The developing-nation coverage is still there, but it's getting drowned out by Western COVID-related handwringing.
The issues that are now getting news coverage in developed countries have always been issues. Poverty-based evictions have always been the norm, they have been at crisis levels for years. After COVID-19 is long gone and we're back to our normal lives poverty-based evictions will continue to be the norm and the news media will undoubtedly return to ignoring them in favor of extreme outlier clickbait cases. Everybody cares about the plight of the soon-to-be-evicted right now because that's pretty much all of us. But when the risk bar lowers back down and the class distinction reappears between middle and lower classes, will the public concern over eviction that currently earns eyeballs on articles remain at its current elevated levels? Probably not.
There clearly have been a lot of pushes for temporary laws to protect those affected by coronavirus shutdowns. There have been calls for rent stimulus packages, eviction moratoriums and rent strikes. But if this analysis tells me anything, the activists working in the rental industry need to be taking advantage of this brief period in the news spotlight to push for permanent legislation that will outlast COVID-19. This is a time when renters and landlords have the clout to get things done. I have no idea what sort of crisis conditions will put this industry in such a power position next time around, but I am certain that they will be equally horrible if not moreso. I have previously criticized activist groups for using coronavirus as a lever to further their causes but after looking at the fickleness of the news media it's clear to me why they are doing so. The eyes of developed-nation news consumers are on the rental industry at the moment. If we're going to get something done, now is the time.
2020 Results: Davies Mark, The Coronavirus Corpus, 2020. Available online at https://www.english-corpora.org/corona/
2019 Results: Davies Mark, News on the Web Corpus 2010-2020. Available online at https://www.english-corpora.org/now/
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