The New York Times’s “Injustice in Crisis” is a Good Story

A century of overcrowded homes: How we reported the story

By Erika Anderson

7 Min Read

A woman uses a broom to clean a dirt floor in one of New York’s slums, the New York Times (Charlie Wilson)

It’s a question that has haunted human rights journalists for decades: How can reporters make their readers aware of the horrors and sufferings of the people they cover?

After the Times published one of the first articles detailing a slave auction in the 19th century, for example, readers complained that they didn’t know a black slave was being auctioned off.

In the 19th century, the problem of how to get readers to care about things they shouldn’t care about was acute in the United States.

In the 1920s, newspapers tried three approaches to dealing with the problem. One was to create headlines and then run them in smaller type to minimize the size of the typeface and make it harder to read. Another was to use images of people who were suffering in the news. The third was to create an entire page dedicated to the topic.

The Times was first to try that third approach, in 1930. Its front page of that year included a story with illustrations of the conditions in which some of the 1.2 million homeless Americans lived. At its back was a big story: “Overcrowded Homes.”

Some readers of newspapers have objected that the stories in those pages were inaccurate. But in a recent interview, New York Times Editor Dean Baquet defended the front-page story as being correct, saying the stories about overcrowded homes had been “repeatedly reported” by other news outlets.

One reporter who has written about the stories of homelessness in New York has been arguing that “Injustice in Crisis” is one of the best-known stories about homelessness. The story from 1930 was reprinted in some newspapers, and a book in 1940 that included a short excerpt of the story attracted national attention.

Yet the story has not been widely known or taught in American history classes. And it is far from the only problem-reporting controversy in the history of the New York Times.

A century

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