By using the media to amplify their voices, Emily and her partners were able to effect a policy change that will better the lives of their clients.
If you want to achieve social justice, you need a watchdog.”
–Emily Benfer at a Voices’ panel on working with journalists.
Media advocacy contributed to a recent policy victory for Emily Benfer, a JusticeVoices Network member from Chicago.
Last month the Department of Housing and Urban Development proposed a new rule that will apply stricter standards for addressing young children’s exposure to lead in subsidized housing.
It was the very rule change that Emily, director of the Health Justice Project, a medical-legal partnership at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, called for in her March 5 New York Times op-ed, “Blame HUD for America’s Lead Epidemic”. And with a compelling story of real human impact in-hand, Emily was able to follow up that op-ed with a strong CBS Evening News segment that put a human face on the problem.
The agency’s policy has long been out of step with the recommendations of experts, including the Centers for Disease Control. While the CDC recommends intervening in cases where children had blood lead levels of 5 micrograms per deciliter or higher, HUD rules only recommend intervention at levels of 20 micrograms per deciliter or higher. In her op-ed, Emily called HUD’s existing regulations “the most egregious contributors to the epidemic of lead poisoning in public and low-income housing.”
Officials at HUD took note. On August 31, HUD published for comment the rule change that will bring its regulations in line with the CDC standard. While there is no such thing as an “acceptable” level of lead in a young child’s blood, this is an important and necessary step. And it gives advocates another mechanism for social change, as civil legal aid attorneys across the country prepare to comment on the necessary steps HUD must still take to protect children from lead poisoning. (Email Emily if you want to join the effort.)
This victory is a powerful reminder of the importance of media. For Emily and her advocacy partners, the op-ed and broadcast segment were two more tools they could use to advocate for their clients. In her op-ed, Emily not only shone a spotlight on the outdated policy that put children at risk, she also put forth a specific and realistic solution. That made her message hard to ignore (and it probably didn’t hurt that Times editors chose such an attention-grabbing headline for the piece).
By using the media to amplify their voices, Emily and her partners were able to effect a policy change that will better the lives of their clients. Voices is here to help Emily and other civil legal aid advocates do exactly that. We want to help you use the power of the media to raise awareness about injustice, push for progress and highlight the role of civil legal aid in making justice more accessible for all.
Do you have a story you want our help telling? Do you want to draw attention to a miscarriage of justice or to an innovative solution or policy change? Reach out to us; we are waiting to hear from you.
Organizations mentioned/involved: Health Justice Project
Geographic coverage: Illinois, NATIONAL
Tags: Children & Juvenile, Housing, Housing: Public, Lead Poisoning, Medical-Legal Partnerships
When a very determined woman, with help from a legal aid attorney and a social worker, finally proves that she is owed $100,000 in back Social Security payments, the story "went viral." What can we learn from this exception to one of the standard rules of attracting media coverage?
Old sayings exist for a reason. Last week, the adage “there’s an exception to every rule” proved true.
We are often asked whether a story of one person helped by civil legal aid is newsworthy for a national media outlet. As a rule, the answer is no. Most of the time individual success stories do not intrigue national reporters.
Yet, last week one of the most shared stories in the country was about Wanda Witter, an 80-year-old homeless woman who – with perseverance and the help of Legal Counsel for the Elderly – recovered $100,000 from the Social Security Administration.
Why did this individual story get covered?
One reason is, media outlets need stories that drive online traffic. Stories that “go viral” tend to be sensational, spurring outrage or inspiration. And they are easy to understand. That’s why even the most respected news outlets use headlines like:
- A C-SPAN caller asked a black guest how to stop being prejudiced. Here’s how she responded
- Why I refuse to send people to jail for failure to pay fines
- Restaurant gives ex-offenders a recipe for success
Another way Ms. Witter’s story differs from a “regular” news item: it was first reported by a columnist. Every major newspaper in America has at least one columnist who looks for inspiring stories that will resonate in their community. Ms. Witter’s story fits one of the most established Western story-structures: the fairy tale. Our hero has a clear goal. She faces multiple barriers. For years she demands her rights even though nobody believes her. A defined villain stands in her way. In the end (with the help of civil legal aid), fairness and justice prevail.
Will your standard beat reporter write a piece like this? No. That’s why it is critical to remember the most important rule of pitching: know to whom you’re pitching.
The type of story you have must match with a reporter or columnist who regularly writes about that issue. Research what they cover. Understand what interests them. Because a reporter’s responsibility is to the outlet’s readers, think about what those readers might find interesting, new or different. And, be prepared to explain why now is the time to write about it.
Put another way, when you pitch anybody in the media, always try to put yourself in their shoes. Match what you can offer with what they need. That is one rule to which there is no exception.
Organizations mentioned/involved: Legal Counsel for the Elderly (LCE) (DC)
Geographic coverage: District of Columbia, NATIONAL
Tags: Social Security Benefits
MORE BLOG POSTS
In the first training of its kind, more than 60 people were trained in strategic communications with the goal of increasing awareness of what civil legal aid is, and why it matters.
In most of Voices’ work, we are seeking to interject the importance of civil legal aid into coverage about various social and economic issues. Sometimes, however, we have an opportunity to go directly at our main issue - the crisis in the civil justice system. That is exactly what happened with the recent release of the Justice Index 2016 by the National Center for Access to Justice.
On April 24th the U.S. Department of Justice kicked off the first-ever National Reentry Week. Voices saw an opportunity to add to this important effort by highlighting the intersections between the criminal and civil justice systems and drawing media attention to the crucial role of civil legal aid in reentry. We asked JusticeVoices Network members to seize this media opportunity by writing op-eds and pitching stories to local media about the innovative reentry work they are doing in their communities.
There is a "crisis in our justice system that has been overlooked for too long by philanthropy and the rest of society," says Public Welfare Foundation President Mary McClymont.
First-ever National Reentry Week, April 24-30, creates an opening in local media markets to draw attention to the important role of civil legal aid in helping people successfully build stable lives after paying their debts to society.
Civil legal aid advocates use legal expertise to fight for fairness when civil legal issues threaten families' and individuals' homes, health and livelihoods. In March the media spotlight shone on several examples where access to justice is critical.
Indiana native Camille Ward, who has written about social justice issues both in the U.S. and abroad, is Voices' newest communications associate.
Think creatively: The Super Bowl is one of many news hooks that present opportunities to use your work to communicate what civil legal aid is, and why it matters. If you have ideas for op-eds you would like to write, we are happy to talk you through it and help with structure, edits, and placement.
Voices exists to help you. We believe our key task is to bring attention to your work and to empower you to become better spokespeople for civil justice. We hope you will continue to help us do so in 2016.
We are pleased to announce that Voices will add a fourth staff member in early 2016. Please help us spread the word.