Journalists used negative words to describe social work roughly five times as often as positive or sympathetic words, impressionistic data from Community Care’s media monitoring exercise suggests. Researchers highlighted 90 negative words used 172 times, compared with 24 positive or sympathetic words used 34 times.
An analysis of these words provides useful context and detail to the statistical data presented above about the number, content and quality of stories.
The negative words in particular offer an insight into the motivations and agendas of the journalists involved.
The negative labels divide into five types.
• The first describe performance or outcomes, and as such it is the only group of words that are not highly subjective. Unsurprisingly, given that most stories focus on serious cases involving children, this category includes words such as “failed”, “wrong”, and “errors”. In fact, “failed” was by far the most commonly used label overall.
• The next group of words and phrases describes the social work system – words like bureaucratic, chaos, poor leadership and management, and box-ticking. Although partly pejorative, some of the words on this list do reflect factual situations.
• The next group describes social workers’ conduct, ability or demeanour. Almost all of these labels were highly speculative. They tended to be based on the views of a single source with a clear agenda, such as a disgruntled relative, and without access to the facts of the case.
Words varied from “inept” and “arrogant” to serious personal allegations, such as “bullying”, and “blackmailing”. Social workers will no doubt be alarmed that the second most used word was “bully” or “bullying”.
Some of the words in this category speculate on the motivations of social workers, in particular “don’t care about kids” and “more interested in policy and jargon”. Others imply that social workers pursued an active or deliberate course of action, such as: “ignored the signs”, “cover-up” and “waged a two-year campaign”. Yet more seek to blame social workers – from “betrayed” to “putting children at risk” and even “responsible for the death”.
These descriptions are very damaging, particularly in combination and they demonstrate hostility from sections of the media.
• This may be linked to next category of labels: words that seek to politicise social work. Several articles labelled social workers or their actions “politically correct”, or accused them of “social engineering”. One even labelled them “Stasi-like”. This is a clear attempt to position social work – a politically neutral public service – on the political spectrum.
• But the most offensive words fall into the final category: plain and simple insults. At one end of the scale are the unimaginative playground taunts, such as “numbskull” and “fathead”. But worryingly, this escalates to offensive language such as “SS storm troopers”, “Nazi”, and even “tinpot Hitler”. The only saving grace is that the extremely offensive words emanated from one or two columnists – writers who are known for extreme views and whose views readers hopefully treat accordingly.
Among the scores of negative words were some encouraging descriptions. However, the vast majority were sympathetic rather than actively positive.
Only four of these 24 highlighted words reflected success or positivity: “commitment”, “good intentions”, “great job”, and “saved thousands of children”. A couple of articles mentioned “unsung heroes” – but only in connection with Ed Balls, who used the phrase to emphasise his support for the profession.
The remaining labels – words such as “overloaded”, “demoralised” and “unrewarded” – focus on the hurdles rather than the successes.
The presence of any of these words – positive or negative – is telling, given that more than three-quarters of the articles were news stories, which, according to the traditional rules, should be objective.Yet the words, were used liberally in all types of coverage, from news to opinion pieces, in both the tabloid press and some broadsheets. This is a useful illustration of a trend towards editorialised news – something social workers must bear in mind when talking to journalists.
The overwhelming lesson to come both from the research is that social workers are rarely getting their side of the story across. They are not offered a right of reply in a significant proportion of stories. Even when they are, their views, experiences and reasoning does not make the page. One way or another, this must change, if the situation is to improve for the profession. And social workers themselves must be part of the solution by talking more about their successes.