National press coverage of social work is mostly negative and about crisis situations, and focuses almost entirely on children’s services, a Community Care study has found.
Our exclusive research shows that despite the critical tone of many reports, almost four in 10 failed to give a right of reply to all parties, breaching editorial guidelines.
The findings, released as part of Community Care’s Stand Up Now for Social Work campaign, revealed that of 345 articles published in 13 national newspapers during the first quarter of 2009:
• 54% were negative, 38% objective and just 8% positive.
• 61% were about a crisis or serious cases.
• 39% failed to give all parties a right of reply.
• 88% focused on children’s services and 12% on adults.
The most commonly used description of social work was “failed” or “failure”.
Experts responded by warning of the impact on morale and recruitment, particularly in children’s services.
No positive stories
The Daily Mail and The Sun carried the most articles on social work, averaging almost one a day, and most were negative – 71.8% for the Daily Mail and 61.4% for The Sun. The Daily Mail carried no positive stories, while just 4 out of The Sun’s 70 pieces were positive.
The highest proportion of negative stories came in The Mail on Sunday (82%), while several tabloids failed to give all parties a fair opportunity to reply to allegations, in defiance of the Press Complaints Commission code of practice.
By contrast, The Times had no negative stories out of a total of eight and gave a right to reply to all sides in 80% of these.
The Guardian carried the highest number of positive articles, with eight out of a total of 35. It also provided the greatest coverage of adult services, with 31% of stories devoted to this area.
The findings prompted an uncompromising response from Hilton Dawson, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, who attacked the “animosity” and “lazy” journalism in some sections from the press.
A spokesperson for Unison, which represents 40,000 social workers in the UK, criticised the tabloids for “whipping up public indignation” through simplistic reporting of complex issues.
The spokesperson added: “It’s all about ‘interfering’ social workers who either take the child away or leave it to its fate. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. But this sort of reporting has a hugely damaging impact on morale and recruitment.”
Lack of understanding
Academics agreed that irresponsible reporting was a by-product of journalists’ lack of understanding of the profession.
Hilary Tompsett, chair of the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee, which represents university social work departments across the UK, said there was already evidence of low morale, given the shortage of social workers in areas such as London and Birmingham.
Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University, added that although other professional groups such as teachers suffered from sensationalist reporting, The Sun’s “hate campaign” against social workers had left children at risk.
But he and Tompsett said the findings should act as a wake-up call to social workers to engage more with the media – a key objective of Stand Up Now for Social Work.
Tompsett added: “We need to start telling good stories jointly with service users and carers, supported by Community Care.”
A louder voice
Sue White, professor of social work at Lancaster University and a member of the Social Work Task Force, said: “If we want the press to be better informed, we will need to find a stronger and louder national voice for the profession.”
Jones added that the sector needed to recognise the importance of being ready to provide a social work view within tight publishing and broadcasting deadlines.
Commenting on the adult sector’s under-representation, Liz McSheehy, director of the National Skills Academy for Social Care, said there was clearly “a lack of awareness of the good work that is happening in adult social care”.
Lynne Clifford, chair of the Association of Social Care Communicators, urged the mainstream media to cover more success stories in order to “broaden public understanding of the social work arena”.
Support Stand Up Now for Social Work by signing our e-petition
Join the debate on our CareSpace discussion forum