By Shahid Naqvi
Social workers have long expressed frustration and disappointment at the way their profession is perceived by the public. And much of the public’s perception is based on how social work is portrayed in the media.
All the way back from the tragic death of Maria Colwell in 1973 to Victoria Climbie in 2000, Peter Connelly in 2007 and, more recently, Star Hobson and Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, social workers have been vilified in the press for perceived failings to keep children safe.
Take the Daily Mail’s coverage of the child practice review into the awful murder of Elsie Scully-Hicks in 2016, with its sensationalist ‘Social workers are slammed’ headline and focus on the fact that no one in the relevant council had been disciplined.
Or examine this from The Sun, decrying how social workers “missed abuse” in the sad death of five-year-old Logan Mwangi because they were “fixated” on his mum’s “three-way relationship” with one of her fellow killers and his former partner.
Social work isn’t, of course, beyond criticism, but such knee-jerk vilification of very complex and nuanced cases does the public no favours.
The danger is that it breeds suspicion and mistrust in the public, which can in turn prevent someone seeking the support of social work when they most need it.
Negative stories eight times as frequent as positive
An analysis commissioned by Frontline found that, in the year to July 2022, stories about social workers were eight times as likely to be negative as positive. A parallel survey of 2,000 young adults found that, for 45%, their only understanding of the profession came from the media, with 34% of men polled saying they wouldn’t be willing to speak to a social worker even if they needed help.
Another danger is the impact it has on social workers themselves and on practice.
As Sharon Shoesmith, the director of children’s services at Haringey council at the time of the Peter Connelly case, writes today in the Guardian, it results in a “fear of being vilified in the media and publicly humiliated”, driving risk-averse social work.
The Frontline survey referred to above did not include people who had had previous experience of social work.
The vast majority of people who have had a social worker in their lives will have very positive stories to tell of being enabled and empowered. And social work is about so much more than just child protection. Yet this rarely gets reported upon.
Good journalism on social work
But it is not all bad – we know there are examples of journalists who take the time and effort to understand the complexity of social work and portray it fairly.
For example, this recent piece in The Guardian, based on an interview with a social worker, gives valuable context on the pressures driving record numbers to quit their jobs, as the paper reported in an accompanying news story.
And trade press, like Community Care, provide a much more thoughtful and informed account of social work.
Such good journalism should be recognised and celebrated, both for its own sake and to encourage other journalists to take the same approach.
Why BASW has launched journalism awards
This is why the BASW Social Work Journalism Awards were launched earlier this year, the first award scheme of its kind in the UK.
Social work isn’t an easy sector to report on – as someone who has spent the last ten years writing about it, I can vouch for that.
In a way, it is as complex as its subject matter – human beings living in society. And yet this is also what makes it so fascinating and important.
Far from being seen negatively, social workers should be praised as the most human and humane of professionals. It’s a role that attracts people of compassion, driven by a calling to make society – and the world – a better place. They choose to walk alongside people who are often in the most extreme hardship and distress of their lives, because they want to help them.
Bad news sells, we all know that. But even then, it should be fair, accurate and balanced, while being informed by an understanding of the complexity of the social work role. This is why the Social Workers Union has created new guidelines on media reporting of social workers.
Call for entries
For those journalists who take the time and effort to really understand social work there are rewards to be had.
The British Association of Social Workers, in turn, wants to reward them. So, if you are a social worker who has seen examples of good journalism about social work over the last year, please send your nominations to email@example.com before 28 April. And if you are a journalist who has written or broadcasted about social work, please enter your work.
You can find out more about the awards here.
Shahid Naqvi is editor of Professional Social Work magazine and chair of judges for the BASW Social Work Journalism Awards