Readers’ Take: how much does negative media coverage affect social workers?

Amid the renewed focus on the public portrayal of practitioners, we take a look at how social workers are affected by the negative press.

Photo by Community Care

Earlier this month, the tragic death of 10-month-old Finley Boden headlined the news as his parents were convicted of murdering him, 39 days after he was returned to their care.

And, as with many previous deaths of children at the hands of parents or carers, the media attention focused on social workers’ roles.

The Daily Mail wrote an article titled ‘Why did they walk away?’ about the social workers trying unsuccessfully to visit Finley two days before his death.

Similarly, the BBC initially had headlined its story about the case ‘Parents murdered baby returned by social services’.

In reality, Finley had been returned in accordance with a court order involving an eight-week transition from care, despite social workers’ recommendation that the move take six months. The BBC subsequently changed its headline to ‘Parents murdered baby placed back in their care’.

The story came amid renewed focus on the public portrayal of practitioners following critical comments from prime minister Rishi Sunak’s and Tory MP Flick Drummond and an article on the infamous Peter Connelly (Baby P) case.

Writing for the Guardian, former Haringey director of children’s services Sharon Shoesmith recalled the vitriol she and social workers received at the time.

According to Shoesmith, the public denunciation of practitioners was one of the reasons the profession had become “driven by a fear of failure – ultimately a fear of being vilified in the media and publicly humiliated”.

What do social workers think?

To assess the extent of the damage negative media coverage is doing to social workers, we turned to them for answers.

The results of a Community Care poll on the subject, which amassed 1047 votes, were conclusive: around 77% of respondents were ‘severely’ or ‘moderately’ affected by negative media coverage.

Only 14.5% said they were affected ‘a little’, while just 8% said the negativity had become ‘white noise’.

Negative stories eight times as likely as positive


photo by iQoncept/ AdobeStock

The scale of adverse coverage of the profession was highlighted by an analysis commissioned by Frontline that was published last year. This found that, in the year to July 2022, stories about practitioners were eight times as likely to be negative as positive.

To address this, the Social Workers Union (SWU) and the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) have been taking steps to improve media coverage.

Late last year, SWU, working with the Independent Monitor for the Press (IMPRESS), drew up reporting guidelines on the coverage of social work.

The union has also recently urged practitioners to report to it any negative or misrepresentative stories on the profession they find. These will be used in discussions with the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which regulates all major publications, around potentially adopting the IMPRESS guidelines or similar.

You can submit links to, or images of, concerning media coverage about social work to the SWU at

Meanwhile, BASW is celebrating high-quality coverage of the profession, in the hope of enhancing it, by launching the BASW Social Work Journalism Awards, entries for which closed today, with the winners announced in June.

 How does the negative media coverage of social work affect you as a practitioner? Tell us in the comments below!

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3 Responses to Readers’ Take: how much does negative media coverage affect social workers?

  1. Jam May 1, 2023 at 2:07 pm #

    I’m a social work student and I recently noticed more social workers appearing on reality tv programmes such as the winner of winter Love Island (Sanam) and a few other game shows on itv. I was really pleased because representation matters and it humanises us to the public. Social workers have been demonised relentlessly.

  2. Chris Sterry May 3, 2023 at 5:26 pm #

    Social work has never been easy and it continues to get worse for many reasons, one of course is funding, as it is funded through Local Authorities, (LAs) the employers of social workers, but LAs are to some degree funded by government who are not prepared to fund LAs sufficiently to invest in social care with the necessary amounts it really requires.

    This and previous Tory governments have done this by introducing austerity cuts to LAs since 2010 and thereby severely reduce the amounts of finance LAs have, not just for social care, but all other essential services, and yes. social care is indeed an essential service. But, it is not recognised as so by government, who at times go out of their way to deride it by many means. This the media pounce on and do many of the UK population, so social care and within it social workers are not thought highly of, when they all should be.

    Pay rates for many in the UK are well below what they should be and this is so much so in social care. Social workers are poorly paid, but that not as much that care workers are. By these poor rates of pay the state of care workers in the caring profession are well short of the required numbers and therefore there is a great reluctance of people entering the profession, so the amounts of social care available are well short of what is really required.

    To a great extent the same is similar with social workers and most if not all social worker areas are also well short of the numbers required and this increases the pressures and workloads on the social workers available. In some instances LAs bring in agency social workers at higher rates of pay and so, not only deplete the funding available overall, these agency social workers are usually unaware of how each area works and maybe don’t fully understand the people in the cases they are given to work with. As they could well be on short-term contracts, they may then leave before the case is sorted and if it reoccurs may not be there to deal with it again. This all increases the pressures all social worker have to work under, in a profession that is already full of pressures.

    Yes, mistakes are made and in these instances lives are involved so many of these mistakes causes lives to be lost. Now no one wants to make mistakes and certainly not be some cause of loss of lives, but pressures do cost lives. But, the ‘buck’ stops with social workers and the social work area and in many respects it should do, but blame should also be cast to governments for their inability to fund social care is one of the main reasons for many of these problems, but do Governments and Ministers get the blame, no not even slightly.

    I am not discounting the mistakes made and the consequences caused, but blame should be shared with all parties involved and the government is a party to all this.

    Unfortunately all of this with LAs and social workers leads to a great distrust with persons in need of care and their families and in some instances families will not disclose all relevant facts, even when there is no criminal activity.

    I have been involved with a LA for over 39 years as a family carer and know all was far from right before 2010, but the austerity cuts made all the situations so much greater.

    Unfortunately social care has always been the emergency service which is never recognised, when it should always have been.

    To right these wrongs, certainly funding, we need a listening government which there has never been, but whatever listening there was, which was never much, has been so more lacking over the Tory years, but Labour were not strong on that either and with any new government, I, unfortunately don’t see any changes for the better occurring and maybe even worse to come.

  3. keithbc6472 May 10, 2023 at 1:12 pm #

    poor media portrayal is awful and it’s always ‘ social workers took child away’ when we know (well us working with reality) know it is a judge who makes this decision sometimes, AGAINST recommendations from social workers! And it is always social workers/social care/ social services who are blames in the event of a death. ALL society have a duty to protect children and vulnerable people. Social workers attract these negative comments as we are an easy target, do not speak up for ourselves and so this continues.

    What does NOT happen is to have praise when things go well and we save childrens’ lives and this is not deemed newsworthy. And don’t get me started on the poor portrayal of social workers as per soaps!