By Maria Leedham
‘Hostile media coverage’
Social workers as ‘cultural scapegoats’ or ‘child snatchers’.
These are just some of the claims made about how social workers are portrayed in the media. But is the media really so negative about social workers? And what does this negativity look like?
Four times as many negative stories as positive ones
I set out to research the language surrounding the profession of social work in the media by carrying out two studies. In the first study, I looked at over 700 UK national newspaper articles which mentioned ‘social worker’, published in a 3-month period in the middle of 2019. I then read and classified each one as a ‘neutral’, ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ portrayal of the social worker.
The first finding was that – as other studies have found – child protection dominates in newspaper articles with adult care hardly getting a look in. And it’s probably no surprise that there were four times as many negative hits as positive ones (25% negative to 6% positive). Let’s look at some of the negative examples:
Both men had histories of domestic violence, crime and drug use, yet social workers dismissed concerns and did not intervene. [The Daily Telegraph, 07/06/19]
COUNTY LINES THUGS LURE 25 FROM UNDER NOSES OF TEACHERS AND SOCIAL WORKERS [The Daily Mail, 15/05/19]
In these and many other examples, the social worker is blamed for a perceived failure to anticipate a child protection issue. Not noticing or acting seems to be claimed far more than the over-zealous removal of children or simply being an unwanted presence:
They are asking local council social workers to think harder before bringing cases about taking children into care to court. [Mail Online, 04/07/19]
a social worker turned up at Amber’s house to watch her for hours each day. [Mail Online, 20/06/19]
The bar chart below starkly shows how press articles are more about what social workers didn’t do or notice (43%) than about them acting too quickly (16%).
An important caveat here is that the information in the public domain is skewed in that child deaths are widely known about and reported on, whereas the removal of children is not public information as the press are excluded from family courts (I am grateful to social worker Vicki Ayris for this point).
Sometimes being a social worker didn’t seem to be relevant to the story at all (18% of instances):
And now, the social worker shares her bed with two men and a woman, with Amelia’s children even calling her girlfriend their ‘other mother’. [Daily Mail, 14/06/19]
Of course, there’s a bias in the news towards reporting negative stories rather than positive ones. Social workers are in the news when there’s a problem, and where a case goes wrong there’s a culture of looking for an individual person or an individual agency to hold accountable. But is the entertainment media any different?
Plot device in TV dramas
The second study focused on how social workers are portrayed in TV dramas and compared this with portrayals of other professions such as nurses, teachers, police officers and therapists. I looked at IMDb plot summaries from the 1950s to the 2010s and found that social work characters rarely feature.
When they do, it’s usually as a plot device for a single episode. Once the storyline is resolved, the character disappears.
When they do appear, social workers are described as either judgmental bureaucrats or child snatchers. And they’re almost always working in child protection.
With two visits a month, supervised by a social worker who sees you as the enemy? [How to Get Away with murder, 2016]
And there’s a social worker downstairs waiting to take Ethan away. [Grey’s Anatomy, 2013]
When I compared social workers with other female-dominated professions, such as nannying or nursing, I found that these characters were often referred to in terms of how they looked or whether they were sexually available:
If she was my social worker, I’d be calling her three times a night too. [Law and Order, 2010]
Or was it about him seducing the nanny? [Reign, 2015]
It seems that for TV scriptwriters these characters are viewed as female first and professional second.
A way forward
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Recently some good initiatives have emerged to encourage a broader range of news interest in the profession.
The BASW Social Work Journalism Awards were launched in 2023 and complement the Social Workers Union guidelines on media reporting in social work. The awards are a yearly event with prizewinners announced at the BASW conference.
There’s also the Transparency Project which aims to make family court reporting clearer.
What we really need now is a soap opera with a social worker as a main character to move TV dramas on from the child catcher-as-plot-device trope!
Dr Maria Leedham is senior lecturer in applied linguistics and English language at the Open University, and a forthcoming guest on a Community Care podcast episode about negative media coverage.
More from Choose Social Work
- ‘We never hear about the children social workers help’: a day in the life of a social work team
- ‘It was wonderful to have somebody show me they really cared’
- When social work becomes a family affair
- ‘The advice that has stayed with me through my social work career’
- ‘You can literally change a young person’s life’: an 18-year-old’s message for social workers
- ‘What I wish I’d known before becoming a social worker’