Code of Conduct, Ethics, Open Access, Politics, Social Media, Social Work and Media, Social Work in Media

TCSW – Media ethics: experiences from the social work profession – #SWSCmedia Debate @SWSCmedia


Below is the summary of The College of Social Work’s research on Media Ethics. Provided as pre-debate reading resource courtesy of The College of Social Work.

The College of Social Work
The College of Social Work was launched following recommendations from The Social Work Task Force for the establishment of an independent college to articulate and promote the interests of good social work.

The College is a strong and independent organisation which will promote and champion the positive aspects of social work, and will work hard to alter the negative perceptions that surround the profession.  Its mission is to:

  • Develop a strong profession, confident about the unique contributions it makes to the individuals, families and communities it serves, with a clear sense of its values, ethics and purpose.
  • Be a powerful voice for the social work profession, when communicating with the public, policy makers, employers and the media.
  • Improve public understanding of, and support for social work, by developing a positive and transparent relationship with the media and representing the profession in public debates.
  • Influence the development of national policies that impact on social work, social workers, carers and the people who use social work services, acting as an advocate for the profession.
  • Build relationships and develop policies with other professional bodies regarding issues of common interest (e.g. occupational therapists, nurses, probation officers).
  • Build relationships and develop policies with the academic community, including researchers, lecturers and teachers.
  • Build relationships with user and carer led organisations, so that we involve service users and carers in everything that we do.
  • Represent the social work profession in discussions with policy makers in government, the public, the media and other professions.
  • Establish links with similar organisations overseas, learning from and sharing good practice in supporting social work.

Further information about the College is available at: www.collegeofsocialwork.org

The Centre for Health Communication Research and Excellence

This report has been prepared for the College of Social Work by the Centre for Health Communication Research and Excellence (CHCR) at Bucks New University.  CHCR is a new research centre that focuses on the communication challenges and issues within health and social care.  It operates within the Institute of Applied Leadership based at Bucks New University’s High Wycombe Campus.  The Director of the centre and lead researcher for this project is Professor John Underwood.

1. Executive summary

The Munro Review highlighted how the ‘sustained nature of the negative media images of social work that have been commonplace’[1].  The review cites studies showing that the 15 most common messages in press reports from 1997-1998 were negative with regard to social work and included: ‘incompetent’, ‘negligent’, ‘failed’, ‘ineffective’, ‘misguided’ and ‘bungling’.[2]

The Centre for Health Communications Research and Excellence has undertaken a research project for the College of Social Work involving a questionnaire completed by approximately 740 social workers plus a number of in-depth telephone interviews and email dialogues.

Key results included:

  • 20 per cent of respondents believe that in general media coverage of social work is “completely unfair and inaccurate” and a further 71 per cent believe that in general media coverage is “pretty unfair and inaccurate”.
  • In total 91 per cent of respondents felt that media coverage of social work is generally unfair and inaccurate and only one person (out of approximately 740) thought that in general media coverage of social work was “completely fair and accurate”.
  • But when considering the media coverage of social work cases they had been personally involved in, the percentage of social workers who felt the coverage was unfair, unbalanced or inaccurate fell from over 90% to approximately 50%.
  • Around 1 in 7 questionaire respondents claimed to have experienced unethical journalistic practice and almost 1 in 5 claimed to know of other social workers who had such an experience.
  • Examples of poor journalistic practice experienced by social workers ranged from minor complaints to serious concerns including the use of illicit means to obtain client information, bullying and manipulation of staff and clients, poor fact checking, the failure to offer a right of reply and poor understanding or knowledge of the complexities of social work.
  • Common themes that were raised by social workers included:
  • Media intrusion can have a negative impact on service users
  • Negative coverage of social work can cause concern and anxiety both to professionals and service users
  • The poor status of the profession as reflected in negative reporting can have a direct impact on the morale of social workers and can lead to talented people leaving the profession
  • An inability – on the part of some local authority media teams – to protect and promote the social work profession can lead to a lack of confidence among social workers when dealing with the media.

[1] The Munro Review of Child Protection: Final report, Professor Eileen Munro, May 2011

[2] The Munro Review of Child Protection: Final report, Professor Eileen Munro, May 2011

2. Background

Media coverage of social care has a direct impact on social work professionals and the millions of people who depend on their support.  The Social Work Taskforce, which reported to government in November 2009, and the Munro Review of Child Protection (May 2011) both concluded that the poor image of social work is a key factor in the profession’s failure to thrive.

Social workers told the Social Work Task Force of their profound concerns about the way their profession is reported in the media and in its final report the Task Force chair, Moira Gibb CBE, says:  ‘There needs to be collaboration on addressing the poor image of the social work profession, which as it stands now is preventing good people from seeking to join the profession and speeding the departure of others.’[1]

The Munro Review also highlights how the ‘sustained nature of the negative media images of social work that have been commonplace’[2] impacts on recruitment and retention and, worryingly, how the resulting lack of confidence in social workers can put pressure on vital services ‘making it more difficult to react quickly to the most serious of cases’[3].

The review cites studies showing that:

  • Media representations of social work and social workers have taken a ‘hostile’ position since the 1970s
  • The 15 most common messages in press reports from 1997-1998 were negative with regard to social work and included: ‘incompetent’, ‘negligent’, ‘failed’, ‘ineffective’, ‘misguided’ and ‘bungling’.[4]

Clearly, the profession itself must do more to promote positive examples of social care to balance the negative coverage and, of course, some negative coverage of social work may be a fair reflection of poor practice.  But it is important to understand better what role, if any, the culture, practices and ethics of the press have played in shaping the negative public perception of social work.

To investigate this, the College of Social Work has been working with the Centre for Health Communication Research and Excellence at Bucks New University to explore social workers’ views on media coverage of their profession and their experiences of working on cases which attracted media attention.

The findings of this research are outlined in this report.  They provide insight into how media scrutiny affects the day-to-day activities of social work teams and some of the implications for service users themselves.

[1] Building a safe, confident future, The final report of the Social Work Task Force: November 2009, pp. 6

[2] The Munro Review of Child Protection: Final report, Professor Eileen Munro, May 2011, pp. 122

[3] The Munro Review of Child Protection: Final report, Professor Eileen Munro, May 2011, pp. 124

[4] The Munro Review of Child Protection: Final report, Professor Eileen Munro, May 2011, pp. 122

3. Research methodology

In September 2011, the College of Social Work emailed its database of over 7,000 prospective members, inviting them to take part in an online survey exploring the issue of questionable media ethics.  A press release issued to the media and posted on the college’s website opened the invitation to the profession at large.

The survey of social workers used open text responses and invited respondents to reflect on their own experiences of social care cases that attracted media attention, specifically with regard to perceived lack of balance, unfairness, inaccuracy and unethical behaviour.

The survey closed in October 2011 by which time over 740 submissions had been received, a response rate of over 10 per cent.  This research data was subjected to a statistical and thematic analysis during the period November 2011 to January 2012.  (Please note that not all respondents answered every question.)

Analysis of open text answers identified some key themes which the research team explored in more detail by contacting a selection of respondents who had provided their email addresses and phone numbers and had indicated their willingness to be contacted.  Detail from these discussions is used throughout this report to illustrate research findings.

To encourage open and frank discussions the research team offered anonymity to all respondents unless they specifically requested that their names be used.

The full questionnaire upon which this research report is based, along with the numerical responses, is included as an appendix.

4. Quantitative analysis

This section details the main numerical findings emerging from the research questionnaire.

4.1  General views of media coverage of social work

91 per cent of respondents felt that media coverage of social work is generally unfair and inaccurate and just one person (out of more than 700 respondents) thought that in general media coverage of social work was completely fair and accurate.

4.4  Respondents’ experiences of police supplying negative briefings to the media

It is sometimes claimed by social workers that police officers leak information and supply negative news stories about social services to journalists.  6 per cent (43) of respondents claimed to have personal experience or suspicions of this and 7 per cent (49) said they knew of other cases or other social work colleagues who had been or may have been the subject of negative police briefings.

4.5  Numerical analysis of experiences of unethical media practices

Before we move on to the qualitative analysis of questionnaire responses (section 5 below) it is useful to consider the number of respondents who claim to have experienced different types of unethical media practice.

While the number of respondents personally experiencing unethical behaviour (101) is less than 1 in 7 of all respondents it is a relatively high number when compared with the total number of respondents who had experience of social work cases that attracted media attention (307).

5. Thematic analysis

This section includes an analysis of qualitative inputs provided by questionnaire respondents in open text responses in the electronic survey and comments made to our researchers during interviews and email dialogues.

Thematic responses are split into two sections – the first dealing with the examples of poor journalistic practice that were shared with our research teams, and the second with the comments on the effects that journalists’ actions have on social workers and their clients.

5.1  Examples of poor journalistic practice

Over 100 of the survey respondents claimed to have personal experience of journalistic unethical behaviour and 139 claimed to know of other social workers who had experienced it.

Feedback on journalistic practice ranged from minor complaints to serious concerns.  Broadly, these can be categorised under four key themes:

Category 1: Improper conduct – unethical journalistic standards, using illicit means of obtaining information, bullying and manipulation.

Category 2: Imbalanced reporting and prejudice – including apparently malicious attempts to lay blame or scapegoat social workers, prejudice against service users.

Category 3: Poor journalistic practice – including inaccuracy, poor fact checking, failure to offer the right of reply.

Category 4: Ignorance – including poor understanding and knowledge of the complexities of social work, failure to include information which explains the context or complexities of social work cases, failure to understand that social workers cannot provide sensitive or confidential information.

5.1.1 Category 1 responses:  Improper conduct

Many respondents provided information about examples of behaviour by journalists which they felt was improper or unethical.

Comments relating to children and young people

  • Two social workers shared examples of payments being made by journalists to young people receiving social care.  One social worker commented: ‘Journalists required to speak to a young person directly – told that it was not appropriate due to safeguarding issues for that young person – approached young person directly and published story in exchange for cash’.
  • Two respondents told us about a young person being approached by a journalist despite being asked not to by social workers, another complained that an interview with a vulnerable young person had taken place without advocacy support being offered.
  • Many respondents expressed concern about media exposure of vulnerable people – one referred to some broadcast coverage revealing the name of a young person ‘with no respect or regard to the surviving children and family, nor other young people closely involved’, and another respondent referred to the use of photographs of children obtained via Facebook.

Comments relating to payments for information offered to vulnerable adults

Some respondents shared information with us about vulnerable adults in their care who had been offered money in exchange for information.  For example:

  • One social worker told us about a case involving an adult woman with a personality disorder who had been subjected to sexual abuse.  The woman contacted the media in desperation and was offered money to provide names and more details about her case.  The result of the media coverage was extremely distressing for the woman concerned and has jeopardised her position in relation to maintaining custody of her children.
  • Another respondent mentioned a vulnerable individual who was the victim of an arson attack being offered money to sell their story.
  • Another case involved a client who was still in treatment for substance misuse being offered cash to sell a story to a magazine aimed at young people.

Comments relating to dishonest means of obtaining information

A number of respondents gave examples of journalists lying or posing as service users, family members and other public service professionals involved in cases in an attempt to obtain information and gain access to staff.

  • One social worker we spoke to claimed that this media practice was ‘par for the course… all social work teams have to rely on good support staff and office protocols to ensure that sensitive information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands’.
  • Two social workers responding to this survey said they were subjected to unauthorised taping of discussions with clients.  One reported noticing a hidden tape recorder during a conversation with a client and a person introduced by the client as her best friend:  ‘I asked some more questions and was informed that the second person present was actually a journalist who was doing an article for a national newspaper about the way drug-using parents were treated by children’s social care. My consent had not been sought for a journalist to be present. I felt this was unethical on 2 levels 1, I was being taped without my knowledge or consent and 2, the mother was being given false hopes by the journalist that she should be able to keep her children and that the social workers were tricking her.’

Comments relating to aggressive and threatening behaviour

Many respondents shared examples of what they considered to be aggressive or threatening behaviour or infringements of privacy by journalists.

  • One respondent claimed that a journalist had threatened to expose their identity if they didn’t answer the journalist’s questions.
  • Another commented that they had ‘experienced a local journalist entering an ambulance and demanding the name and address of the patient, who was in shock. They did not declare who they were or why they wanted the information, which was then printed without permission’.
  • Several respondents complained about journalists using overbearing face-to-face or door-stepping tactics on them, their colleagues or their clients including lingering outside contact venues, following staff members home, using the electoral register to obtain addresses, waiting outside their homes and phoning them at home.

5.1.2 Category 2 responses:  Imbalanced reporting and prejudice

Comments on scapegoating of social workers

Many respondents told us they felt the media automatically placed blame with social workers involved in cases that they reported:

  • One respondent viewed this as an almost intractable position:  ‘I think the ritualistic scapegoating of social workers who work with the most complex, damaged and dangerous families in society is so deeply embedded in the journalism ‘psyche’ that it is bound to lead an individual journalist’s thought processes to attach blame in any controversial situation involving a social worker.’
  • A very common issue involved the unfair allocation of blame to social workers rather than other public services.  One respondent said: ‘There was a preconceived media idea that the social worker would be the ‘fall guy’. The case involved professionals from social care, health, youth justice and education, but as ‘allocated social worker’, even if others do not conform to the care plan, social services take the blame.’
  • Similarly, another respondent noted: “Social workers were made scapegoats and the decision regarding the removal of the children was ultimately made by a judge who had heard evidence from other professionals and yet it’s all down to the social worker again!”  Other respondents shared examples of unfair representation of the respective roles and responsibilities of the NHS and police.
  • Many respondents raised concerns that service users’ accounts of events in which they were involved were often reported as fact without the professionals involved in the case being given an opportunity to comment:  ‘The media, with the exception of professional press, only reported from a single perspective, that of the parents [in one particular case] who were opposed to any change. They did not provide a balanced view with any response from the professional perspective nor that of the people who were directly affected.’

Comments on prejudice against service users

Some respondents were concerned about stereotyping of service users by gender, race, immigration status and mental health.  Comments included:

  • ‘I always feel the media coverage is sensationalised and one-sided, such as “Schizophrenic attacks …”. There doesn’t appear to be any understanding just judgement.’
  • ‘The media coverage was hugely sexist.’
  • ‘In my opinion the articles were loaded with value judgements and lacked any factual basis. There was massive misrepresentation and the language used was both offensive and emotive.’
  • ‘Used foul words which are in breach of human dignity and belittled the people described.’

5.1.3 Category 3 responses:  Poor journalistic practice

Comments on poor journalistic practice

Several respondents complained about poor or sloppy journalistic practices, particularly with regard to establishing the facts:

  • One respondent commented: ‘Journalists do not understand the role of social workers and see us within simplistic terms. Inaccurate and lazy reporting is unfortunately the norm.’
  • Other respondents commented that journalistic practice was ‘grossly insufficient’ when it came to establishing and reporting facts and pointed to inaccurate details such as: ‘Wrong name, wrong hospital, wrong grade for staff concerned’.
  • ‘The media coverage included a great deal of guesswork and supposition in regards to outcomes.’
  • ‘Reporting was directed at apportioning blame to individual staff concerned without having a full appreciation of the facts involved.’

Comments on poor balance

We also received numerous comments about the failure of journalists to balance their coverage by offering social workers or social services the right of reply:

  • ‘No attempt was made to check the accuracy of statements made by a client who had complained about the service they received.’
  • ‘Unbalanced views provided without views of the professional involved, social workers do not often get an opportunity to comment.’
  • ‘One side of the story was portrayed. The service user and her husband told the local Commercial TV station one part of the picture but that station didn’t try to balance it out by seeking any comments from our organisation.’

Some respondents expressed disappointment that reports were not covered again after the facts of a case were better established:

  • ‘In both Cases after the initial reporting the local newspapers did not follow through with their investigations.’
  • ‘There was an enquiry which exonerated the social worker, but the press did not follow this up.’

5.1.4 Category 4 responses:  Ignorance and poor understanding of social work

Comments on the lack of knowledge of the complexities of social work

Typical comments about lack of understanding of the social work process included:

  • ‘Assumptions were made about the ability of social workers to predict behaviour, and about the nature of risk assessment. There were assumptions made about the nature of intervention and likely outcomes.’
  • ‘The issue was taken out of context and this meant that the report pathologised the issue. This was detrimental to the outcome which we were trying to achieve.’
  • ‘Media had run with one aspect of the case which they deemed to be negative however failed to recognise that ultimately the children had been protected and the work and involvement this takes by professionals.’

Comments on failure to understand that social workers cannot provide sensitive or confidential information

  • ‘While we have an obligation to keep confidentiality the service user can say whatever they like so reportage tends to be unbalanced.’
  • ‘As I had confidential knowledge of the case I was able to identify inaccuracies relating to the potential outcomes for the mother, who was facing trial due to issues presented in the case and harm caused to a child.’

5.2  The impact of poor journalistic practice on social workers and service users

Social workers made full use of the open text responses in the questionnaire and open dialogue opportunities in our telephone interviews to volunteer their own thoughts, ideas and concerns about the issues surrounding media reporting of social work.

Common themes that were raised included:

  • A sense that excessive media scrutiny could make day-to-day work difficult.
  • The idea that media intrusion and negative coverage of social work caused unnecessary concern and worry for social workers, their clients and colleagues.
  • The poor status of the profession impacting on morale and staff retention.
  • Poor individual support or defense of the profession from local authority press offices.
  • The role of the wider media beyond journalism (i.e. the representation of social workers in wider fictional settings such as TV soap operas).

5.2.1  A sense that media scrutiny made routine social work difficult

Respondents told us that pressure from the media and concerns (from social workers) that supreme efforts needed to be made to protect confidentiality frequently acted as a distraction from the routine social work case load.

  • One social worker told us about a case in which a young woman with mental health issues was being targeted aggressively by the local media.  Her family were pressured into supplying her social worker’s contact details and ‘because they felt intimidated by the journalist so they provided them’.  The journalist took to loitering in reception areas and trying to get information out of other staff as well as repeatedly ringing the social worker to ask for information.  The social worker explained that this ‘had a negative impact on the whole team and affected the relationship with the client and her parents in terms of the quality of care we could give’.
  • Many respondents shared with us examples of subterfuge that obstructed their day-to-day work and restricted the flow of information within teams, between agencies and with service users’ families.  For example, we were told several times that journalists routinely posed as service users, public services professionals or relatives in attempt to obtain information.  Typical quotes include:
    • ‘Journalists masquerading as relatives, service users, requesting community care assessments in order to gain access to staff.’
    • ‘I had a colleague who a journalist tried to trick into answering questions posing as a family member of a client.’
    • ‘Phone calls to the office pretending to be relatives or other involved professionals in the case.’
  • Many respondents also objected to what they saw as the overbearing face-to-face or door-stepping tactics that had been used on them, their colleagues or their clients e.g:
    • ‘Journalists waiting outside contact venue to try and get a quote.’
    • ‘Journalists following social workers to their homes and phoning them at home.’
    • ‘Journalists using the electoral register to find addresses of social workers.’

5.2.2  Media intrusion and poor coverage of social work causing unnecessary concern and worry for social workers and their clients and colleagues

Media intrusion is also apparently having a negative impact on service users and many social workers we spoke to were concerned that poor coverage of their profession was causing unnecessary concern and worry.

  • One respondent told us: ‘Negativity from media coverage can have an impact all round, on the team, the clients and their families. This can hamper the job, particularly in the case of children protection issues, because the families are more suspicious. In my experience I’ve had clients talking to each other and ‘checking me out’ to see if I was ‘ok’ and they could trust me.’
  • ‘Social workers are used to getting bad press and we get our job satisfaction in different ways.  But it makes me sad because people who need our help become fearful and put off contacting us, and it takes such a long time to build up trust when you start work with a new client.’
  • ‘The myth of the social worker as someone who removes children from families on a whim is one that continues to be perpetuated.’
  • ‘Whenever social workers are mentioned in the media, it tends to be associated to some scandal or failure to protect or poor service.  More often than not, people only hear anyone mentioning social workers when a serious case review hits the news and by then, it is usually to highlight the poor practice that led to the tragedy.’

Many respondents expressed concern that service users were given false promises and exploited for their stories and that the resulting media coverage had a damaging effect on them or on others.

5.2.3  The poor status of the profession impacting on morale and staff retention

The poor status of the profession appears to be having a direct impact on the morale of social workers and in some cases media intrusion is actually causing staff to leave their jobs.

Respondents felt that the media would criticise them whatever they did, pointing to examples of cases where social services were criticised for interfering and others where they were criticised for doing too little.  The phrase ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ came up several times in our discussions.

Examples of staff leaving the profession are included in the following quotes:

  • ‘The case was initially presented in the press but then not followed up. The media often present the high drama of cases but not the subsequent processes or outcomes. Despite being exonerated the team leader in this case had to stop working because they found the whole experience just too much, despite being an experienced and capable welfare professional.’
  • ‘A colleague and friend and superb social worker was accused by young woman of sexual offences, newspapers printed photo and address of social worker, leading to threats and the need to move, meanwhile all charges dropped as young woman admitted she had made up all allegations, no media coverage for this. As a locum he was unable to find work and has now left the profession, a huge loss.’
  • ‘An incident of child death with drug abuser father, press put blame on my friend, management not supportive, friend left social work.’

5.2.4  Poor individual support or defense of the profession from local authority press offices.

A number of social workers clearly lack confidence in their local authority media teams and feel they are not dealing with the media in a manner that protects and promotes the status of their profession.  Typical comments included:

  • ‘As a rule I have not felt supported by local authority media teams.  In one case I was simply sent an email saying ‘do not speak to the press.’
  • ‘I didn’t feel supported by local authority media teams; you tend to get left out in the cold. I was lucky with my manager that my experience didn’t result in a ‘black mark’ for me.’
  • ‘The local authority had a blanket policy not to comment on cases, so they took no action to set the story straight.  The social worker and manager looking after the child had done nothing wrong, so no disciplinary action was taken against them.  But the media exposure was extremely upsetting for them both.  The social worker was off sick for a year or so and was fearful of coming to the area in case she should be recognised or attacked by the family or friends of the dead child.  The manager involved suffered too, finding it very difficult to get work elsewhere because her name was recognised on applications… And while the local authority had their reasons for not challenging the coverage, this left their staff exposed and unsupported.’
  • ‘Local Authorities are still very ‘jumpy’ about press involvement because there is no positive side. There is a reticence to involve the press other than in a managed situation such as a fostering recruitment campaign.  An honest portrayal is difficult not least because Local Authorities ban individuals from having any contact with the media.  This is fairly widespread and it is made clear that you need a Line Manger’s approval first, so it is uncomfortable and so staff are reticent to make a decision.  It’s understandable but depressing… these issues reinforce the fear of the media and so people stay quiet about anything positive.’
  • ‘In my experience with local authority media teams some have been very good and other times I felt they could have dealt with it better. Sometimes I think they can forget why they are there. They should be more honest rather than trying to be protective and put a spin on it. Sometimes it is best to show where we’re coming from and not play games with the media.’

5.2.5  The role of the wider media beyond journalism

We also detected a sense that social workers believe that journalism and news reporting are not the only type of mass media representation that affects the public perception of the social work profession.  TV dramas also play a major part.  Comments included:

  • ‘In terms of general perceptions and how the media treat social workers, the press is one area of it, but we need to look at the depiction of social workers and welfare professionals in soap operas, general drama, and film because they too add to public perceptions, and these notions stick in the public’s mind.’
  • ‘Another problem is that it doesn’t seem to be a popular subject.  You see lots of heroic policemen and doctors in dramas and soaps.  But when a social worker is cast we’re portrayed either as woolly-minded, sandal wearing hippies or nasty, dominant and interfering.  There’s nothing rational about this – we come into the profession to do good and work hard to qualify.  We should be supported and enabled to deal with the challenges in society, not pilloried.’

6. Conclusions and recommendations

The College of Social Work has been established following recommendations from The Social Work Task Force for the establishment of an independent college to articulate and promote the interests of good social work.  Part of its mission is to promote and champion the positive aspects of social work and to address the negative perceptions that often colour media coverage of the profession.

Of course, any professional group (teachers, nurses, police officers) may feel that it receives unfair media coverage from time to time but when 20% of social workers believe that general media coverage of their profession is “completely unfair and inaccurate” and a further 71% believe that such media coverage is “pretty unfair and inaccurate” then the profession faces a serious issue that needs to be addressed.

The findings of this research also throw light upon the day-to-day impact that negative media coverage has on social workers, service users and their families.

It is clear that media intrusion and resultant negative media coverage can cause real concern and anxiety both to professionals and service users and this can feed into a cycle of understanding that reduces the status of the profession and has a direct impact on the morale of social workers and the ability of the profession to retain talented people.

It is also clear that the perceived inability of some local authority media teams to protect and promote the social work profession can lead to a lack of confidence among social workers when dealing with the media.

Perhaps the most encouraging point to emerge from this research is that when considering the media coverage of social work cases they have personally been involved in, social workers feel the coverage is likely to be more fair, balanced and accurate.  Perhaps not as fair, balanced and accurate as desirable but certainly more balanced and accurate than is generally the case.

It is not entirely clear why this should be the case but at least two factors may be at play here.

  • First, this is coverage where social workers are more likely to have actively engaged with the media either personally or through media handling intermediaries such as local authority press officers and this in itself might help to ameliorate otherwise hostile and negative media coverage.
  • Second, this research shows that well over half (53 per cent) of the media coverage that social workers have personally been involved in is local or regional media coverage compared with 29 per cent national media coverage, 11 per cent professional or trade press coverage and 7 per cent electronic coverage (social media, blogs etc.).

It may be that local media is somewhat more benign than national media and it may be more susceptible to positive engagement from social workers.

In any event this research suggests the need for a robust programme of activity to:

  • Ensure social workers have a sophisticated understanding of how the media works
  • Create a suite of tools that social workers can apply to media engagement
  • Support social workers in dealing with media intrusion
  • Apply pressure to eradicate poor media practice
  • Educate the media to enable more balanced and informed reporting

Appendix:

The College of Social Work – media ethics questionnaire

Please note the numbers in the multiple choice boxes represent the total number of respondents that gave alternative replies to each question.  So, for example, 307 respondents replied “YES” to question 1 and 434 respondents replied “NO” to this question.

NOTES & INSTRUCTIONS: 

Please note this is a completely confidential survey. 

For multiple choice questions please simply put an “X” next to the box that most closely reflects your own view or experience.   For questions that require a written answer please simply type your text answer into the box provided.

Q1 – As a prospective member of The College of Social Work you are likely to have been involved in many individual social work cases over the years.  Have any cases you have been involved in attracted media attention?

  • Yes: 307
  • No: 434

Q2 – If “YES” please indicate what type of media coverage this case (or cases) received.  Feel free to put an “X” next to more than one box if that is appropriate.

  • Professional or social work media:   52
  • Local or regional media including local radio or regional TV:   251
  • National media including national newspapers, magazines, national radio and national TV:   137
  • New or electronic media such as blogs, social media, Twitter etc.:   32

Q3 – If you answered “YES” to question 1 how fair did you feel the media coverage was?  (If more than one case received media coverage please reflect on the case that received most coverage.)  Did you feel the coverage was…?

  • Completely fair and balanced:   13
  • Reasonably fair and balanced:   141
  • Pretty unfair and unbalanced:   114
  • Completely unfair and unbalanced:   33

Q4 – If you answered “YES” to question 1 how accurate did you feel the media coverage was?  (If more than one case received media coverage please reflect on the case that received most coverage.)  Did you feel the coverage was…?

  • Completely accurate:   12
  • Reasonably accurate:   134
  • Pretty inaccurate:   131
  • Completely inaccurate:   18

Q5 – If in response to questions 3 and 4 you indicated that you thought the media coverage was in any way unfair or unbalanced or inaccurate please answer this question.  In what way did you think the coverage was unfair or unbalance or inaccurate?  (Please type your answer in the box below.)

Q6 – Have you ever personally experienced any examples of what you would consider to be journalistic unethical behaviour?

  • Yes:   101
  • No:   639

Q7 – Do you know of any other social workers who have experienced what you would consider to be journalistic unethical behaviour?

  • Yes:  139
  • No:  601

Q8 – If you answered “YES” to question 6 or question 7 would you please describe the details in the box below?

Q9 – It is sometimes claimed that police officers give negative news stories to the media about social services and social workers.  Do you have any personal experience or suspicion of such activities?

  • Yes:   43
  • No:  694

Q10 – It is sometimes alleged that police officers feed negative stories to the media about social services and social workers.  Apart from any personal experience of this do you know of any other cases or any other social workers who have been (or may have been) the subject of police briefings?

  • Yes:   49
  • No:   689

Q11 – If you answered “YES” to question 9 or question 10 would you please describe the details in the box below?

Q12 – And finally we would like to seek your general view of the media coverage of social work.  Do you think coverage of social work in the media is generally…?

  • Completely fair and accurate:   1
  • Reasonably fair and accurate:   68
  • Pretty unfair and inaccurate:   521
  • Completely unfair and inaccurate:   146

Thank you for your help in completing this survey. 

We are keen to have more detailed conversations with a small number of respondents.  If you are willing to have a ten minute telephone conversation one of our researchers please give us your email address and telephone number.

  • Email address:
  • Telephone number(s):

Join us every Tuesday at 8:00 PM GMT / 3:00 PM EST and share your views in relation to this and other relevant and important topics and issues at our Debates @SWSCmedia

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