“Obese sponger.” “Jobless mother.” “Benefits scroungers.” Just a few phrases found in national tabloids in the UK since March. The language is casual, repetitive – and harmful.
Rachel Broady, Equality Officer for the National Union of Journalists’ Manchester and Salford branch, explains how we have been working together to tackle the problem.
Some media uses this language as if it’s acceptable: everyone accepts what a “scrounger” is, no one doubts the existence of “spongers”, and being “jobless” is something to be automatically condemned. With no room for discussion, no place for nuance, and no time, often, for journalists to stop and think, it leads to poor journalism.
The National Union of Journalists provides guidelines on how to fairly and ethically report on many things from suicide, to race, to far-right activities, to gender. They ensure journalists use the right language. They ask journalists to stop and consider what it is that they are writing and culturally contributing to.
The time came for similar guidelines on reporting poverty.
As the government seeks to cut our social security budget and various politicians in positions in power talk of “the welfare state subsidising lifestyles”, the media has become a testing ground for public opinion – and a place where opinion can be shaped. Manchester and Salford Branch of the National Union of Journalists felt such discriminatory reporting needed to be approached in the same way as tackling racism, sexism and homophobia.
It’s easy to assume all journalists believe what they write, understand what they write, and have time to consider how what they write contributes to society. It’s not always the case. Some write what they are told, others regurgitate information, some have no time or energy to think how their article will impact as deadline approaches.
It’s also easy to assume all journalists happily repeat stereotypes and are invested in them. Not at all. Many journalists across the UK launched campaigns to tackle stereotypes and support their readers, viewers and listeners living in poverty.
The NUJ produced a set of guidelines: six short statements. It asked its members to recognise their responsibility in adding to stereotypes of the people experiencing poverty.
- The NUJ believes that the development of discriminatory language and
the demonisation of the working poor and benefit recipients, through
the use of stereotypes and misinformation, is an insult to workers, trade
union organisations and readers.
- The NUJ believes that its members as trade unionists cannot avoid a
measure of responsibility in fighting stereotypes of the working poor
and benefit recipients as expressed through the mass media.
- The NUJ reaffirms its total opposition to censorship, but equally
reaffirms its belief that press freedom must be conditioned by
responsibility, and a resolution by all media workers not to allow press
freedom to be abused to slander a section of the community.
- The NUJ believes that newspapers and magazines should not originate
material which encourages discrimination on grounds of being
working poor or a benefit recipient.
- The NUJ believes that editors should ensure that coverage of social security stories should be placed in a balanced context.
- The NUJ will continue to monitor the development of media coverage
in this area and give support to members seeking to enforce the above
From this came a collaboration with Church Action on Poverty and a Guide to Reporting Poverty for journalists. The wording comes not from journalists but from people who are and have experienced being in receipt of benefits and living in poverty. It offers fact-checks, real-life experience and a chance for reporters to hear genuine voices. These are just some of the comments included:
“Journalists need to realise that the majority of people suffering within poverty did not put themselves in that situation by choice.”
“Don’t use labels like lazy, cheating, skiving, feckless, anti-social – lumping all people in poverty under these labels, like we have no value. We do have value and this should be reported too.”
“People living in poverty have dignity. That humanity and dignity is taken away because of how the media portrays them.”
It is hoped the Reporting Poverty guide will be used in regional and national newsrooms, going some way to challenging the casual, repetitive and harmful language that stereotypes and vilifies a section of our communities.