Reporting on Poverty

With austerity ‘over’, according to Chancellor Philip Hammond, and unemployment running at the lowest levels seen since the 1970s, surely the good times are a-coming in soon-to-be-Brexited Britain.

Yet, puzzlingly, wages are not growing as labour market theories suggest they ought.

Poverty levels, instead, are on the rise, especially for people of working age. According to data from the Office for National Statistics, over 6 million jobs in the UK are currently paid at a rate less than the ‘real’ living wage.

Whilst personal wealth for the so-called 1% inflates, financial precarity intensifies for middle and lower income groups. At the sharp end, destitution is clearly more visible, with larger numbers rough sleeping in towns and cities up and down the country.

In South Wales we have become too familiar with the tragedy of rough sleepers losing their lives. Meanwhile, other, ever more common experiences of poverty are far more hidden from view. Rising living costs, coupled with suppressed wages and seriously curtailed state support for public services, mean many more of us are not ‘just about managing’.

In-work poverty is increasingly a problem. Demand for emergency supplies from food banks, support and advice from third sector organisations has exploded as people increasingly face acute challenges with housing, fuel poverty and personal debt. Charities called on to fill the gaps left by long-term austerity policies in the wake of the global financial crisis struggle to meet demand.

What we know about poverty – as an issue, and about other people’s experiences of it – is in large part due the way narratives on poverty are ‘framed’ or represented to us through the media. Recent research by the Frameworks Institute reaffirms that media frames remain powerful drivers of public opinion on poverty. Their research demonstrates that it is not simply ‘facts’ but the stories that people hear repeatedly, which bring those facts to life and place them within a meaningful framework of understanding that resonate and shape ideas and attitudes. Journalism plays a fundamental role in representing contemporary social experiences of poverty, how certain ‘truths’ about poverty are formulated as ‘common sense’, and how responses to poverty are logically justified.

Historically, research shows that the issue of poverty has been reductively portrayed in UK tabloid media, framing poverty as an individual irresponsibility or shameful social incompetence, and by cultural stereotypes of ‘the poor’. Stereotypes adapt and adjust to fit with shifting hierarchies of cultural value. From the rogues and vagrants of 19th century, to the ‘Chavs’ and ‘benefit scroungers’ of more recent times, each stereotype perpetuates underlying assumptions rationalising individuals as the originators of their own misfortune and scapegoats for societies’ ills.

In the process, immense social and economic inequality has come to feel normal. Inequality has been framed as inevitable and just the way things are, part of a celebrity culture that defers to wealth and lionises the entrepreneurial self. Entirely absent from such narratives on poverty are the structural contexts and causes of poverty that are forged far beyond the control of individuals. Missing too then, are explanations of how such forces impact ordinary peoples’ opportunities and livelihoods. Also missing are explanations  that hold to account those whose political and/or economic power condition those causes.

Whilst tabloid narratives may be a formidable influence in UK news media culture, fortunately, they are neither representative of all journalism, nor the only source for news on poverty. Indeed, elsewhere, poverty can be (and is) reported very differently. Recently, important work – such as the NUJ’s work in 2017 with Church Action on Poverty in Manchester and Salford, for example – demonstrates how journalists are actively seeking to report poverty responsibly, sharing accurate information about government policy and official statistics and promoting reporting practices sensitive to the dignity and life experiences of vulnerable people.

This week, Living Wage Week, Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media and Culture is hosting ‘Reporting on Poverty in Wales’. Organised in conjunction with NUJ Training Wales and Oxfam Cymru, over 80 guests, including journalists, communications specialists, academics and other members of the public will gather to discuss their experiences of news, focusing on this most important of contemporary issues. Our keynote speaker, Randeep Ramesh, Chief Leader Writer for the Guardian, will be joined on the day by panellists from the BBC, ITV and Media Wales, charities and ordinary people sharing their experiences of telling their stories to the media.

The event will also mark the launch of ‘Exploring the Narrative on Poverty in Wales’ – an in-depth original research report exploring journalistic practices, third sector communications and the news coverage of poverty during the period of the Tata Steel crisis, the lead up to the 2016 Welsh Government Elections and the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. The report highlights patterns in poverty reporting across English and Welsh language media, including which social groups are regularly associated with poverty, how poverty’s causes and consequences are framed, the attribution of responsibility for poverty, and the voices represented within the coverage.

In this, it finds a largely encouraging picture, in which poverty news narratives in Wales tend neither to reproduce negative stereotypes nor to be overtly stigmatising. However, this is not to say that challenges do not remain. For example, although poverty remains a persistent and ongoing social issue, it is relatively marginalised in the news, with the diverse range of experiences ‘out there’ not necessarily captured in poverty reporting. Moreover, a coherent narrative framework for understanding the contexts for poverty can often be missing. The reporting of macro-economic trends, ‘big’ political or business events may regularly touch upon poverty related issues, but meaningful connections between these events and their potentially transformative influence in the everyday lives and experiences of ordinary people is often lacking.

However, understanding how and why news narratives are the way that they are is also crucial. As such, our research also asks news professionals to reflect upon their work, including their professional values, their responsibilities and challenges in reporting poverty and how routine decisions affect the stories covered. For example:

  • When, in an event-driven news environment should an ongoing issue such as poverty be deemed newsworthy?
  • How do journalists come to know about the diversity of potential stories on poverty beyond the cities, across the diverse communities and rural areas of Wales, especially in a climate of diminishing resources for social affairs journalism?
  • And, as poverty can be an incredibly sensitive subject for those it affects, should ethical considerations in reporting rightly restrict the type or style of stories journalists seek to tell?

In addressing such questions, we also consider the role of the third sector in the production of poverty narratives, examining charities’ and anti-poverty organisations’ aims, communications work and relationships with journalists, including the question of mutual interests in reporting on poverty and possible co-dependencies in news-making practices.

As critical media researchers, we are used to analysing powerful institutions and their work from afar, our interventions focused upon highlighting injustice, including calling out the media where it takes a part in the reproduction of social harm.

Through our work on poverty news narratives, however, we believe we have a great opportunity to do better than this – to engage, equally robustly, but openly and in dialogue with news makers: to draw upon the collective experiences of journalists and communications professionals sharing an interest in exploring the news narrative to reflect upon research insights, and to think, together, about how, the stories of contemporary poverty in Wales can be most meaningfully, accurately and representatively reported.