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Union publishes guidance for journalists on social work reporting

Guidance for journalists on how to report on social work matters has been published by the Social Workers Union.

The guidelines, which were produced after members of the Social Workers Union (SWU) came forward with harrowing stories about the impact of poor media reporting about the profession, are designed to provide more protection for those working in the social work profession.

In one case, cited in the publication, the names of social workers were revealed by the media which resulted in one social worker needing police protection after local Facebook groups tracked him down and found out where he lived, making repeated death threats to him and his pregnant wife.

Another was harassed whenever she came into work by a group with a megaphone and was followed home after leaving the office.

Both social workers have now left the sector.

Head of PR and Marketing at WillisPalmer Clare Jerrom, who has been a social work journalist for more than 20 years, said the reporting of social work issues in some parts of the media are abhorrent and both “morally and ethically wrong”.

“Is it any wonder the general public’s perception of social work is so negative when some parts of the media are portraying social workers as ‘child snatchers’ and the villain of the piece?” said Clare.

“I have interviewed hundreds of social workers over the years and the main reason social workers come into the profession is to try and make a positive difference in vulnerable people’s lives. And that is what they do.”

“Seldom do we read about social workers keeping families together – which is their primary aim where it is safe to do so - or helping a victim of domestic abuse to rebuild their lives after leaving an abusive partner. We don’t hear about social workers helping to keep older people as independent as possible in a dignified manner, working to tackle gangs and county lines to keep teenagers safe, helping young adults in care with their transition to independent living or signposting young children displaying mental health problems for support and treatment.”

“Yet in the very rare circumstances that there is a child death, usually at the hands of a parent, guardian or family member, the finger of blame is pointed at the social worker for not doing enough,” added Clare.

The five principles contained in the guidelines suggest that journalists:

  • Maintain accuracy and take care to report on cases involving vulnerable groups accurately and in accordance with other standards relating to legal – or potential future – legal proceedings.
  • Assess risk to ensure that coverage of issues does not create harm to the public and to individuals by ensuring no social workers are individually named or identifiable as working on a particular case (unless authorised to do so by court proceedings).
  • Ensure right to privacy of social workers / mental health workers.
  • Recognise social workers are not spokespeople or able to breach confidentiality so cannot defend themselves from allegations or misrepresentation, by responding to or correcting the record.
  • Avoid portraying law-breaking as acceptable, excusable or perpetrators as victims.

One social worker told the authors of the guidelines: “Recent media coverage puts the onus on social workers failing and blaming the very people who often make a positive difference in many children’s lives.”

Carol Reid, SWU National Organiser, said: “Social workers are on the front-line of helping the most vulnerable in society. In their roles, social workers have to carry out statutory duties. Therefore, it is correct and accepted that these professionals – like their colleagues – are open to public scrutiny.

“However, unlike colleagues in general nursing, police and social care, social workers tend not to receive balanced coverage in the media.

“Indeed, it is often the case that social workers only make headlines when things have gone wrong. To avoid unbalanced reporting on social work and social workers, and to ensure they are covered fairly, on matters of public interest, this document sets out helpful guidance,” she added.

WillisPalmer launched the #Respect4SocialWork campaign in September 2021 to celebrate the outstanding contribution that social workers make to society and to urge a more balanced portrayal of social workers in the media.

An event was held to celebrate one year since the launch of the campaign this month and guest speaker Former Children’s Minister Tim Loughton MP, who endorses the #Respect4SocialWork campaign, said he felt a sense of “déjà vu” by attending the event on the image of social work.

“Speaking today I have a very real sense of déja-vu as we talk about the way that social workers are portrayed in the media as it is 15 years ago that I launched ‘No more blame game’ into how we can change the perception that social workers are only there to take children away and to look at the negative image of social work among the public,” said Tim Loughton.

“Yet we still have a problem with the image of social work and that is why I back the #Respect4SocialWork campaign to try and improve the understanding of what it is that social workers do,” he added.

He pledged to keep campaigning in Parliament about improving the image of social work.

And in a Parliamentary discussion just last month the current Children’s Minister Brendan Clarke-Smith said he wanted “to capture the good news stories that are all too often overshadowed by the tragedies”.

"It is not right that social workers feel their work is undervalued and overlooked. It saddens me to think that those working to protect our most vulnerable children are stigmatised in such a way. Unfortunately, the public only hear about social workers when something goes terribly wrong. They do not hear about the hundreds of thousands of cases where children and parents are empowered and supported to create a better life. Those are the stories that we should hear continually, to remind us of the crucial role that social workers play in protecting the lives of vulnerable children,” added Mr Clarke-Smith.

Clare Jerrom said: “Ofsted recently revealed that staffing shortages in children’s social care have been exacerbated by the pandemic and it is likely that those shortages will worsen unless we get to grips with the absolutely crucial role that social workers undertake in society.”

“At our event Tim Loughton MP described social workers as the 4th emergency service and indeed they are. But they are not super human and it is unfair for them to read such skewed articles about the work they do or face threats in their own home for trying to assist the most vulnerable members of society,” concluded Clare.

Reporting on social workers

#Respect4SocialWork Campaign

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