Senior Staff Writer

June 29, 2021 (Updated )

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted some of the biggest class differences around the UK and, crucially, around the world. We’ve seen images of poor, vulnerable groups in the Global South fight for survival as the West, which hoards majority of the global supply of vaccines, prepares to return to some semblance of normal.

In the UK too, throughout the past year, many headlines and story images have shown overcrowded buses, trains, and parks, vilifying people for being out, going to work, and enjoying nature while the virus rages on. But what was missed is that those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds had to make the difficult decision between health and hardship throughout the pandemic. That many are in precarious, zero-hours jobs without sick pay, or manual labour work that cannot be performed from home. And many such people don’t have the luxury of large gardens and green spaces to get some air.

In this way – among others, such as the war on obesity – the media often scapegoats poor people.

Decades of reporting has made poor people seem lazy and feckless (think of the term benefit scroungers and how harmful it is), as though their circumstances are reflective of a mere lack of ambition, rather than systemic trappings which make it difficult to better their situation.

The Real-Life Impact Of Poor Reporting On Communities

Illustration of woman drowning next to her in a canoe
Make sure your reporting centres the people you’re talking about (Image credit: Paul Brook/Joseph Rowntree)

These attitudes in the mainstream have real consequences on the people from such backgrounds. Daniel Jones is one of them.

He explains to Journo Resources: “Due to my lived experience I find the definition of poverty is often very narrow, being portrayed as a matter of income. Stories that discuss poverty without highlighting a corresponding lack of opportunity and lack of support would often leave me blaming myself and feeling inadequate.

“They would make me bitter and resentful and less like to engage with anything I perceived to be ‘of the system’. It can and has stopped me looking for work or engaging with services regarding help with addiction and mental health issues.”

Daniel Jones

“Also they would make me bitter and resentful and less likely to engage with anything I perceived to be ‘of the system’, this could mean not trying to apply for certain benefits, for example sickness benefit (believing I wouldn’t receive it). It can and has stopped me looking for work or engaging with services regarding help with addiction and mental health issues.”

Daniel wants to see discussion of poverty go beyond just financial terms. “Of course, income is a major part of the poverty story but there is more to it than that. Lack of opportunity in jobs and education, the cutting of budgets for services dealing with mental health, addiction, abuse, criminal rehabilitation, homelessness, etc. I would love to see stories that were positive in terms of showing how people can overcome multiple needs like the ones just mentioned, but [also to do this] regularly, as from my own experiences I know how powerfully stigmatising some (not all) journalism can be.”

What Resources Are There For Journalists?

Illustration of city and people
Joseph Rowntree established a guide to reporting on poverty (Image credit: Paul Brook/Joseph Rowntree)

Thankfully there are many resources online and offline to help guide writers report on poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) is one organisation pushing for social change.

To that end, they came up with a Reporting Poverty guide which identified three key ingredients for powerful stories about poverty: compelling statistics; the system(s) that affect peoples’ lives; and individual stories and experiences.

The Three Key Elements To Reporting On Poverty Well

• Compelling Statistics
• The Systems That Affect Peoples’ Lives
• Individual Stories And Experiences

“Crucially, the best reporting combines all three of these elements,” Grace Hetherington, who worked on the report, explains. “We know that statistics alone don’t tell the full story, and equally, focusing on individual experience without placing it in the context of systemic issues can fail to paint a full picture as well.”

There are also consequences of callous reporting when writers don’t do justice to those from impoverished backgrounds.

The JRF adds: “People with experience of poverty have told us that reporting which doesn’t follow the approach outlined above can make them feel upset, used, distrustful, sometimes at risk of stigma or unwanted attention from their family and friends, and often unlikely to want to continue speaking to the media about their experiences. On the other hand, reporting which does follow the principles above can make people feel heard, empowered and positive about themselves and their contributions.”

Journalists might also want to be careful over which images they select as they may perpetuate damaging stereotypes. The impact of the most sensitive, carefully planned piece of reporting can be undone by a clichéd stock image, such as the ‘girl in the red coat’ or outdated images of council estates that no longer exist. These images stick in the public’s mind and build an unhelpful impression of the reality of poverty in the UK.

“People with experience of poverty said poor reporting makes them feel upset, used, distrustful, sometimes at risk of stigma or unwanted attention from their family and friends.”

Joseph Rowntree Foundation

OnRoad Media, a narrative-change charity supporting people and media to create content that changes the world, adds that good reporting can have a hugely positive impact on communities affected by such issues.

“When stories are told well, people’s voices aren’t just heard and amplified, they change the way we think about people’s lives,” they tell Journo Resources. “The best stories are those that share the bigger picture, like on the systems that lock us into poverty, whilst also using the right language. They have a lasting impact on how the public understands and thinks about social issues. This in turn, changes policy decisions at every level. Good reporting and better stories changes lives because we all understand and see the world through stories – it’s only right they reflect our lives.”

Similarly to the JRF, they also recommend balancing statistics, systems, and individuals, as well as making sure to include and explore possible solutions. These solutions are best explored with people who are experiencing poverty – they are first-hand experts. On Road also advise journalists to think twice before running myth-busting articles, as several studies have found this can actually reinforce the myths you are trying to dispel.

Telling the real stories of poverty also means avoiding harmful stereotypes. Terms like ‘Dickensian’ levels of poverty, images of slums or begging bowls often make it difficult for audiences to recognise the problem as one really happening in our society. And the reality is You can find more practical guidance for journalists reporting poverty in OnRoad’s guide.

How Do We Build Lasting Support For People Stuck In Poverty?

Camera operator kneeling in front of camera in BBC news studio
Ofcom, the UK’s broadcasting regulator, brought in new rules that mean TV and radio stations now have a duty of care over people’s welfare in their programmes (Image credit: ThisisEngineering RAEng)

The JRF also has a separate report – Talking About Poverty – which found that there are a few simple ways we can talk about poverty that increase public understanding and public will to change things.

“One key learning is that data and facts alone won’t change peoples’ minds – we tend to interpret statistics through the lens of our own beliefs, and we therefore select which statistics we choose to believe. Data is important, but we need to speak about our shared values as a society to change peoples’ minds,” Grace adds.

“It’s important to remember and communicate that we can solve poverty, and to talk about the solutions we know would be effective.”

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation

“Appealing to our shared values, like compassion and justice, tends to work much more effectively than speaking in political terms which can really switch people off. It’s also really important to give context when talking about the problems people in poverty face – the way our economy, labour markets or housing system have been designed, for example.

“Lastly, it’s important to remember and communicate that we can solve poverty, and to talk about the solutions we know would be effective, like a stronger social security system, better jobs and more affordable housing. You can read more in our framing toolkit.”

Similarly, On Road Media suggest avoiding framing that suggests people have “no choices left” or that things are “unfair”, as this rarely resonates with the public. Instead, talk about what is right and wrong, and people’s options being restricted or cut off.

‘Anyone Can Experience Poverty At Any Time’

Image Credit: Trust For London

Most of all though, it’s crucial to remember that responsible media reporting can make a big difference. Similarly, inaccurate reporting can and does have harmful real world effects.

Bharat Mehta is the Chief Executive of Trust for London, an independent charity that aims to tackle poverty and inequality in London. Speaking to Journo Resources, he says: “We want to improve the lives of Londoners by increasing pay, helping reduce costs of living and supporting community groups to thrive. The meritocracy myth – that we live in a society where anyone can be a ‘self-made person’, irrespective of circumstance – is a pervasive media narrative. This narrative ignores the impact of the barriers to success that uphold inequality, and ultimately poverty, between different groups of people.

“Its impact on public debate is regressive and it obscures the way inequality really works in our society. This in turn damages public and political support for comprehensive, structural solutions. The reality is we can all experience poverty at any time, as the Covid-19 pandemic has shown. The media has the power to shift public attitude by connecting people to the real issues, highlighting impactful solutions and building support for them.”

Tips From Our Experts

• The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says working carefully and sensitively with people who have experience of poverty is crucial to achieving good coverage. A lot of the insights from the group who worked on the report focused on the importance of taking time to build a relationship with people and understand the points they want to make.
• Explaining what you want to achieve with your piece and how someone’s contribution will fit within it is really important, as is keeping people updated and being clear if someone’s contribution has been substantially reduced or elevated compared to their understanding when they first got involved in your piece.
• Treating contributors with dignity, respect and agency is key.
• Where possible, select your own stock images or better still, ask contributors which images they would like to represent their experiences. Avoid stereotypical images that don’t reflect people’s lived experiences.
• On Road Media says journalists must take steps to establish trust with their interviewees by being sensitive to their needs. You should explain what the piece, and their story being in the public domain, might mean. Whether that’s illustrating the attention they might get on social media to what it could mean if their employer or friends see their quotes
• Most importantly, you should keep in touch and manage expectations around using their quotes and keep them up to date with the timeline for the piece.