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Can Social Workers and Journalists Ever Be Friends?

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Give journalists a break. At the moment, their name is mud. They are probably about as popular as social workers.

The Leveson inquiry has prompted the kind of scrutiny into their activities to which they normally subject others.

There has been a sustained debate within social work about the nature of the media's coverage of the profession, prompted in part by prejudicial reporting on a number of high profile cases, most recently Baby Peter Connelly.

It is generally agreed throughout the sector that there is a problem with the image of social work, and a mini industry of experts who claim to have the answer is fast emerging.

My view, as a press officer for the British Association of Social Workers, and especially as a former local authority press officer, is that the question of how to improve media coverage of social work, like social work itself, is not so straightforward.

The Guardian's David Brindle has identified a 'mutual ignorance' that exists between social workers and the media. Social workers often don't understand what the media needs from them in order to tell a story more accurately (details, case studies, human interest, told QUICKLY) and journalists often do not have much knowledge of the world in which social workers have to operate (where nothing is done QUICKLY).

It is hardly surprising, as engagement with social work is, for many, infrequent at best, whereas people's familiarity with other professions is born of more real-world interaction. Most people have been to school so feel well placed to offer an opinion of teachers - a frequently ill-informed view maybe, often a historical snapshot based on their teenage experiences, but a view nonetheless. Doctors and nurses too are more a part of many of our lives than a social worker, much of whose time is spent with the most vulnerable and powerless.

As such, the public's opinion of social workers is often formulated for them by the media. A lot of people think that they won't ever come into contact with a social worker, and look down on those who do as somehow inadequate. They are often tainted by association, imbued with a similar negativity much of the public reserves for the service users that social workers are attempting to help.

In reality, people are closer to social workers than they think, particularly if they have elderly family members, but the confidentiality of the role makes social work a somewhat secretive profession, and we all know that nature abhors a vacuum.

Where social workers are not able to discuss cases publicly, the void where the facts might lie is swiftly filled by speculation. Many journalists and their readers may not know that social workers often have a confidentiality clause in their employment contracts, which can make them even more reticent to talk to media.

This lack of engagement is frustrating for journalists, but it is not the responsibility of individual social workers. They need support from managers and, in the case of local authorities, cabinet members and directors of social services, in order to give the media greater access to their world.

While examples to the contrary are increasingly common, on the whole journalists are not just making stuff up off the top of their heads. Journalists report the news. If controversial decisions have been taken in a particular case, a media controversy is to be expected. What is missing is the mitigation, the details that social workers might be expected to share in their defence, but are unable to divulge, about why decisions were taken, or to provide the context of a complicated case.

More importantly, journalists report what politicians say. A really simple way of improving the media's portrayal of social workers is for politicians to get behind them and start being supportive, not blaming them for society's ills. Of course many politicians say they are supportive, and sometimes, often on a podium in public, they can be. It isn't a matter of simply backing the profession in general, during periods of relative calm, but about staying with practitioners when sometimes unavoidable tragedies happen, and resisting demands for a scapegoat.

Social workers, like most public sector professionals, are constantly subject to initiatives, pilot schemes, and all manner of political grandstanding. They are tired, and they are fed up.

They don't want to be told to do more with less and, at the end of yet another exhausting day trying to help the most vulnerable members of society, they don't want to read headlines about how terrible they are, frequently fostered by a politician with an agenda - last week's prime ministerial 'problem family troubleshooting' initiative for instance was little more than an indirect slap across the face for social workers who, day-in day-out do their utmost to do the work Mr Cameron suggested his new recruits would undertake.

Admittedly, it is not just social workers who face this double whammy of negativity from both politicians and the media. Alastair Campbell's written submission to the Leveson inquiry echoes this view:

"There is not a public service worth the name whose professionals do not complain about the constant negativity. In polls, people overwhelmingly say that their last experience of the NHS was a good one. Polls asking general questions about the service as a whole mark it down below the ratings based on actual experience.

"That is the result of fairly relentless media negativity, which has an effect on morale and on the way that people treat those delivering the service. The same goes for teachers and social workers, in the latter case, with a negative effect on recruitment."

Self-regulation of the media industry does not appear to be working. In lieu of an alternative, perhaps a plea for an entente cordiale between the media and social work would be more realistic.
Would the media really prefer to see a society that has no social workers? Would social workers prefer that there were no journalists? Sometimes, probably.

But still, we all need friends and journalists are not the enemy. They are beleaguered on all fronts, increasingly under resourced themselves as time-honoured funding models edge closer to a post-digital collapse, facing cuts, public censure, subject to relentless and intolerable pressures.

Perhaps they have more in common with social workers than they realise.