Features: December 18th, 2009

By Fred Robinson, Richard Else, Maeve Sherlock and Ian Zass-Ogilvie.

Public understanding of poverty in the UK is limited and this makes it difficult to generate support for tackling the issue. The media has a key role to play in publicity and it is most effective when it presents the views, experiences and opinions of people with experience of poverty. The authors explain the opportunities to disseminate material in the traditional and ‘new’ media and describe the roles and responsibilities of voluntary and community organisations in helping journalists find case study individuals.

There is considerable poverty and deprivation in the UK; nearly 11 million people live below the poverty line. The Government is committed to tackling poverty and has made some progress, but much more needs to be done. A key requirement is a groundswell of public opinion putting pressure on the Government and giving support to policies to combat poverty.

Public recognition and understanding of poverty in the UK is, however, limited. The media can help to remedy this by developing awareness and promoting debate. In particular, the media can show what poverty is like by providing opportunities for people who have direct experience of poverty to be seen and heard, to have a voice and to present their point of view. At present, their voice is heard less than it should be.

This study looks at how people who have themselves experienced poverty can have a more effective voice in the media. It considers opportunities in the ‘traditional’ media – press, radio and television – focusing especially on how individuals are presented as illustrative ‘case studies’. We have also explored possibilities offered by the ‘new media’, centred on the internet and mobile communications, where people can certainly claim a voice – but might struggle to find an audience.

This research is part of an extensive programme of work on poverty supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Previous work has examined public attitudes to poverty, while the Foundation’s current programme, on ‘Public Interest in Poverty Issues’, emphasises the role of the media. Recent work has looked at how poverty is reported, what journalists should consider when tackling poverty issues and how information about poverty can be successfully presented and disseminated.

Accompanying this report are short films that can be viewed at www.jrf.org.uk. They provide some examples of different approaches to reporting poverty and presenting people’s stories. It is intended to supplement the report by providing accessible, visual examples that may be used to inform and develop practice.

Working with the ‘traditional’ media

Poverty is under-reported and inadequately reported in the media for a variety of reasons. It may be seen as difficult to cover, too depressing for the audience and ‘worthy but not newsworthy’. There is also a tendency for the media to focus on extreme, sensational stories, ignoring the mass of everyday experience. Critics complain that reporting on poverty too often relies on stereotypes and that it labels people and places.

There is, however, some good, sensitive and effective reporting of poverty and its consequences. Examples include pieces in The Big Issue, The Guardian, BBC television features on child poverty and innovative (if perhaps controversial) programmes such as Ministry of Food and The Secret Millionaire.

It is generally considered that poverty ‘works’ as a story only if the views and experiences of people living in poverty are presented. Personal stories resonate with the public. Consequently, journalists may invite people with direct experience of poverty to tell their stories and give their views. In this way people can have a voice – and may reach large audiences.

Journalists can have difficulty finding people prepared to tell their stories in the media and they often rely on third-sector (voluntary and community) organisations to put them in touch with suitable individuals and families. Some organisations readily respond to such requests, while others refuse them. The media sometimes makes inappropriate or excessive demands and there are real risks – especially for the individuals presenting themselves and their stories. But it is important that these voices are heard in the media, not least because of the potential impact on public perceptions and opinion.

The report sets out the key issues that third-sector organisations should consider when responding to media requests to find case study individuals. Organisations need to think about what kind of coverage there might be and the potential implications for the individuals if they take part. The most important point is that the organisation, having brokered the contact, has substantial responsibilities to support and safeguard the interests of the individuals.

We have also drawn up a checklist of points that potential case study individuals should think about. They need to consider the possible risks involved and negotiate their involvement – for example, whether their identity will be revealed and what editorial control they might have. People should think through what they are going to say and how to say it, and should get support, especially from the organisation that brokered their involvement.

To a large extent it is a matter of trust – the establishment of trusting relationships between journalists, the third sector and individuals.

New media, new opportunities

The media ‘landscape’ has changed enormously. There has been increasing fragmentation of media and audiences. Media consumption habits are changing and content is changing too. Traditional forms of media are facing serious economic pressures, particularly because of competition and declining advertising revenues. Meanwhile, falling costs of production in the new media have resulted in the development of new outlets and enormous growth in ‘user-generated content’ such as ‘citizen journalism’. However, there is a significant digital divide: many people, especially those on low incomes, are left behind and left out, especially in terms of access to the internet.

Overall, the new media – centred on digital technology, particularly the internet – is promoting new connectedness and ‘many-to-many’ interactive communication. In addition, there has been an important shift towards media forms that have little central control, such as internet social networking sites.

The new media provides new opportunities for people to produce and communicate material, easily and cheaply. Individuals and groups can send emails, develop websites, write blogs and use Twitter, and record and upload sound, stills and videos.

Third-sector organisations can play a key role in ensuring that opportunities offered by the new media are available to people with experience of poverty. They can provide access to the technology, help people to use it and provide internet space so that material can be published and accessed by others.

Producing material can in itself be liberating and empowering. But, in relation to developing public understanding of poverty, production is a means to an end. The message has to be effectively communicated if it is to stand a chance of being influential. The voice of people with experience of poverty has to find an audience; it has to be heard.

Getting to an audience presents an enormous challenge, especially if the content is serious rather than popular entertainment. But it can be done. There are good examples of campaigns that have disseminated personal accounts and views, and have successfully developed online communities. Material can be submitted to media websites where it is more likely to be accessed and third-sector organisations can be proactive in alerting potential audiences.

To disseminate material effectively, there are two basic requirements. It should be of good quality and be interesting and engaging. ‘Digital storytelling’ is a good example of how to produce quality material. It is also essential that people should be helped to find the material – and, having seen it, want to pass it on. A strong ‘viral video’ can reach a substantial audience and help to inform and build a community of interest.

It is suggested that the third sector could develop a web portal that would host the contributions of individuals and groups, including digital stories and debates. It could be a trusted and reliable resource, bringing together material, promoting access and thereby developing better public understanding and generating pressure for change.

A local-scale initiative could also be established. Media and communications experts could work intensively with a specific community experiencing poverty to produce and disseminate material about people’s stories, everyday lives, issues and views. There would be an emphasis on quality and achieving an audience. Such a demonstration project could test out the potential of the new media.

Conclusions: developing opportunities

People with experience of poverty have something distinctive to say about the causes and effects of poverty. They are experts. Their views, experiences and opinions are insufficiently and inadequately presented in the media. This report highlights ways in which this might be remedied and points to opportunities for people with experience of poverty to engage more effectively with the media.

About the project

The study was carried out by a team based at St Chad’s College, Durham University. It draws on interviews with people from third sector organisations and from the traditional and new media, and interviews with people with experience of poverty who have worked with the media.

The full report, published by the J R Rowntree Foundation is available at: http://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/files/jrf/poverty-in-the-media-full.pdf