More evidence of newspaper hostility to the unemployed

Wed, 21/11/2012 - 14:41 -- nick

UnemployedNet runs a media campaign to try to improve the coverage of unemployment and benefits issues, particularly in our national newspapers. As part of this campaign we have gathered together news stories from all tabloid newspapers to show how widespread and damaging the negative characterisation of benefit claimants is.

The Guardian' Datablog, which takes a more data-led approach to social issues, reported yesterday on a study into media reporting by Turn2us, an anti-poverty organisation, which has great relevance to our campaign. This study looked at all welfare news stories reported between 1995 and 2011in the main national newspapers (it didn't include The Star, despite this being one of the worst offenders in our experience) and divided them in to broadly positive and broadly negative.

The findings are:

Paper percentage of negative news stories:
Sun 78.3
Express 68.6
Mail 67.3
Mirror 51.1
Telegraph 44.7
Independent 42.7
Times 42.1
Guardian 35.7

These figures confirm the view that the problem isn't a political one of left versus right: The Sun has supported both Labour and Conservative parties at general elections over this period. The issue is more about format and readership, with all tabloids worse than all broadsheets.

The fact that all newspapers report negative welfare stories so prominently helps to create the stigma that many benefit claimants feel. With real fraud in the system at around 1%, even the lowest level of negative coverage is hugely out of proportion to the any actual problem.

Turn2us makes clear that the results of this misreporting can be devastating, with many people refusing to take up benefits, even where they are experiencing real hardship, due to the stigma involved; one in five people surveyed now believe that most benefit claims are fraudulent, and the proportion is rising.

UnemployedNet emailed all national newspapers in October 2012 to ask them to work with us to improve coverage of welfare issues, but did not receive a single reply or even acknowledgement, suggesting that they do not want to confront their failings. The email asked only for a commitment to more balance, including quotes from claimant representatives, and a general commitment to improve.

The first step to changing this damaging situation is for more people to sign up to our media campaign. Turn2us have their own recommendations, some of which mirror our campaigns and charter, and some of which are not included but are likely to prove constructive:

Delivery of benefits

  • Jobcentre Plus and other staff (including eligibility assessors such as Atos) should be given periodic training to challenge their own perceptions about claimants - in the same way that social workers are trained to be non-judgmental
  • Claimants who sign a 'claimant commitment' setting out their work-search responsibilities under the new Universal Credit system should receive a countersignature from their personal adviser, guaranteeing the levels of support that will be provided (which we understand the Government is already set to address)
  • Claimants should be given choice over which organisation or provider supplies their back-to-work support, as is the case in the Netherlands.

Design of the benefit system

  • More universal, contributions-based and generous benefits/benefit systems seem to be less stigmatised.

Role of the media

  • Newspapers should try to avoid suggesting that claimants who are not meeting the conditions of benefit entitlements are typical of the wider population claiming benefits
  • Journalists should operate within the code of ethics set out by the National Union of Journalists Disabled Members Council.

Through adopting these measures and UnemployedNet's media and other campaigns the world around benefit claimants can actively help overcome the problems it brings with it.

Newspapers owe it to their readers, and the government to their voters, to ensure all citizens of this country are represented accurately. When the issue involves the most vulnerable and those who are in such dire financial straits, the time for representation must be now.