Guidelines on media reporting of social workers launched

New advice and guidance for journalists reporting on the work of social workers has been launched to provide more protection for those working in the profession

The guidelines were developed after members of the Social Workers Union (SWU) came forward with harrowing stories about the impact of poor media reporting about the profession. They have been produced in consultation with the UK‘s approved press regulator IMPRESS.

Read the guidelines here.

In one case, cited in the publication, after the names of social workers were revealed by the media, one social worker had to have 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.

The five principles contained in the guidelines suggest that journalists:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. Ensure right to privacy of social workers / mental health workers.
  4. 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.
  5. Avoid portraying law-breaking as acceptable, excusable or perpetrators as victims.

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.”

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.”

Lexie Kirkconnell-Kawana, Head of Regulation at IMPRESS, said:

“This new guidance developed in collaboration with the SWU outlines important best practice for journalists on how to responsibly report stories concerning social workers and cases involving vulnerable individuals.

“At IMPRESS, we support news providers to adopt best in class journalism standards to allow them to publish high-quality journalism with confidence, while protecting the public from harm.

“We hope this guidance, developed with IMPRESS’s standards expertise, encourages sensitive, measured reporting and serves as a valuable resource for newsrooms in publishing responsible, ethical journalism.”

The guidelines have been supported by organisations including, Age UK, BASW Cymru, the British Association of Social Workers, the Cooperative Guild of Social and Community Workers, Scottish Association of Social Workers and the Social Workers Union.

Dr Lis Boulton, Health and Care Policy Manager at Age UK, commented:

“We know that the majority of the media already have high standards in place. Social workers often work with the most vulnerable people in challenging environments and situations, and while they should be scrutinised by the media, in the same way that everyone else is, they should not have to fear coverage that is so negative that it puts both them and the people they support at risk.

“It is only fair that reporting should, where possible, also reflect the good work that is done to improve people’s lives.”

Dr Ruth Allen, Chief Executive Officer of the British Association of Social Workers, said:

BASW helped to develop and wholeheartedly supports these standards for better media reporting of social work. They are a very important step in improving media coverage of this vital, challenging work.

“Social workers and people receiving services should have confidence that media output of all types will be accurate, fair and won’t put people at risk. Social work and people using social services have been particularly badly served by much of the media over the years and great damage had been done.

“Times are changing, there are more good examples of illuminating reporting.  These standards are a next step in ensure this change accelerated and embeds for good.”

The Chief Social Workers have also been consulted, they recognise the importance of fair representation of social workers in the media, and will continue to work with Government Departments to support the social work profession on this vital issue.

Lynn Romeo, Chief Social Worker for Adults in England, commented:

“I welcome the publication of these guidelines. It is essential that social workers are treated fairly and that reporting is responsible and ethical. Recruitment and retention in social work is a key challenge and ensuring that the media acts responsibly will support this essential public service.”

Isabelle Trowler, Chief Social Worker for Children and Families for England, said:

“I’m pleased to see the principles set out in these guidelines. Too often the role of a social worker is misinterpreted in the media, without acknowledgement of the complexity of their work or the positive impact great social work can have on vulnerable families.

“I hope this publication helps shape more informed coverage, which will be vital if we are to succeed in raising the status of social work as part of our work to improve social care.”

John McGowan, General Secretary of the Social Workers Union, commented:

“Social work intervention can greatly improve the quality of life and opportunities for the children, families, adults and communities we support 24/7.

“However, it is fair to say that unless the pressures social workers are under are addressed, we will not be able to reach the very people who need our service and support.

“To then attribute any blame for this onto individual social workers is wrong and unethical.”

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