I’ve long been frustrated with how poverty is reported in the media. That frustration is professional and personal.
I’ve been a journalist for 30 years, writing for national tabloids and women’s magazines, and I first experienced poverty as a child I when I lived with my family in a derelict house during a 1970s housing crisis. This experience gives me a unique insight into producing representations of poverty and how it feels to be seen – or misrepresented. I’m aware of the pressures in the industry to meet deadlines, find gripping stories, tell emotional tales - but I’m also aware that this pressure can have unintended consequences.
Reporting poverty is a complex, sensitive issue that can lead to powerful stories. Some can bring the experience of the most vulnerable members of society to light and challenge the political causes.
The Liverpool Echo consistently campaigns and reports on child poverty, hunger, homelessness. It is currently interrogating the government budget, rising heating costs and cuts to Universal Credit with accuracy and compassion.
Elsewhere the reporting can be insensitive, inaccurate – and even cruel. The Daily Mail in 2013 published a story under the headline Vile Product of Welfare UK which sought to argue that an unemployed man, convicted for the manslaughter of his children, represented everything wrong with people in receipt of benefits.
Other reports can individualise stories – focusing on one person overcoming poverty which can hide the realities of systemic and widespread economic disadvantage. Or they can observe the poor – describing the poor rather than conducting interviews. Or reports can rely on case studies – rather than engage with people with lived experience of poverty as valuable sources with an expert insight.
People experiencing poverty are the readers, viewers and listeners, of our media, so talking about them rather than with is not just exclusionary but also misses a valuable opportunity for compelling reporting that enables power to be held to account.
'Many people still think poverty and economic hardship are the results of personal failure, a lack of hard work or a lack of individual motivation. More nuanced and accurate media reports can counter such dangerous ideas, stereotypes and myths, while empowering those in poverty and offering new hope and insight.' - A Freelancer's Guide To Reporting on Poverty (EJC).
I’m a Lecturer in Media, Culture, Communication at LJMU and my PhD looked at the reporting of poverty and protest during the Cotton Crisis of the 1860s. Echoes of its approach can be seen today – especially in individualising and observing the poor.
I lead a campaign in the National Union of Journalists and my work, with readers, viewers, and listeners with direct experience of poverty, led to the first guide on reporting poverty for journalists, published in 2016. This led to a collaboration with national social change organisation Joseph Rowntree Foundation, again with input from people with lived experience alongside other print and broadcast journalists, to produce Reporting Poverty: A Guide for Media Professionals, launched at LJMU in 2020.
Of course, reporting poverty isn’t just a north west issue, or even a national one, it’s global. This week a new guide has been released by the European Journalism Centre to which I contributed some expert tips.
These guides are aimed at all media workers, including those in news reporting, magazine journalism, PR and broadcasting.
Representation of poverty matters. It’s hoped that these guides can help media workers apply the same rigorous journalistic approaches to reporting poverty as they do when covering stories of other marginalised and oppressed groups in our communities.
Rachel Broady, Lecturer in Media, Culture and Communication, LJMU.