How to change perceptions of social work in the media

Social workers have long felt that they have a troubled relationship with the media.  The  profession often feels that criticisms of social work are only periodically punctuated with the even a balanced story, let alone a positive one.  For us its like being invited to a party and only briefly being allowed to engage in meaningful conversation, as long as it is a darkened corner, before being publicly water-boarded in the middle of the room.

It is perhaps then understandable that many social workers just do not want to go to the media party.  The odds never seem to look that good.  This leaves social workers in a constant state of anxiety about the media.  Anxiety is never a healthy thing.  So what is to be done?

Social work has never been an easy thing to describe. If someone was asked to describe the work of a teacher or nurse or police officer, most people would readily be able to get a reasonably accurate portrayal of them.  However ask the same questions of social work, there will almost always be a lot of “ums” and “errs”, unless of course that person has had  direct experience of social work.

Social work remains something that happens, in the most part, away form the public gaze.  It often deals with the issues that most trouble society and yet most of society has little or no concept of the role of social workers.  It has been easy to fill this void with at best misunderstanding and at worst dishonest portrayals.  Those with an axe to grind or a point to prove have been given the open goal and far to often social workers, their agencies and organisations have not even been on the pitch.

Participation with media is often blocked with reasons such as confidentiality or legal proceedings.  These are perfectly reasonable justifications for not engaging openly with the media but they only add to the sense of a closed, secretive and potentially untrustworthy area of work.   This ever decreasing circle had pushed social work, more often than not, to stand firmly behind the ramparts and sporadically shout about how unfair it all is.

It seems  more recently that there has been a positive change, perhaps less from corporate social work, but instead from individual workers who have found a voice through new and social medias.  This human and real face of social work has slowly started a process of demystification and education but, at present, only to a limited audience.

This proactive, personal and honest view of social work is one that would help to open up  real social work to society and one that could be embraced by social work organisations and agencies.

In looking at writing this piece, the phrase “people fear what they do not understand” often seemed an appropriate adage.  Apparently this comes from a latin proverb “damnant quod non intelligunt”, which literally translates as, “they condemn what they do not understand”. It is up to social work to increase that level of understanding and a certain amount of bravery will be needed to do this. If social workers do not do this, then it is unlikely anyone else will

Presenting a view of social work as one that is confident and most importantly able to fight it’s corner will need the media, whether it be entertainment or news.  In doing this,  workers cannot always push for the positive view of social work only but instead should advocate for an honest portrayal. We have accepted the bad cop or poor teacher on our TV screens because we knew thats exactly what they were, not the norm but the “bad” character.  With social work, it has not always been that clear.  As we have seen in the recent Eastenders plot line, social workers should correct gross factual and procedural inaccuracies rather than insisting on the positive only view.

There is no doubt that social works more proactive involvement with the media would be a bumpy ride, but the ultimate outcome is much ore likely to a positive one.  The opening up of the work done, including the mistakes made, will humanise social work.  In doing this our time at the media party is likely to be less torturous enabling us to move into the light and engage in meaningful media conversations.

This article appeared in the Guardian Social Care Network on 30th November 2012.