Reporting on Poverty

Photo by Nik Shuliahin

Photo by Nik Shuliahin

Journalist Rachel Broady is passionate about challenging the stereotypes of people experiencing poverty, and decided the best place to begin was within her own industry. 

As a lecturer in Media, Culture and Communication at Liverpool John Moores University, Rachel was instrumental in producing Reporting Poverty: A Guide for Media Professionals, working collaboratively with the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), Church Action Against Poverty, and Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Rachel’s own PhD looked at the political unconscious in journalistic responses to poverty and protest during the cotton crisis of the 1860s – and she believes that the reporting of poverty hasn’t changed in over a hundred years.

Sublime: Do you think poverty is misunderstood?

Rachel Broady: Hugely! Firstly, the extent of poverty and the experience of poverty is misunderstood. When most people think of poverty in Britain, it’s considered as destitution, rather than in-work poverty.

Poverty is often considered as foreign: happening to other (undeveloped) nations. It’s linked to famine and absolute deprivation, and frequently becomes individualised. We somehow fail to recognise that poverty is a product of capitalism and a global problem, including within the UK.

Poverty can affect everyone. You can be an employed professional on Friday with everyone treating you with respect, but then if on Monday you have to sign onto benefits, you might find yourself being treated like scum, and talked to as if you don’t understand the most basic things.

S: How would you say the media currently reports on poverty?

RB: Poverty has been stuck in the habitual Victorian style of reporting for too long.

Poverty is naturalised and seen as inevitable, something that we observe rather than something that we know ourselves.

This style often comes from a place of pity, and rarely provides an opportunity for reflection.

The Christmas period is a classic time to see this in motion, as homelessness and global poverty is suddenly an issue that the media want to write about.

It’s not out of bad intention, but journalists write or talk about what they see in the streets, and think they are doing good by bringing the subject into people’s homes. While there’s obviously an argument that it does educate and inform, this approach also sentimalises and individualises, without forcing us to challenge the root causes.

S: How did you get involved in this report?

RB: I grew up in poverty. My parents were poor, and as a child I was homeless and lived in derelict housing.

I became a successful journalist, living and working on both regional and national titles in the UK and Sydney. A period of ill health became a real reminder for me as I found myself living in fear and misery, and with constant stress about money.

I guess it was inevitable that my experience of poverty would be something I would reflect on.

Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford’s mum summed it up perfectly, “Take pride in knowing that your struggle will play the biggest role in your purpose.”

I began to question what I produced as a journalist. I then realised that what journalists really needed were guidelines, just like there are for reporting on sex and the LGBT+ community, and so I approached my local NUJ Manchester and Salford branch.

Through collaborating with Church Action on Poverty, we launched our first report in 2016. These new rules were entirely informed by people with lived experiences, and all in their own words, which is crucial.

The individuals who contributed to the report were very happy to have the chance to share their opinions. There were certain groups – disabled people, single mums, etc. – who felt demonised by articles that belittle the working class.

One mother told me, “My daughter reads these papers that stereotype poor single mums. I don’t want her to see this and think that they were writing about me, about us.”

S: What is your experience as a journalist?

RB: When I worked at News of the World, I was quickly identified as being from a working class background, and I was the default journalist sent out to stories on council estates or in areas considered a bit rough.

Once, when a colleague and I were out on a story in a particularly poor area of Manchester, she refused to get out of the car because she was scared. This was the area I had grown up in, so I found this both hilarious and offensive.

S: How can we ensure that we have a media that’s more representative of our society?

RB: Diversity is key. We need people from a broad range of backgrounds, and that includes working class backgrounds. Many journalists don’t know people who have experienced poverty, let alone experienced it themselves.

At one publication I worked at, a colleague told me he thought everyone in social housing was unemployed. I was taken aback by this revelation because I was living in social housing at the time!

There are a lot of financial hindrances that create a barrier to get young working class people into journalism. There’s still an expectation in the media industry that you have to have a degree, and then you are expected to work for free at the start. I’d love to see more funding programmes that remove these barriers to entry.

Working class kids make for great journalists because of their background, not in spite of it. More often than not they’ve already learnt to deal with different kinds of people, they have learnt to challenge authority when they’ve seen their parents being denied money, and they have a certain charm that the job requires.

S: What’s the one piece of advice you’d give a journalist writing a story about poverty, aside from reading the report in full?

RB: Firstly, we need to stop providing a definition of poverty, which makes the assumption that readers don’t know.

Most articles never have sources from people with an actual experience of poverty.

National newspapers used to get in touch with local journalists who would have contacts around their patch, who they could reach out to as a source. They weren’t dependent on a third party. With regional papers closing, we’ve lost our local connection.

I can understand why it’s often easier to approach a politician or a charity with a public relations department, but this creates a distance.

We need to reflect on our journalistic practices, asking why we chose that particular source or angle, and question how balanced and fair the article is. Would we write that way about a friend?

Interviewees need to be treated as sources rather than case studies. Sources are listened to and treated as equals who can challenge, whereas case studies cannot come back to you.

We also need to ask ourselves, are we representing poverty as inevitable?

S: What are the common errors the media makes when reporting poverty?

RB: Dickensian style reporting needs to be addressed. This is best seen in programmes such as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, where the narrative is here you go poor people, we’ve built a new house or bathroom for you, or bought you the medicines you can’t afford.

Channel 4’s The Secret Millionaire is an interesting programme. While there’s an exploitative element to it, presented in the form of Dickensian philanthropy, it does actually bring people into experience and not just witness poverty. Research indicates that this position of equals makes for better understanding. It’s not a makeover like others. It attempts to combine documentary and social commentary with drama. Of course, poverty remains and the status quo is unchallenged.

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Benefit cheat campaigns tend to inflate figures of fraud while reinforcing stereotypes. Working class people who might have got a few hundred extra pounds from the benefits system are treated like criminals with their mugshots in the paper, whereas the upper half of society who use offshore accounts to evade hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxes are rarely put on the front page.

Rather than blaming the issue on society or challenging bosses who don’t pay or treat their workers fairly, it’s the poor that are scapegoated. We never condemn the bad behaviour of the wealthy, probably due to the risk of being sued. Poor people are not going to sue you, so they are easy pickings to condemn and sentimentalise.

It’s also become very fashionable to put a prefix on poverty: fuel poverty, period poverty, furniture poverty, clothing poverty, even sun poverty (when someone can’t afford sunscreen). However this is all poverty. It’s all related to the inability to access basic necessities.

The atomising of poverty is really unhelpful. It’s a simple journalistic headline but it opens up issues for ridicule rather than realisation. The chances are that if a woman can’t afford feminine hygiene products, she probably can’t afford knickers.

S: What are the ramifications of poor media reporting on poverty?

RB: The ramifications are misrepresentation, in which people in poverty are dehumanised, considered a threat, or seen as spongers and skivers. They are ‘othered’.

It’s hard to be conscious and ask why we have poor people in the first place, because we then have to challenge capitalism – and that’s exhausting.

S: Evidence suggests that myth-busting stories actually reinforce the myths – can you explain this?

RB: This is the idea that mentioning a refugee has a mobile phone, or someone living on benefits owns a huge telly, makes the phone or telly the conversation and the story tagline, rather than the actual issue. There’s a lot of judgement.

S: What do you think about where society is right now?

RB: Right now, post-brexit and in the midst of a pandemic, there has been a veneer in the British media that we are all in it together. At the same time, Universal Credit – benefits supposed to help people – is being reduced by £20 a week. It’s likely that as we ‘level up’ the poor will be stigmatised again.

We saw the same thing happen with media reporting of the cotton crisis in the 1860s. Within weeks of the mills closing, families were stigmatised. Workers were judged if they drank gin, and women were judged if they fell pregnant. Even though there was famine relief, it was denied to people, and families were encouraged to emigrate to the colonies of Australia.

S: What do you hope is next for Reporting on Poverty?

RB: There’s a real desire for change, and we now want to politicise the report by lobbying parliament via the NUJ’s cross-party group and tabling an EDM to force debate.

I’d love to collaborate with a regional paper to take this guide fully on board and revisit their relationship with interviews.

I acknowledge that these days journalists are getting attacked from all sides, and that we barely have time to leave our desks these days. However, when we can, we need to stop and reflect.

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Photos by Nik Shuliahin, Nick Fewing and Robert Metz