Media exposure: a mixed bag
I’ve had quite a fortnight of media stuff, thanks to the latest and very depressing government stats out on child poverty. It started with the front page of The Mirror, after they came to visit to see what we do.
Later on in the week I went into the Channel 4 News studio to talk about the fact that child poverty has risen again, even by the government’s preferred measure. And then we spent yesterday at the top of Sky News every hour.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex gave us the royal seal of approval, announcing their support of our work on their instagram account which nearly broke the internet after they attracted 4 million followers in a few days. This has led to a social media frenzy, and coverage across many different publications, from the People to MailOnline.
Technically as the boss of a small charity I should be delighted. We’re punching well above our weight in the traditional narrative about what constitutes success.
But still, I don’t feel quite comfortable. I have this image in my head of editors saying “right team, we need a break from Brexit. Let’s do something on poverty. Yeah, but no more foodbanks, they’re too normal now. What’s more shocking? A baby bank you say? Images of cute poor kids? WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? Get down there now.”
Maybe I’m being unfair, but media for media’s sake has never been an objective I can get behind. I want to use opportunities for media profile to call for system change. By that, I mean I want us to use the opportunities that come our way to advocate for a society where baby banks aren’t needed any more, and the changes needed to get there.
With that aspiration as my KPI, I am less certain I can call this last fortnight a success. Two things have made me uncomfortable.
First, I am not a fan the story telling structure that’s usually used to present the situation we’re in, where 43 per cent of kids in London are in poverty, and two thirds of those have a parent in work.
This headline reinforces an unhelpful drama triangle of victim, persecutor and rescuer. In this story, poor families are the victims, helpless, denying responsibility and refusing power to make change. Organisations like ours are the rescuers, selflessly putting the needs of others in front of our own. And government is the persecutor, criticising and sanctioning victims, setting rules, making judgements. While there are elements of truth in these roles, reinforcing them is ultimately unhelpful. Persecutors and rescuers need victims to stay as just that. Telling the story in this way simply reinforces the status quo and makes it harder to create change or an appetite for change.
Second, this way of presenting the story doesn’t change attitudes. In fact it seems to perpetuate stereotypes and confirm people’s personal beliefs about what’s going on. If you read the comments about the Sky News piece, for example, they fall very neatly into two camps. For some people, the news story confirmed their belief that government has failed kids in poverty and that the existence of baby banks is heartbreaking evidence of that. But for others, the story reiterated their view that poor people are feckless, ‘on the take’ and unable to take responsibility for their actions. Some of the comments I’ve read in the last 24 hours have made me incandescent with rage and sadness.
There’s something else going on here too. In the construction of media stories small grassroots charities like Little Village have a very particular role to play. We’re doing something ‘amazing’, and so kind and special. We’re the plucky and generous spirited force for good that makes everyone feel better about the grimness of the situation. That’s all true but it risks implying that we’re content to stick some plaster over the issues we’re dealing with. It was really brought home to me when one journalist dismissed my request to talk about what policy changes are needed, telling me that “that’s the job of [insert name of thinktank] to discuss these”. We aren’t supposed to have a view on the big picture. But all too often the people who are invited to comment on the issues are completely detached from the problems they are speaking about.
I don’t want to be pushed into this position. In fact it makes me feel a bit sick to be in it.
I am working harder than I’ve ever worked before because I sense a need for people to have some agency in the face of huge social challenges like child poverty. Through Little Village we give people an opportunity to take a simple, practical step towards taking action on an issue they don’t think is right.
I am also working like this because I believe that for society to function and be resilient, we need to create real places where people can come together in mutual support. We train our volunteers that they are not here to fix people, but instead to stand in solidarity with other local parents going through tough times.
For me, the model we’re developing at Little Village takes on that drama triangle and gives back power to people to take action on stuff they care about. All this is in my view an essential part of the system change we need to tackle child poverty. Of course it’s only part of the solution, but it is an important part.
So the question I’m grappling with today is how, as a tiny charity with no communications staff on the payroll, do we use the media interest in baby banks as a force for change? How do we ensure we don’t reinforce stereotypes about overly fertile poor people on the take, and plucky grassroots charities picking up the pieces?
I don’t have all the answers and would love others thoughts on this. Here’s where I’ve got to.
We need to get really skilful at telling people’s stories in ways that make people listen in new ways, at the same time as protecting the individuals from harm for having chosen to speak out. We’re asked all the time for ‘case studies’ as if there’s no consequence to people sharing their stories. But there are consequences, and organisations like ours, and the journalists breaking the stories, share responsibility for care of the person before, during and after the media engagement. There isn’t enough of this at the moment.
Those of us with a shared agenda around child poverty really need to work more together, to co-ordinate our efforts and collaborate on what works. I love being part of the 4 in 10 network of grassroots London anti-poverty charities. I want more of this, with more people involved and more resources and time to put into it. We need to help frontline organisations, who know how things really need to change in policy terms, have more of a voice in the corridors of Whitehall. We can’t do this work alone.
And we need to get really good at refusing to participate in any debates that seek to reinforce roles and stereotypes that aren’t helpful. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has done some really great work on how to ‘frame’ poverty in ways that don’t make the problem worse. I’d love to see that being translated into direct comms and media coaching and support for charities like ours, where communications capacity is so limited and often managed by volunteers.
So I find myself today knackered from two solid days handling social media, depressed by the hateful trolls, and uncertain that all the hard work has really been worth it. Lots more to think about in this space, and I’d love people’s thoughts on how we might navigate this tricky territory more effectively.