Social Policy, the Media, and Misrepresentation

Social Policy, the Media, and Misrepresentation

Social Policy, the Media, and Misrepresentation

Social Policy, the Media, and Misrepresentation


A radical collection of chapters by academics; journalists and broadcasters, Social Policy, the Media and Misrepresentation examines aspects of news media reporting of social policy and how such coverage can influence processes of policy making and implementation. With detailed case studies, the various chapters explore: social work and child protection; housing and homelessness; the charity and voluntary sectors; poverty and welfare policy; health (including HIV/AIDS) and mental health; and education and criminal justice.


Misleading messages: the media and social policy

Bob Franklin

'Social policy', Polly Toynbee argues, 'makes neither news nor history unless', she suggests appending an important qualification, 'there is some crisis' (Guardian, 13 January 1999). Her observation concerning the paucity of social policy news combined with the suggestion that the media tend to report social policy issues in highly critical, if not apocalyptic, terms are both affirmed by this collection of essays. Peter Golding, for example, reporting the findings of an analysis of media coverage of policy between 1996-97, confirms that social policy reports constitute only 11 per cent of all domestic news coverage in national newspapers, radio and television (see Chapter 9). This relative neglect of social policy is curious on at least four grounds. First, public expenditure on social policy is substantial, amounting to £214 billion in 1996, with £107 billion being spent on social security, £43 billion on health, £39 billion on education, £15 billion on public order and safety and £10 billion on housing and community amenities (Social Trends 1998:120). Second, social policy has significant implications for almost every citizen. Education alone involves almost a quarter of the population directly: 13 million as pupils and students with a further one million as teachers and ancillary workers (see Chapter 10). Citizens' needs for housing, employment, pensions and health services are similarly universal. Third, social policy is a key concern for media audiences; especially during elections. A study of the 1997 general election ranked Europe (25 per cent), health (20 per cent), education (18 per cent) and pensions (9 per cent) as voters' four highest policy preoccupations, measured by the frequency with which these issues were raised with party candidates (Butler and Kavanagh 1997:120). Finally, social policy is a central ingredient in all governments' policy agendas. If defence, foreign affairs, transport and agriculture are excluded, social policy effectively becomes coterminous with government policy: social policy, moreover, undoubtedly ranks among the most contentious of government policy arenas. Given these indicators of the high news salience or 'news value' of social policy issues, the reluctance of the media to report such policy concerns seems curious.

Toynbee's second observation, that social policy 'makes news' when there is a crisis, tells only part of the story. What Toynbee neglects to mention is how

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