This is a bit of a different post to usual. I’ve alluded to the interest of the media in parent abuse in recent weeks, but as this has come up over and over again recently I thought it worth a mention in its own right. In a nutshell, the question seems to be, how do we reconcile our desire to raise awareness of parent abuse and the need for greater service provision, with our duty to protect the families we work with from further harm?
Over the years that I’ve been tracking this, child to parent violence, or parent abuse, has been covered in what we’ll call a “positive” way in various media: in the local and national press, in professional publications as well as academic journals, in a popular weekly magazine, on radio news and magazine programmes, in TV drama and documentary, in film and on YouTube; and those are just the ones I’ve caught. It’s also attracted attention in more dramatic and contraversial ways through programmes such as Dr Phil, where families are “paraded” in front of audiences who have chosen to be present for motives which, it’s probably fair to say, don’t include the hope of witnessing a complex, sensitive process of restoring healthy family relationships. Then there’s the other side of the story in the context of the long-term failure of mainstream agencies to respond to families experiencing abuse from their children. How will the professionals come out of this? Do we really want to put ourselves through further grief at a time when the drive is rather to find positive stories of social work involvement to bring balance to the argument?
The first thing to say is that, if you work for a governmental organisation or large charity or voluntary body, you are almost certainly required to pass all requests by the media to your press department. That lets you off the hook in one respect – you’re not the one making the difficult decisions – but it doesn’t stop you having an influence if you think there’s an interesting story to be told, and press releases can attract considerable coverage. If you work for a smaller outfit though it may well be you fielding the calls, which are coming in at a pretty frantic rate at the moment. I do not want to pretend to be an expert in this, and I certainly don’t want to be seen as offering the solution; but I have a few thoughts and suggestions which might help.
Make friends with your local journalists.
Journalists need copy to earn money. They have ridiculously short deadlines to turn articles around, and they are undoubtedly working to a ‘house style’. You can help by providing interesting stories for them. If you develop a personal relationship you MAY have greater control over how the final piece looks. Don’t automatically expect the right to check drafts and quotes before publication, but you should ask. Check out something they’ve written in the past on a similar subject. Are you happy with the tone? Awards of grants, launches of projects, celebrations of success all make for good news stories, making the readership aware of your work at the same time as filling column inches. All of these can be done without breaching confidentiality or drawing in individual families.
Write your own copy.
Professional publications as well as academic journals regularly request contributions. Professional Social Work (PSW), Community Care and Practice are the first three that come to mind for me as a social worker, but check out those for your own field of work. You can usually find guidelines in the magazine itself, on the website, or by contacting the editor. Interestingly, BASW just ran a training session for people interested in writing for publication. Not much use to you now, I realise, but it’s worth looking out for similar events!
The gatekeeping issue
To make a story more interesting, to make it “come alive”, journalists want to feature “real” people, not just composite anonymous service users. There are various ways of doing this sensitively, including changing names, pixelating faces, filming from behind or using actors to voice the words. For a big piece though, for example a TV documentary, producers will be sending out researchers looking for a family prepared to face the cameras and metaphorically wash their dirty laundry in public. So how should we respond the requests to help with this?
You will know families for whom it would certainly not work. Perhaps their lives are too complicated. Perhaps you don’t know them well enough at the moment to even begin to approach the idea with them. This really needs to be a partnership operation, because you will need to be there throughout, and afterwards, to deal with the fallout. I’m not talking here about agencies wanting to buy stories for cash. If families want to go down that route it’s not hard for them to find out where to go. There’s no need for us to help in a process which will inevitably be highly tabloid and sensationalist in its presentation. But it is not fair to assume all coverage will be in this vein; and so I would argue that the overwhelming concern to protect families from themselves may be misconceived.
As a member of a professional body, you will have signed up to a set of ethical values and principles, which should guide you in every aspect of your work and life. The BASW code of ethics acknowledges that ethical problems arise because we work with conflicting interests and competing rights. So we weigh up the interests of a particular family with our own interest in raising awareness and find in the family’s favour because of other principles of supporting and protecting service users. But how do we also reconcile this position with principles of empowerment, self-determination, self advocacy and a responsibility to communities as well as to individuals? I do believe there will be times when it is right to work with families through the process of involvement with the media, but this should always be entirely voluntary and with informed consent, free from any suggestion of coercion. Whether covered locally or nationally, families will be recognised, with all the implications for the young person, and siblings too. Acclaimed programmes such as I Hate Mum and Protecting Our Children were not without critics, but are generally considered to have shown that it is possible to film individuals and families facing very difficult and sensitive issues, and for the results to be positive.
As a final thought, I would say don’t rule things out completely without discussion with your management team, union, professional organisation or colleagues. It may be that they will be able to offer clearer guidance, or simply a sounding board to help formulate your own policy and decision.
For further reading, here are some suggestions:
Ten reasons why social workers must speak to the media, 2009, Community Care
Media and Social Work, A Unison survival guide
Beyond Testimonies: Guidelines on using stories from Beyond the Streets (includes model consent form).