There is a divide between the media and people experiencing poverty about how they are portrayed.
It is an issue that has been recognised by the Society of Editors:
"When the latest pictures arrive of pestilence, natural disaster, disease or famine, the media responds with immediacy and sensitivity and cash flows into charities. It is more difficult to convey the long-running, grinding disadvantage experienced by people who may not be living quite so obviously in poverty and despair in the UK." (Bob Satchwell, Executive Director, Society of Editors)
The research suggests that the media is selective in its approach to the subjects it covers, with the situation of children and older people far more likely to make the news agenda as they are perceived as more 'deserving' of sympathy. Coverage tends to pigeonhole people, categorising them as heroes, victims or villains.
The flow of stories about abuses of the welfare system can lead to the assumption that all people receiving benefits are not only 'on the fiddle' but also getting a handsome income. Neither is true. While there are cases that appear to confirm such prejudices, the benefits system remains a safety net to provide a very basic income for people who would otherwise have little or nothing.
Another approach that can misrepresent people in poverty is to cast the spotlight only on the achievements of entrepreneurs who have risen from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Such positive examples are actually few and far between. While giving them publicity can provide a positive story, the absence of stories explaining what makes it difficult for everyone to achieve such a change can imply that the overwhelming majority of people in poverty have failed by not achieving as much.
"There is very little sympathetic portrayal of poor people. And people are looking for reassuring images, that things are OK, things are fair, and that people at the bottom are there because it's their fault, and therefore we've all earned and merit our position."
(Political Commentator, Daily Broadsheet, quoted in Reporting poverty in the UK)
"There's a long tradition of good journalism about poverty and that is not just historic, it goes on to this day and it can be very powerful. The media's role is in bringing that to people’s attention. So I think it's worth having a caveat that it's not all bleak … however, there is very little coverage of social issues in the tabloids at all. It's all kind of celebrity-driven news, entertainment news and when it's in the broadsheets it is often ghettoised to supplements."
(Editor, Sunday Broadsheet supplement, quoted in Reporting poverty in the UK)
"The bulk gets missed out – They're not interesting or photogenic. It's just the extremes, the unusual gets highlighted. and Poverty is worthy, not newsworthy."
(Journalists quoted in Poverty and the media: Getting seen and being heard by Fred Robinson, Richard Else, Maeve Sherlock and Ian Zass-Ogilvie)
"I learnt about poverty the hard way.... and it made life a lot more difficult than the media made it out to be. And, you know, that's why I don't like these stories you get 'Mrs Somebody or other gets one thousand, five hundred pounds a week in benefits' and you're thinking 'yeah'. To get benefit you have to battle. You have got to really struggle and, you know, just to get your basic requirements, you’ve got to struggle. But the media, you know, publicises that it's so easy, there's so much money floating around, you just go in and ask them for it." (Male, low income, rural Scotland, quoted in The media, poverty and public opinion in the UK)
"They also felt that the piece would be much more effective if it was less unrelentingly negative. The phrase in the title 'no hope' suggested that there was nothing that could be done, and hence no point in people engaging with it." (Dan Paskins, formerly of the UK Coalition Against Poverty, from Reporting poverty in the UK)
Image courtesy of Anna Kari, Save the Children