society ‘Giving’ a voice to those in poverty can sideline them, says Gavin Aitchison

were joined by reporters, photographers and NUJ ethics committee members. Topics discussed included how clichéd stock images skewed public perceptions, painting a narrow and extreme understanding of poverty. We talked also about the lack of diversity in newsrooms (and in many charities), which restricts understanding; the need to identify solutions and causes as well as the nature of poverty; and some recurring, damaging narratives. Sydnie Corley, from York Food Justice Alliance, challenged preconceptions: “Journalists say they print what people want to read – why not challenge them more to read something that challenges what they think?” Mary Passeri, also from York,

Let people tell their own stories of their hardship


very so often, I see a journalist online talking about giving a voice to the voiceless, and it always makes me wince.

This is well intentioned but flawed. It

wrongly presents marginalised people as inactive and portrays us journalists as some sort of saviours. Only rarely are those we write or talk

about genuinely voiceless. More often, they have been using their voices tirelessly, only to find society (and the media) too inattentive or distracted. Marginalised people do not need to

be given a voice; they need access to an audience. So a journalist’s role is not to see themselves as ‘giving’ a voice to anyone but to ensure compelling voices with important messages are afforded fair and due coverage. Who are your most vulnerable readers, viewers or listeners – and what is making their message inaudible? What is causing or exacerbating poverty, and who are you speaking to about these issues? On the flip side, whose voices are being drowned out? Media coverage of poverty is often

10 | theJournalist

flimsy and fleeting. Sometimes, that is down to wilful and cynical distortion but, often, it is because people who truly understand the issues are left out. In 2016, stirred by antagonistic

coverage, some NUJ members took a stand. Research in 2014 found that only four per cent of articles on UK poverty included significant input from people with personal experience of it, so the Manchester and Salford branch worked with Church Action on Poverty and those with first-hand insight to produce a reporting guide. Its premise was ‘nothing about us,

without us, is for us’. “The UK media is saturated with stereotypes and misinformation, creating a persistent persecution of the poor,” the guide notes. It covers how to avoid and counter stereotypes and discriminatory language. The branch worked with Church

Action on Poverty and the Reporters’ Academy to produce a short film in 2017 (search ‘nuj poverty’ on YouTube), then a discussion event was held at the NUJ HQ. Six people with experience of poverty in Halifax, York and London

Case studies are sought for preconceived narratives, with little regard for the broader insights an interviewee may bring

recounted positive and negative media experiences, and said: “You shouldn’t be making people in poverty feel like they’re on trial to prove what they’re saying. Of course, fact-check things, but interview more sensitively and sincerely than sometimes happens.” Fundamentally, the speakers with

experience of poverty called for deeper relationships with journalists and a more collaborative approach. Too often, journalists seek input only when a story is already written or nearing completion. ‘Case studies’ are sought for preconceived narratives, with little regard for the broader insights an interviewee may bring. Deep coverage is not easy – good

journalism rarely is. Where journalists have invested time in understanding issues and been receptive to unforeseen stories, people have told compelling stories in greater depth. Support is available. Church Action on

Poverty, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and On Road Media are working with journalists and people in poverty to enable coverage that is responsible, considered and collaborative. As Diana Skelton from ATD Fourth

World, said at the event: “If you are interviewing someone who might never have been asked their opinion before in their life, it’s really important to ensure they have the opportunity to influence your narrative. We want to be part of designing stories together.”

• Gavin Aitchison is media unit coordinator at Church Action on Poverty and a former reporter, news editor and NUJ father of chapel at The Press in York.

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