CLACKSON Anne; LINDSAY Sheryl; MACQUARRIE Alan
TitleThe homes from Hell? Media perceptions of residential care.
Journal citation/publication detailsScottish Journal of Residential Care, 5(1), February/March 2006, pp.25-36.
AimThe aim of this study is to categorise and evaluate Scottish and UK newspaper coverage of residential child care.
MethodologyOnline editions of broadsheet and tabloid, local, Scottish and UK daily and Sunday newspapers were surveyed from July to December 2001. Articles were evaluated subjectively as positive (one that congratulates or praises, uses neutral rather than negative language or raises a new or overlooked topic), negative (where the topic was negative, the article was critical, or it used emotive language), or factual (where neutral language, dates and figures are used without a negative or positive stance being taken).
Negative reporting generally outweighed positive or factual reporting except in articles around education. 75% of 77 articles collected on child abuse and neglect were found to be negative, including those criticising local authorities, mentioning young people who had run away from residential care and concerning accusations of historic abuse. Often the negativity was directed at the abuse rather than residential child care per se. The few positive articles covered the plight of young men who were forced in prostitution. Some negative articles were positive about residential care (for example stating that young people should be taken into residential care rather than being left in harmful situations). Four out of six articles around absconding covered young people who had absconded from residential units. 12 articles on education were mainly positive or factual (covering funding from the Scottish Executive and a scheme to allow children in residential care to take places at boarding school), whereas 70% of articles on staffing and training were negative. 71% of 49 articles on legal and policy issues were categorised as negative. Most articles (35/49) covered existing government policy with many outlining shortcomings or illustrating how not enough is being done by government or agencies.
Local press was more likely to report negatively on children's units and local and tabloid press frequently reported negatively on staffing and training issues. Legal and policy issues were mostly covered by broadsheets.
Two case studies illustrate how press coverage can create problems for young people, staff and managers. The first case study looks at a group of young women from a local authority children's home in Dundee who attended a Robbie Williams concert in Rotterdam. Articles in the Dundee Evening Telegraph (and picked up by other newspapers) condemned the trip as 'rewarding kids who misbehave'. The young women themselves complained about the article as there were no examples or misbehaviour and they were using the children's unit holiday allowance. Who Cares? Scotland's Speak out! magazine has highlighted this case describing how the young people had to face the press 'not because they had done anything wrong but because they were in care'. The second case study looks at how three established children's homes and one as yet unbuilt were examined in four Scottish newspapers. The articles all focused on the strength of feeling in local communities when children's home residents were alleged to have caused trouble in the surrounding area. However, some reports were more balanced or contained some sympathetic reporting.
ConclusionThe authors conclude that press reporting of residential child care presents problems and can present a skewed image of children in care. The authors highlight the problem of cases where most of the press coverage is neutral and factual but where one paper may break ranks and print a sensationalist headline. The positive messages from the survey include the fact that not all press reporting is negative and if the press are challenged over unfair reporting they will sometimes apologise. In many cases an attention-grabbing headline is followed by a more objective full story. The results of this first study show that the press coverage of residential child care is more complex that blanket hostility.