Challenging perceptions of poverty in the media

January 2007 - June 2011

Project Complete


GCU research into public perceptions of poverty has led to commitments across the public, private and third sectors to avoid stigmatising and socially divisive language when discussing the issue of poverty, and to improvements in the preparation and implementation of child poverty strategies.\n\nA team of GCU researchers, including Dr Stephen Sinclair, Dr John McKendrick, Professor Hugh O’Donnell and Professor Gill Scott conducted two significant projects: ‘The Media, Poverty and Public Opinion’, funded by research and development charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), and ‘Tackling Child Poverty Locally’, funded by the Scottish Centre for Regeneration, which is now part of the Scottish Government.

The JRF study found that those directly experiencing poverty featured in only one in eight news media reports and were often portrayed as passive victims, even if the coverage was sympathetic. Reports often fell back on easy stereotypes blaming people for laziness, rather than on true investigative journalism into the condition. Poverty increasingly emerged as entertainment. Soap operas did not contain enough realistic representations of poverty and few documentaries helped the public to understand the causes, or reality, of poverty. 

The second project used original research and secondary data analysis to develop an integrated body of training resources, stakeholder dialogue events and advice workshops. This included an online child poverty toolkit, briefing papers and other resources to assist local practitioners in preparing and implementing child poverty strategies.

Dr Sinclair drew upon both projects while chairing the Tackling Poverty Stakeholder Forum, which was established with Scottish Government support to enable dialogue between policy makers, representatives of low-income communities and other stakeholders.


The projects, together with an associated body of commentary, community engagement and knowledge exchange activity, had a number of impacts on policy making, policy content and the public discourse on poverty.

The JRF report was launched with presentations to the Society of Editors; the All Parliamentary Group on Poverty; the Scottish Government; the TUC national conference; the Association of Journalism Educators; and the BBC College of Journalism. The research was widely reported in the national print and broadcast media.

‘Reporting Poverty in the UK: A Practical Guide for Journalists’ was published in 2008 and revised in 2009 by the Society of Editors, distributed to all members to make journalists more aware of appropriate language for poverty.

The findings informed the revised media engagement strategies of several poverty campaigning organisations: for example, the Poverty Alliance sent a guidance booklet to journalists with an interest in poverty and provided media training to local community representatives and activists who are now able to satisfy the media’s requests to interview people with experience of poverty, thus improving coverage of the issues at a local and national level. 

The Scottish Government commissioned a briefing paper on ‘Writing and Talking About Poverty’which had helped practitioners become more aware of the impact the using negative language can have on lower income groups. The findings also informed new media engagement strategies of several poverty campaigning organisations, including the ‘Stick Your Labels’ campaign run by the Anti-Stigma Working Group

This campaign secured a public commitment from the leaders of all the main Scottish political parties to avoid stigmatising language in relation to those experiencing poverty, and to challenge unrepresentative negative portrayals of low income communities. The legacy of these public commitments is reflected in the lower prominence within mainstream Scottish political conversation of the divisive rhetoric of ‘scroungers’ and ‘skivers’ prominent elsewhere in the UK. 

Evidence of the impact of the second report is the increased sophistication of the child poverty measures included in the Community Planning Partnerships which bring public, private, community and voluntary representatives together with the aim of delivering better, more joined-up public services.

Staff Involved

The primary focus on the ‘condition’ rather than the ‘individual’ is the single most important thing the journalist could do that would make a more positive difference to a public debate on how we solve poverty.

Dr John McKendrick,