Social work and the news media: entrenched assumptions, practice tensions and social workers’ professional identity

Cordoba, P 2016, Social work and the news media: entrenched assumptions, practice tensions and social workers’ professional identity, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University.

Document type: Thesis
Collection: Theses

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Title Social work and the news media: entrenched assumptions, practice tensions and social workers’ professional identity
Author(s) Cordoba, P
Year 2016
Abstract There is a dominant idea within the social work professional community that the news media has consistently portrayed an unfairly negative view of the profession, focusing overwhelmingly on child protection failures. The literature on the topic suggests that the biased and critical coverage of the profession has been detrimental to workers and practice. While the relationship between social work and the news media has been the focus of writings in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Canada for almost seven decades, it continues to be a highly discussed, but poorly researched and understood topic. As a social worker, I have experienced the dominance of these ideas firsthand. Given the lack of research, the intent of the study was to explore the topic with a depth, rigour and reflexivity absent from most work.

Working with twenty practising social workers as co-researchers, the research project that informs this thesis sought to learn how the news media portrays the profession and how these representations affect social workers at a professional and personal level. This was done through a qualitative, social constructionist study where, over a twelve-month period, participants explored the issue and undertook a news media analysis in collaboration with myself as the researcher. The research project resulted in numerous insights that did not reflect the dominant assumptions within the professional community about negative reporting and its impacts on workers. At the conclusion of the twelve-month project the unexpected findings prompted further questions that dominated the latter stages of my analysis of the data. Mainly, given that the entrenched ideas about news coverage did not reflect what participants observed, can we better understand their dominance through the function that these views had for social workers? Central to this was the discovery of how participants used these beliefs to form and maintain their professional identity.

The analysis of how participants formed their professional identity throughout the research emphasised the function of the dominant views about news coverage. It became apparent that throughout the research process participants formed their professional identity within two alternating and contradictory subject positions. This was highlighted by the fact that for almost every participant when social work was discussed in general, the profession was deemed broad, ambiguous and hard to define, but when discussed in the context of the news media, these struggles were not present and most reproached the news media for not being able to understand or define social work correctly. This contradiction represents significant shifts in participants’ subject positioning as social workers: from a tension-filled, contradictory and fragmented construction of social work that reflects what participants experience in daily practice, to a morally clear, unified and stable one when the focus is on the existence of unfairly negative news coverage.

It is theorised that the entrenched views about reporting play a significant function in negotiating and mediating the high degree of tension and conflict present in contemporary social work practice. As reported by participants, these tensions are primarily characterised by the dissonance between what social workers believe the profession should be about (social justice, human rights and liberators of the oppressed) and what they find it to be in their practice and organisational contexts (social control and managers of risk). Focusing on the existence of unfair media coverage as an external threat thus momentarily mediated these conflicts by positioning workers within a morally clear and seemingly stable, but highly problematic, sense of a professional identity. Dominant ideas about unfair reporting therefore became a tool with which social workers defused these tensions and temporarily displaced the ensuing dissonance, antagonism and possible conflict.

The thesis makes an innovative contribution to the scholarship by proposing that the profession’s beliefs about the news media may mediate the significant conflicts experienced by social workers in the formation of their professional identity. The findings possibly indicate that the profession’s fascination with its news media coverage may come at the expense of better understanding and negotiating the tensions, conflicts and contradictions of contemporary social work. It is proposed that in order to break the repetitive cycle of discussion on this topic, dominated by poorly substantiated claims that the news media is unfairly biased towards social work and suggesting better public-relation campaigns as a solution, a significant shift in focus could be required. This change involves a move away from the current defensive and reactionary position (that sees all negative coverage as unfair and does not look beyond social work to understand news creation processes and how other groups experience reporting), towards a more reflective and proactive approach (that is less insular in relation to news media coverage and its impacts, and seeks to balance an awareness of the profession’s public image with better understanding and articulating what constitutes professional social work). Therefore, not only do the findings from this study contribute considerably to social work knowledge, they also present a revisioning for the way that the social work professional community understands and engages with the news media and its professional identity.
Degree Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Institution RMIT University
School, Department or Centre Global, Urban and Social Studies
Subjects Social Work not elsewhere classified
Media Studies
Clinical Social Work Practice
Keyword(s) Social work
News media
Professional identity
Media coverage
Social work practice
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Created: Wed, 19 Oct 2016, 12:25:30 EST by Keely Chapman
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