Couple choosing food in supermarket
Credit: By Gustavo Fring/Pexels

Earlier in 2022, food poverty campaigner Jack Monroe used Twitter to criticise the way that inflation was being covered and how the headline stats ignored the disproportionate impact on people with the lowest incomes.

Monroe's complaints had an impact and many national media (and even the Office for National Statistics) revised the way they reported on inflation data, to better show how different types of households are affected by price changes.

As well as illustrating the importance of putting numbers into context, this example made it clear that we need perspectives from different groups in society, especially the people who are directly affected by the problems we report on.

As falling wages alongside rapidly rising prices and bills lead to a 'cost of living crisis', it is up to news publications to make sure their reporting is representative and therefore accurate.

Reporting that represents the most vulnerable

"Lots of people are tightening their belts for the first time, or the first time in a while, and it's easy to focus on tips and support for them," freelance finance journalist Felicity Hannah tells

"But if we report on the struggle like it's a new situation then we really risk alienating the people who have been struggling for much longer and who are now facing financial disaster."

This is true both in news reports and in service journalism or tips. Hannah adds: "I am always very conscious that if I offer tips like 'wear two jumpers and keep the thermostat down a degree' that I also acknowledge that many people have already done this and more. So I try to acknowledge what advice is for different groups."

That is not always easy for journalists who do not have established relationships with members of these different groups. The charity On Road Media was set up to connect journalists with people and campaigners, supporting individuals with direct experience of issues including poverty, domestic violence and migration in sharing their stories with the media.

This includes running two networks of people affected by poverty (one in London, one nationwide) and leading training sessions for media professionals informed by the networks' insights.

On Road Media offers tips on getting the language right - such as avoiding making links to the past by referring to 'Dickensian' levels of poverty, or using words like 'deserve' to imply that basic rights such as housing and food should be earned. It also recommends choosing appropriate pictures, rather than stock photos that can reinforce false stereotypes.

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Working with sources

Good coverage of the cost of living crisis will include perspectives from those directly affected, be that the accounts which make the final draft or those interviewed for background information.

On Road Media project manager Aishah Siddiqa stresses the importance of adequately briefing interviewees and checking in with them after the report is finished. This is not time wasted, as that source can be an asset for future stories on similar, connected or very different topics. It might even prompt a new angle or direction that would not have come about otherwise.

Sarah Whitehead, co-director of Community Pride CIC and a member of On Road Media's network of people with lived experience of poverty, says that covering poverty responsibly means reporting on the different "chains" that can push people into poverty.

"Media coverage about poverty often focuses on things like unemployment and doesn’t show the reality of people who are being pulled into poverty because of low wages, insecure contracts and the rising living costs we’re all facing," she explains.

She would also like to see more coverage of issues such as the high price of arts and cultural activities despite their positive impact on people’s confidence and other skills.

It takes a lot of courage for sources to come forward and speak to journalists as well. Whitehead, who has been interviewed by multiple media outlets, says that an interviewee's experience with the media can affect their confidence, health and the likelihood of them (and others) speaking out again.

In a positive interviewee experience, "you do not feel pressured to answer things that you are not comfortable with and the language being used by the interviewer is positive and not stigmatising. It's important to show people in a dignified way."

Stats, stories, systems - and solutions

Siddiqa recommends factoring in three 'pilllars' into coverage of poverty: statistics and data; individual stories; and systems and structures.

"Sharing individual stories humanises coverage, but adding in explanation of the structural context makes it clear that the story illustrates a wider problem which we can address together," explains Siddiqa.

Including just one or two sentences about the system paints a picture that individuals affected by poverty are not at fault. It also guarantees a more complete and accurate story for audiences.

A closer examination of systemic issues helps to place potential solutions into the debate and take a more constructive direction.

This is not about presenting a 'silver bullet' fix, but it might mean including a nod to the benefits system or community-level solutions such as food banks or schemes to support people in poverty, explaining what exists, how it works, and how it could be improved.

Siddiqa says that looking at what we can learn from existing solutions, "helps make sure we are all striving towards change rather than feeling like it's something that is impossible or just too big and scary to tackle."

Finance journalist Felicity Hannah also points to responses that are led by the people directly affected - such as the Facebook groups Universal Credit Survival or Energy Support And Advice UK. Amplifying these voices means people are not portrayed merely as victims.

Move the story forward

Sometimes there will not be a clear 'solution', so beyond showcasing things that are already working, journalists can look at what it would take to improve specific situations.

"I want news editors to focus on what can change - not just on what’s working," says Whitehead.

Consider looking at other cities or countries that have successful schemes, and ask people affected by economic hardship what would help them and what is missing from current support.

Adding this element of hope and concrete examples makes for a story that can empower readers - and it helps in holding those in power to account.

If you can educate the public on successful initiatives, even if they are currently small-scale or happening elsewhere, or if you can clearly outline what support affected people need, it becomes harder for anyone in a position of authority to claim that severe economic hardship is inevitable or that it is the fault of those affected.

Further resources

Reporting poverty: A guide from On Road Media for journalists. Journalists and newsrooms are also invited to contact On Road Media for further information about their network and media training sessions

Guidelines for respectful reporting on poverty: A guide from the Austrian Anti-Poverty Network (available in English and German)

Covering poverty: A guide from The Journalist's Resource

Reporting poverty: A guide from the National Union of Journalists

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