Leaving narratives unchallenged can only lead to injustice

30 November 2021

Topic: Adoption, Stigma
Author: Samantha Fiander

A mobile phone showing a news channelCELCIS is a partner in the Each and Every Child initiative working to support people to understand that how care and care experience is framed matters. Here Samantha Fiander, Communications and Engagement Lead at CELCIS, reflects on the impact of the media, and how it is used, in shaping public attitudes to care experience.

In recent days in Scotland, there has been a headline-grabbing news story about the breakdown of an adoption.

A few words read online, in a newspaper or heard on the radio, can never equip us to fully understand what has happened, the feelings and needs of everyone involved and the support they need now. ‘Case study’ led stories like these will only ever be able to record the reflections of the person who is telling their story.

Personal stories have the potential power to raise awareness and put pressure on decision-makers. In providing a platform for these, the media play an integral role here. I should know: as a professional communicator, working with the press has always been crucial in influencing public and political will for policy change and support for action to address some of the most pressing issues in society.

But the stark truth here is that when it comes to using personal stories to stimulate awareness or empathy, there can often be an unintended consequence. For every story, column or fundraising appeal that uses a narrative around a case study in order to evoke support or understanding, sometimes bordering on pity, runs a very real risk of perpetuating a myth or stereotype, one that can cause distress, stigma and lead to discrimination and prejudice.

In providing a platform over the last week that left unchallenged sentences such as “We probably don’t fit the image you have in your mind of people whose child is taken into care. We are not alcoholics, or violent, or drug abusers”, the media is complicit in the narrative. Where might that image have come from one wonders?

Working with the research project behind the Each and Every Child initiative, I understand that it will take all of us, whoever we are, whomever we’re with, to think about how we talk about care and care experience and the impact this has. ‘Othering’ people using narratives based on clichés, whatever these are, ignores the challenges any one of us can face in life.

Will there be significant change in support just because of this story published over the last week? No. Are people with experience of care, including adoption, feeling hurt, angry or dismayed by the portrayal of who and what they and their families are? Undoubtedly. What consideration by the media, if any, has been given to the needs and rights of the children being referred to and the effect of this coverage? I am far from alone in sharing these concerns about this coverage, and appreciate what it has taken for many to speak out publicly to challenge what has been published and broadcast.

Scotland already knows what it needs to do to support all families. Together, we must all keep The Promise of the Independent Care Review to make real change for children in need of care and protection. Stigmatising and labelling children and their loved ones will only serve to limit what we can all do to make sure children and young people in need of care and protection, their families and carers, can get the help they need when they need it.


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