In this post I summarize some recent sociological research which suggests newspapers and ‘reality T.V. shows represent benefits claimants in a limited range of stereotypical ways, focusing on them as lazy, undeserving scroungers engaged in immoral, wreckless and criminal behaviour.
A lot of the research below also reminds us that media representations in no way reflect the reality of being unemployed and claiming benefits in the UK.
This research is relevant to the A-level sociology media topic: representations of social class.
Stereotypes of benefits claimants in newspaper articles
Baumberg et al’s (2012) research ‘Benefits Stigma in Britain’ analysed a database of 6,600 national press articles between 1995-2011.
Baumberg et al found an extraordinarily disproportionate focus on benefit fraud: 29% of news stories referenced fraud. In comparison the government’s own estimate is that a mere 0.7% of all benefits claims are fraudulent.
Common language used to describe benefits as ‘undeserving’ included:
- Fraud and dishonesty (including those such as ‘faking illness’);
- Dependency (including ‘underclass’ and ‘unemployable’);
- non-reciprocity/lack of effort (e.g. ‘handouts’, ‘something for nothing’, ‘lazy’, ‘scrounger’); •
- outsider status (e.g. ‘immigrant’, ‘obese’)
Language used to describe benefits claimants as ‘deserving’ included:
- need (‘vulnerable’, ‘hard-pressed’);
- disability (‘disabled’, ‘disability’).
In general, Tabloid newspapers such (especially The Sun) focused on representing benefits claimants as undeserving, while broadsheets such as The Guardian were more likely to focus on representing benefits claimants as ‘deserving’.
NB – The Sun and The Mail are Britain’s two most widely circulated newspapers.
Stigmatising benefits claimants
Finally, the study found an increase in articles about benefits claimants which focused on the following stigmatising themes:
- ‘shouldn’t be claiming’ (for reasons other than fraud)
- never worked/hasn’t worked for a very long time
- large families on benefits
- bad parenting/antisocial behaviour of families on benefits
- claimants better off on benefits than if they were working
- claimants better off than workers
- immigrants claiming benefits
More neutral/ positive themes included:
- compulsion of claimants (e.g. workfare, benefit conditionality)
- cuts to benefits
As with the themes of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’, Tabloids produced more stigmatising content than the the broadsheets.
Stereotypes of benefits claimants in reality T.V. shows
Ruth Patrick (2017) has analysed the representations of those on benefits and in poverty on reality television shows such as ‘Benefits Street’ and Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole.
The number of such shows has exploded in recent years, but while they claim to provide and honest ‘realistic’ insight into lives of Britain’s benefit claimants and those living in poverty, Patrick and others argue they are sensationalised and present stereotypical representations of those on welfare.
If we look at the opening scenes for the first series of Benefits Street for example, these featured:
- sofas on the pavement,
- men on streets drinking cans of lager,
- women smoking cigarettes on their doorsteps.
Overall such shows present benefits claimants as lazy shirkers who don’t want to work, and as people who are different to the hard-working majority.
Such shows emphasize the difference between the working majority (‘us’) and the workless minority (‘them’) and invites us to identify ourselves against benefits claimants, and possibly to see claiming benefits as something which is a choice, long term and morally wrong, rather than as something which is a necessity, usually a short term stop-gap before a return work.
This interview with Jordan, who took feature in Benefits Britain as a claimant offers an insight into how negative representations of the unemployed are socially constructed by media professionals:
Jordan claims that he usually keeps his flat tidy, but was told by the producers to deliberately not tidy it up before they came round to shoot, because it would make people feel more sorry for him.
He also claims that the media crew bought alcohol and cigarettes for the shoot, and told the ‘claimants’ that if they didn’t consume them before the shoot was over they’d take them away again, which led to lots of images of the cast drinking and smoking, when Jordan claims he would only usually do this on special occasions.
Relevance of this to A-level Sociology/ Media studies….
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that newspapers and ‘reality’ T.V. present you with the reality of ‘life on benefits’ – in fact both of these sources present highly sensationalised accounts of what it’s like to actually be unemployed.
All of the above research is based on careful content analysis which picks out the main ways in which benefits claimants are stereotyped and thus represented in a limited way.
This post has only focused on representations, forthcoming posts will focus on why mainstream media professionals choose to represent benefits claimants in negative, stereotypical ways.
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