Having spent almost a decade and half working in frontline newspaper journalism before joining Extern, I might be forgiven for thinking I had seen and heard it all after a daily digest of reporting crimes, court cases and other general catastrophes. But working alongside so many fantastic frontline practitioners within Extern soon disavowed me of that notion.

The dedication and professionalism of those of our colleagues who daily deal with people at their most vulnerable was undoubtedly an eye-opener for me. What’s more, it made me question my own preconceptions of their work and, as Extern’s Communications Officer, how I should publicise what they do.

Overcoming stigma through language

One of the biggest learning curves for me has been language, and our use of it. Previously, when standing outside a press briefing or courthouse, notebook in hand, I would have given little thought about using terms such as ‘killer’, ‘addict’, ‘ex-convict’, ‘hanged himself’, and so many others.

Even interviewing families of victims in their immediate grief sometimes failed to make myself and many of my colleagues aware of how the language we used in reporting their trauma might only compound their hurt.

Such harm is rarely intentional, though, and is borne more out of outdated training practices and lack of education about the sensitivity of language.

The media is capable of learning, though, and in more recent years we have seen a greater understanding and a movement towards softer turns of phrase, which extract judgment – implied or overt – from what they describe.

Where once they spoke of someone having ‘committed suicide’, they now speak of someone ‘dying through suicide’ or ‘taking their own life’. The pain these words portray may be no less for the families of those at the centre of these stories, but it at least tries to take out the added hurt of public judgment.

Where terms such as ‘hooked on drugs’ or 'druggies' might have been thrown around thoughtlessly before, they are slowly but surely being replaced by softer, but no less impactful descriptions such as ‘problematic drug and alcohol usage’ or ‘illegal substances’.

The same is true for those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, people once disparagingly written off as ‘vagrants’, ‘drifters’ or, cringmakingly, ‘tramps’.

Educating the press

A more politically sensitive argument rages still now about the precise differences between immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, with the terms seemingly interchangeable among  commentators, depending on their political hue.

Educating the press and public about the importance of using the right terms informs much of the daily work which my colleagues and I in Extern’s Communications Team carry out in developing media relations.

In recent years we have cultivated important relationships with individual journalists and outlets, and positive steps have been made towards developing a greater understanding of the complexities of Extern’s work and how it should be described.

There should be some allowance made too for those who don’t have the benefit of the inside knowledge many of those working in social care take for granted. Reporters are often under pressure – both in time and from demanding editors – to grab readers’ attention, all the more challenging in this age of quick social media ‘hits’.

It will be a long road to change attitudes and preconceptions, but we are on the right path. And Extern is doing its part to ensure such greater understanding without wishing to alienate or dictate to what must remain and a free and independent press.

Words matter

The media can be a powerful ally in sharing our incredible, lifechanging work and changing attitudes among those who might seek to criticise the people we support.

And like any charity, we can always find a use for positive coverage of our life-changing work.

Or should that be ‘usage’? 

Matthew McCreary, External Communications Officer