Specialists and media outlets must communicate clearly to help the community understand homelessness

As an organisation dedicated to ending all forms of homelessness, staff members here at CHP naturally monitor how homelessness is discussed in the media. Whilst media reporting on homelessness is improving to reflect the complexity of the issue, unfortunately certain types of homelessness are still being sensationalised, skewing the public understanding of the problem. The most recent example was the Herald Sun’s front page article ‘A Bridge to Call Our Place'(Thursday 7 May 2015). The article featured (and photographed) a young couple who are living under a Melbourne bridge with their dog in tragic circumstances, whilst they wait for public housing. The article stressed the that they lived in a prime CBD location “without paying a cent”. The article also went into detail about their income from Centrelink and begging, the circumstances that lead to their homelessness including past drug use and childhood trauma, their struggle to find affordable accommodation, and their desire to get off the streets.

We commend efforts to raise awareness of homelessness in the public’s awareness via the media, but the portrayal of the couple was unfortunate for many reasons. Here is the letter that we penned in response, which was published the following day.

Given that people sleeping rough represent around four per cent of Victoria’s homeless population (1,092 people out of 23,000 at the last Census), where’s the front page story about the 96 per cent who are experiencing other forms of homelessness such as couch surfing, living in rooming houses or staying in emergency accommodation and transitional housing while they wait for public housing?

It’s understandable that as businesses media outlets need to sell their product and to do that requires stories and headlines that will cut through the noise to grab people’s attention. However, the popularity and reach of these same outlets means they have an impact on how people understand various issues. Therefore the way in which issues are reported is very important and CHP has put together a set of Media Guidelines for reporting on homelessness. It sets out useful information including why it’s hard to collect data on homelessness, the use of appropriate language, and important things to consider when interviewing people who are experiencing homelessness, and using their stories.

But it’s also important to remember that it’s a two way street – journalists cannot be experts on every issue they cover, meaning specialist organisations need to communicate clearly with journalists and the public about their topic. For example, family violence is another issue complex issue that requires sensitivity and is closely linked to homelessness. Recently Domestic Violence Victoria launched a framework called Working with News and Social Media to Prevent Violence Against Women: A Strategic Framework which is aimed at helping people working in the prevention sphere work with media to achieve that outcome.

If we are to end homelessness, or violence against women and children, specialist organisations and media outlets must work together. It’s important that people can access accurate information, otherwise it will become more difficult to engage the community to work towards meaningful change.