Stereotypes abound in media reporting of homelessness

Media outlets play a huge role in shaping people’s views of social issues. Unfortunately, last week we saw another example of homelessness not being explained, but used as a tool to evoke emotion and perpetuate a stereotype.

When a woman’s body was found on a Saturday morning near Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, it didn’t take long for media outlets to tell the story. They were also quick to point out that 42-year old Scott Allen Miller, the man police wanted to speak to in relation to her death, was homeless. ‘Hunt For Killer Hobo’ read the front page of Monday’s Herald Sun (30/6/14), while ABC News and the Age went with more measured headlines of ‘Botanic Gardens death: Police search for homeless ‘loner’ wanted in connection with body found in Melbourne’ and ‘Death In The Domain’ respectively. Although the Age headline didn’t mention Mr Miller’s homelessness, the paragraph below and following story certainly did. It begs the question – how is Mr Miller’s homelessness or otherwise relevant to his involvement in this crime?

The answer is it’s not. In 2006, Hanover Welfare Services and Maurice Blackburn Cashman Lawyers conducted a study that looked into public perceptions of homelessness and revealed serious misconceptions surrounding the profiles, causes and solutions to homelessness. The majority of those surveyed believed the typical profile of a person experiencing homelessness was a male over the age of 40, who slept rough and had a substance misuse or mental health issue, and was unlikely to seek or accept help. Significantly, many respondents also believed that individuals were responsible for their situation, thus reducing people’s empathy and in turn their motivation to engage with the problem. Respondents also reported being fearful of rough sleepers.

These stereotypes just don’t stack up against the reality. Forty two per cent of people experiencing homelessness are under the age of 25 and 44 per cent are female. And rather than being dangerous by nature of being homeless, people experiencing homelessness are three times more likely to be victims of crime. However, as far as we know Mr Miller fitted 4 of the 5 stereotypical characteristics identified in the study: male, over 40 years old, sleeping rough, and refused help from organisations that may have helped him into housing (this information was provided by The Salvation Army to the media). By raising and focusing on Mr Miller’s homelessness,  inaccurate stereotypes of homelessness were perpetuated, yet readers/listeners remain uneducated as to the reality of the issue.

With the pressure to deliver content on a 24 news cycle and the increasing prominence of ‘clickbait’ (where deliberately sensational or peculiar headlines are used by online news sites to encourage web traffic), it’s understandable journalists will increasingly use emotional angles and ‘hooks’ to stories. However, when complex social issues like homelessness are reduced to emotive concepts, stereotypes are maintained and reinforced. If we don’t get out the real facts about  homelessness, it becomes harder to engage the community in activities and investments that will lead to significant change.