Top tips for journalists to improve reporting on homelessness

The media plays a powerful role in shaping public understanding of homelessness. Efforts to encourage our leaders to end homelessness with good policy can be undone with a single keystroke from a time-strapped journalist.

Despite the significant attention given to rough sleeping in the media, the vast majority of people who are counted as homeless are hidden from view.

And contrary to the stereotype of the older homeless man, nearly 2-in-3 clients of homelessness services are women.

Government data shows that the three biggest drivers of homelessness are family violence, financial difficulties and a lack of affordable housing. Less than 1% of people seeking help cited alcohol, drugs and mental illness as the main reason they needed assistance from homelessness services.

But the lure of a sensational headline can sometimes lead to these facts being overlooked. Good reporting can drive positive community conversations about the underlying causes of homelessness, and there countless journalists working hard to cover stories in a compelling, factual and ethical way.

With the support of the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation, we have launched the Victorian Homelessness Media Awards.

The Awards are open to all Australian journalists to enter. We are looking for stories that provide context for complex issues, show creativity and respect.

To assist journalists in their reporting, CHP has developed Media Guidelines for Reporting on Homelessness. Here are the five simple ways that journalists can improve their reporting on homelessness:

1) Give a balanced view of all homelessness experiences, not just rough sleeping. 95% of homelessness is hidden from view in the form of couchsurfing, rooming houses, severely overcrowded homes and living in crisis accommodation.

2) Don’t use a photo of a rough sleeper to accompany your story if the story is about homelessness in general. Speak to CHP about accessing images that are more broadly representative.

3) Include the views of people with lived experience of homelessness, but consider their capacity to consent to be interviewed if they are currently in crisis.

4) Take into account the broader social and economic causes of homelessness, such as rising rents, low Centrelink incomes and entrenched disadvantage. Ask CHP for data on housing affordability for low income earners, the relationship between family violence and homelessness or the main reasons people seek help.

5) Include the following footnote: If you are experiencing, or at risk, of homelessness, ring the 24-hour Victorian hotline 1800 825 955

The full media reporting guidelines are available here.

Entries to the Victorian Homelessness Media Awards are open 22 April – 23 August