In today's episode of the Social Work Podcast, I speak with award-winning journalist, Maiken Scott from WHYY in Philadelphia. Maiken starts by describing what she does – a day in the life of a reporter. She talks about how she finds experts to interview. We talked about how social workers can combat this misperception that social workers are the same as child welfare workers. She encouraged social workers to become advocates for their own professions. She points out that psychology, medicine, and nursing gets all sorts of information to reporters. Social work does not. She talked about what she looks for in a "good interview." We ended with Maiken's ideas for how social workers could influence the stories that are heard in the media.
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Bio (from WHYY)Maiken Scott
Maiken Scott is WHYY’s Behavioral Health Reporter and covers a wide variety of topics, ranging from new treatments for depression to the impact of foster care on children to the portrayal of mental illness in pop culture. Maiken started working at WHYY in 1997. Her first job with WHYY was as producer for the weekly mental health program Voices in the Family with Dr. Dan Gottlieb. She still serves as the executive producer for the show. Some of the most memorable shows Dan and Maiken produced together featured interviews with actor Christopher Reeve, mathematician Dr. John Nash, and Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn. Maiken has also produced and hosted several award-winning radio documentaries for WHYY: Growing up Big, In The Shadow of 9/11, Healing Healthcare, and Childhood Lost and Found for which she was honored with the prestigious Gracie Allen Award.
Maiken grew up in Karlsruhe, Germany where she started her career as a reporter and producer. She moved to the United States in 1992, and holds a BA from Temple University in Journalism, and an MA from Temple University in Women’s History. She is a member of the adjunct faculty in the department of Journalism at Temple University.
IntroductionJonathan Singer: Let me just say, at the outset of the episode, that I love being a social worker. I'm proud of my profession, with all its imperfections. I'm probably preaching to the choir here, but in case you're not a social worker and you stumbled across this episode on Stitcher (http://stitcher.com/s?fid=31925&refid=stpr), iTunes (http://www.itunes.com/podcast?id=216662405), or even the web, let me just say that social workers are everywhere. Social workers are in government, politics, hospice, early childhood intervention, schools, primary care, criminal justice, and yes, child welfare. And if you're in the United States and you go to see a psychotherapist, you're most likely to see a clinical social worker – we provide more mental health services than all other helping professionals combined. And yet, despite the fact that we're on the front lines and behind the scenes, we're mostly invisible in the entertainment and news media.
And when we do show up in the news, it is rarely good. I personalized my Google News feed to pull up stories with the phrases "social work" and "social worker." Turned out to be a little masochistic. Headlines were as you would expect: misidentification of child welfare workers as social workers, reports of actual social worker misconduct, the occasional death of a social worker, and then the very rare time when a social worker won an award. Now, I know: bad news sells. If I want my news to look on the bright side I have to head over to http://www.happynews.com. But it wasn't the absence of positive stories about social workers that was distressing. It was the absence of stories where social workers were "the expert." Looking at social workers as the source of bad news, rather than a group of professionals who can provide insight into why bad things happen and what society can do about it, has implications beyond my self-esteem as a social worker.
This view of social workers as incompetent and social services as flawed or dangerous has serious consequences. It affects the public's beliefs and attitudes about social welfare issues. Does this sound familiar – you're talking with someone and they say, "Oh yeah, I read that story about how homeless drug addicts get free housing. I should have thought of that." It gives potential consumers a negative view of service providers. How about this - Does this sound familiar? "So you're a social worker huh? You gonna take my kids?" It can also affect how our professional colleagues see us. "It doesn't look like this patient has ever had therapy, she's just been seeing a social worker for the past year." This isn't anything new. In 1997 the former executive director of the National Association of social workers, Josephine Nieves (1997) said, "Little troubles professional social workers more than the less-than-accurate image the public seems to have of our profession, acquired unfairly and based on misinformation" (p. 2).
Social workers in the USA, the UK, Australia, and other countries, have been responding to this "image problems" for years. In the USA the National Association of Social Workers regularly pursues media awareness campaigns. NASW recently set up the website SocialWorkersSpeaks.org explicitly to give social workers and the general public a place to "critique and improve the way social workers and social issues are covered in the news media, and portrayed in the entertainment industries." And to put a spotlight on news and entertainment media that did a good job of portraying social workers, in 2012 NASW gave out Media Awards to websites, films, columns, movies. (Full disclosure: the Social Work Podcast won the 2012 Media Award for Best Website).
All this is great. At an organizational level.
But what we do, what can you and I do as individual social workers to change the way social work is portrayed in the news and entertainment media? NASW has some recommendations, which I'll read in a minute. But I wanted to go to the source, to talk with a real live journalist about this issue from a journalists' perspective, because, after all, they are reporting the news. So today I'm talking with award winning journalist Maiken Scott from Philadelphia's public radio, WHYY 90.9 FM. I met Maiken a number of years ago because she interviewed me following the suicide deaths of some kids in the region. Since then, when there have been youth suicides or when issues of cyberbullying and youth suicide come up, Maiken can give me a call, and I've been on the radio a couple of times. So, I know that she does a really good job at talking about issues in a way that social workers can respect, and in a way that I think does a good job for the public in terms of education and information. Here, just take a quick listen to some of her work.
"With three suicides at Interboro High School – along with a wave of suicides at Cornell University, parents and teachers are concerned about suicide clusters, as suicide in a person's community... but should avoid big memorials, which could glorify suicide. I'm Maiken Scott, WHYY News. (http://whyy.org/cms/news/health-science/behavioral-health-health-science/2010/03/19/another-student-suicide-at-interboro-high-school-raises-concerns/34208)
"The study surveyed 400 school social workers and found that half of them felt that they were not prepared to deal with the issue of cyber-bullying... kids need to be trained to alert adults when cyber-bullying occurs. I'm Maiken Scott, WHYY News." (http://www.newsworks.org/index.php/local//healthscience/12843-study-finds-schools-are-not-well-prepared-to-deal-with-cyberbullies)
As a way of setting the stage for how the news works, Maiken starts by describing what she does – a day in the life of a reporter. She talks about how she finds experts to interview. We talked about how social workers can combat this misperception that social workers are the same as child welfare workers. (Again, know I'm not dissing my friends and colleagues in child welfare). She encouraged social workers to become advocates for their own professions. She points out that psychology, medicine, and nursing gets all sorts of information to reporters. Social work does not. She talked about what she looks for in a "good interview." We ended with Maiken's ideas for how social workers could influence the stories that are heard in the media.
So, I promise, we're going to get to the interview in just a minute. But, as you're listening to the interview, I want you to think about what can you do at the end of this interview, what can you over the next week, to engage with a reporter, journalist, somebody that writes a newspaper article, somebody that is in the business of news. What can you do to reach out to them and to help them to do a better job of both representing what social workers do and also becoming a resource for them when they need expert interviews?
Now, the National Association of Social Workers has 10 recommendations for engaging media professionals. So I'm going to read these and I want you to think about which one of these you could do. And then at the end of this podcast, I want you to do something. I want you to spend the next week, doing your job, living your life but also thinking about "what can I do?" and reaching out:
- Add three social issues reporters to your contact list.
- Send a thank you note to a journalist for a good story.
- Introduce a social work expert to a reporter or editor.
- Participate in a print, radio, TV or online media interview.
- Post a comment to a media website or write a letter to the editor.
- Invite a local media person to emcee an event.
- Alert a columnist about a new social work research report.
- Produce and place a PSA on a local TV or radio station.
- Invite a journalism student or professor to a social work class.
- Ask a working journalist to join a nonprofit board or advisory group.
This is my challenge for you: do one of those things in the next couple of weeks. And when you do, go to the Social Work Podcast Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/swpodcast) page and leave a message about what you did and how it worked. You can go to http://www.socialworkpodcast.com and leave me a voice mail and I'll put you on the air.
Ok, so without further ado, on to episode 77 of the Social Work Podcast: Social Workers and the Media: Interview with Maiken Scott.
InterviewJonathan Singer: Maiken, thanks so much for being here and talking with us today on the Social Work Podcast about social workers and the media. What do you do?
Maiken Scott: I'm a radio reporter so I work at WHYY (http://www.whyy.org/91FM/)in Philadelphia. I also do occasional television stories, but mostly my job is in radio. I'm in the newsroom and I have the luxury of actually having a "beat" which is something a lot of journalists don’t have anymore. So, I'm part of the Health and Science desk and my specific beat is Mental Health and Behavioral Health. It is really great because it allows me to focus in on stories to get to know my subject matter, to get to know the major players and the research.
Many journalists are what's called a "general assignment" reporter. So they come in, every morning, typically an organization has a news meeting so the reporter says "hey, I think this makes a good story" and this and then the news director says "Well, that’s great, but you know what? I have to send you to city hall…" or "There is a child that has been found and was mistreated so you have to cover that…" or "You have to cover violence in school…" Whatever is on the calendar that day, you have to go do it and that means you have to get to know that topic in a hurry.
Jonathan Singer: So when you say in a hurry, what's the timeframe?
Maiken Scott: Well, usually you come into work in the morning and then you have your news meeting and you are expected to turn that story around by the end of the day. If there's a 6:00 o’clock newscast, that’s when your story is supposed to be ready. If the paper is coming out the next day, you're supposed to write that story. So, you're getting on the phone. You're calling people. You're searching online and you're saying "can you tell me anything about this?" So, it's about getting a lot of information quickly. And then the other thing is it's about who is available to talk to you in a quick turnaround time. There might be a great expert, but if you can't reach him by 3:00 o’clock, then too bad.
Jonathan Singer: So, how do you know who the great experts are? How do you know who to talk to about a story?
Maiken Scott: Well, the problem is a lot of times we don’t know. So we go in, we research, we read what other people have already written about this. We think "okay, who might know something?" I mean, the way I found you was I was looking into the issue of youth and suicide, so you had written about it and that’s how I found you - online - and I thought "okay, well here’s somebody who has researched this. Let me talk to him." So, we try to do the best job of finding the people who have spoken and talked about it, but a lot of times if we don’t know a certain aspect of the story, we don’t even know what to look for.
Jonathan Singer: So, I think one of the things that’s most contentious for social workers is this misrepresentation social workers as child welfare workers by the media. What would you recommend social work as a profession do to fight this misperception that social workers just go out there and take kids from their parents?
Maiken Scott: Well, I think first it's important to understand that when things go wrong in media coverage, it's usually not malicious. It's not "the media" sitting down at "the media desk" and writing stories to put down a profession. I'm sure a lot of journalists are not entirely sure of all the things that social workers do. When we do interact with social workers, when we hear about them it typically is in the context of you know, child abuse, child maltreatment and all of those things, social services. So, when do we hear about this? When things go wrong.
When things go right? We don’t hear about stories when things go right because there is nothing to report on. So my advice is this: A) If there's a story that you dislike, that you feel misrepresents what you do and your profession? Write to that person. You have to let them know. And I'm usually very grateful when I'm hearing from people and if they're telling me "hey, you got this wrong." Fine, thank you. Then I'll do better the next time. And people on the other side are usually incredibly astounded when I email them back and I say to them, "hey thank you. Okay, here’s what happened or here’s what I didn’t know about."
So, then we have a relationship and often they develop into somebody I can then call on. So, I didn’t set out to do a bad story. It was just that I didn’t know. So my number one advice would be: when you read something, when you hear something and you don’t like it: write to people, email them. You can find them on Twitter. You can find them on Facebook. Everybody is everywhere. Let them know. You know just, you don’t have to berate them. Just say look, I'm kind of upset because I feel like this is always wrong.
Jonathan Singer: And it seems like, you know, as you're talking I'm thinking that it would be important for social workers in any community to know who is writing about topics that social workers would care about. Child welfare is one of them, but also things like social service treatment, Medicaid billing, all these sorts of topics. And that could be a variety of folks, right?
Maiken Scott: Mm-hmm. I mean most of you read the newspaper, watched the news, so you know who is kind of reporting on these stories. Sometimes journalists if they don’t have a beat, they have a certain story that they follow for a while, so you know who is doing the reporting. And even if you just come across a report on the internet, you can look up who wrote it. It's right there. It says it right there and you can get in touch with those people. So, that would be the one thing to do. The other thing is I feel as a profession social workers could be more proactive in terms of getting the word out about what it is that you do do. So tell me, you know, let me ask you like name one area of life where social workers are not involved really. You care for the–
Jonathan Singer: Yeah. I don’t know. I mean we're in every facet of life. Absolutely.
Maiken Scott: Right. So, I feel that you should be more proactive in terms of getting the word out about "this is what we do and here is what we stand for." That means maybe you're a national organization becoming more engaged in taking a stance on political things on big issues of our day. I don’t hear from social workers. I hear from psychologists. I hear from the APA. I hear from doctors and from nurses. They all have professional organizations who are getting me stuff and they say "hey, you should cover this" and we as journalists, we typically love to hear from the people on the ground. So, we love it. If a social worker or anybody or a nurse who is out there doing the work and you take the time to email us and you say, "Look I think this would be great to cover." And a lot of times we actually do it because you know what's going on, we don’t and we don’t often have the time to really delve into the issues that you see every day and you could just break it down to us.
Jonathan Singer: Okay. So, I'm imagining a social worker who works at a hospital or maybe in outpatient community mental health clinic and they have what they think is a great story but because of agency policy, because of confidentiality, because of all of these sort of constrictions, boundaries, they can't actually either talk on record or talk in specifics. So, what would you recommend for a social worker that wanted to get a story out there but was constrained?
Maiken Scott: Okay. There are many ways around that. So first, if you have a good story, you can email or call a person, a journalist, maybe somebody whose work you’ve seen and you trust. So, you can call him up and you can say "look, here is my idea and I think this would make a good story for this, this and this reason. I would like to talk to you, but this would have to be what we call off the record" (if it's something where you're really concerned about your job security and all that.) So, you have a so-called off-the-record conversation with a journalist and we all respect that, so we're not going to go back and say hey, Jonathan Singer told me. So, we won't do that.
So, we will find a way around it and then come basically back to the organization where you work and say look, I'm interested in this topic, how can I cover this? So your name will be out of the equation. However, in many cases, the situation is not that delicate. You're not being a whistleblower or you just want to bring attention to an issue that’s important and important to your work. So, you could either talk to your – you know, talk to the journalist first and then ask the journalist to contact your agency and ask if they can interview you or you could go to your PR person and say "look, I have this idea, can you we do this?"
So, there are ways around it and when it comes to client interviews sometimes, you know, we would like to shadow you as you do your work and that’s very difficult, but we're used to working around that. So, sometimes there is maybe a former client who is now willing to speak or there's somebody who is client but says "that’s fine by me." You guys are helping me. You can follow me. So, there's always ways around that.
Jonathan Singer: Is there a code of ethics that journalists have – social workers have a code of ethics. It's a huge deal in our profession. Is there a journalist code of ethics? Is there something that guides what you do?
Maiken Scott: Yes. There is. And we talk about that in school. And I think each person -we don’t talk about it so much maybe here in the newsroom because it is assumed. So, we don’t burn our sources, that’s for sure. I mean, that’s I would say pretty much unheard of. So, if I've made a personal promise to somebody, what we say will stay right here, I'm not going back on that. And I think you would be hard pressed to find a journalist who will do that. So, you can usually – you can trust the person especially if they are respected and they write for a bigger publication, you can trust that they will respect your wishes and what you’ve asked them to do. You can always ask those questions before you go in. You could say hey, here are my questions for you before we start talking.
Jonathan Singer: So, this idea, the interview, I think this is also interesting. Let's say that we get something to a reporter and they're interested in covering it and then they say okay, so let's interview you. What's sort of things do you look for in a good interviewee or a good guest?
Maiken Scott: I like people who tell me what it's like on their job. So give me examples. You don’t have to name people, but you can talk about what it is that you do and you can give me examples. So, be descriptive. Tell me what your day is like. What are some of your biggest challenges? If you know some statistics, that’s great. But we always have to bring the story to life with examples and with real people and real stories. That’s what makes it good. The other thing I will recommend is before you sit down for an interview, if there's something that is really important to you, tell the journalist what that is.
So, let's say you feel that people who smoke – let's say you're a social worker who counsels people on smoking cessation and you feel that it's always the one thing the media always says is "x" that people who smoke are this, so tell the person like "look, it's really important to me that we make this and this and this clear." And if you say that right off the bat then we will try harder to make that clear.
Jonathan Singer: It's so interesting hearing you say that because it makes it sound like more of a collaboration and I think the way that I usually think about the media and I suspect others listening to this is that like the media is its own thing and then we just sort of have to passively consume it or accept it.
Maiken Scott: No. I mean think about you, you have become the media in your own way, so you started your own podcast. That’s great. I mean the traditional media is all going to go away because people are not tuning in to radio stations. They're not tuning in to TV stations. People get their content from what we call "sideways entry points." So, they get their content via social media. They seek it out themselves. Everybody is their own media director, so the traditional media are losing power each and every day.
So, you can become more savvy in terms of getting your own story out there. People like me are more accessible than ever before. You can call me out on stuff on Twitter if you want to. On Facebook, you can say "hey, you did this horrible job," so if I don’t respond to you via email, which I would [laugh] but, you know, you have more power than ever before to get your story out and you should take charge of that.
Jonathan Singer: Okay. So, I think this is so important because this idea of taking charge of the story – who was it? Marshall McLuhan with the medium is the message or the message is the message? I won't put you on the spot to, like, fill the gaps on my knowledge. Given that we're all our own media directors and by extension social work agencies and organizations are their own media directors, what should the profession do to improve the view of social work in the media and also to get out stories and kind of shape the media representation of what social workers are doing out there in the real world?
Maiken Scott: Mm-hmm. I think it would be really great if more positive stories came out. Which… that is a problem for every profession. Because, what do we hear? We hear about the terrible mishaps. That’s not specific to social workers, but I do think – for example, I feel psychologists have done a really good job of inserting themselves as the experts. So, they weigh in on a lot of news-related topics, on topics that are not kind of pathology driven but just have to do with everybody’s everyday life, so you hear psychologists weigh in on work stress and on work relationships and on managing your career and your relationships and all that. Social workers can do all that, but we don’t hear from them. You know, we hear about them as this downtrodden group that doesn’t get paid enough money and works all these terrible hours and then something goes wrong and oh, it was the social worker’s fault, right? [laugh] That’s kind of what we get, but I think –
Okay, so my strategy would be this. A) call people out on stories and say look I know that something went wrong here, but there's another side to this or how about we could talk about this. B) get your expertise out there. When you want to take a stance on an issue, take a stance and take it nationally via your organizations and get your opinion out there. Offer yourselves as experts on different topics that are seasonal, that are important. People like you - you just put yourself out there. That was great. And there you are and other people can do that, too. You know, you could write editorials about your work, about the people you’ve helped. I'm thinking Story Corps (http://www.storycorps.org) on NPR, you know, those kinds of relationships. We need to hear the side of the social work profession, the incredible helping you bring about. That’s I feel the part of the story we don’t hear.
Jonathan Singer: I have this fantasy that schools of social work will start to include a course on getting your story out there, you know because I think that’s one of the problems like we have such a focus – and it's not a problem what we do, but because we are so overworked and under resourced that we spend all of our time and energy just trying to get it right in our jobs and then when we're done at the end of the day, like the last thing we want to do is to think about or talk about or do anything with our jobs. But then it does. It leaves the psychologist. It leaves the nurses. It leaves the doctors who are framing the conversation around what helping professions actually do.
Maiken Scott: Right. And I think there are small things. You don’t have to do big things, but if you write an editorial for your newspaper or for your favorite website. If you are on Twitter, a lot of people are doing, "fact of the day." For example, mental health people do that to reduce stigma, So – or even if at your next Pennsylvania Social Worker Association (http://www.nasw-pa.org/) meeting, you spend an hour talking about how can we frame the conversation? How do we get our message out there? That would just be a start, right?
Jonathan Singer: That’d be a huge start.
Maiken Scott: And also again, you know, see yourself as somebody who can and should interact with the media because the media is people just like me. It's people.
Jonathan Singer: Is there a journalist association that, say the National Association of Social Workers, (http://www.socialworkers.org/) should start having conversations with? I'm thinking in terms of like you and I can talk, right and I know you and I can email you but then I'm thinking about, sort of, how the, sort of, the big professional organizations get involved in this. Is that something that would happen organization-organization or is it really individual relationships?
Maiken Scott: I think the best way to go would be individual, you know, individual relationships. Talking to people. Finding the people whose work you like and seeing if you can kind of reach them on a personal level.
Jonathan Singer: My last question. How did you get involved in doing behavioral health stuff?
Maiken Scott: It was that luck of the draw [laughter]. I'm a journalist by training, so I went to school for journalism and then just happened to find a job that was related to mental health. So my first job with WHYY was producing Voices in the Family (http://whyy.org/cms/voicesinthefamily/) and then when this reporter job opened up. They thought "oh, that would be perfect." So the behavioral health, I've always found it fascinating. I mean it's a totally fascinating topic, but it was not something I sought out. I could have ended up reporting on poodles or something. [laughter]
Jonathan Singer: And then it would be the Best in Show Podcast, right? –
Maiken Scott: That’s right. [laughter]
Jonathan Singer: Okay. That’s good. Maiken, thank you so much for taking time to talk with us today about social workers in the media. I really appreciate it.
Maiken Scott: My pleasure. Thank you.
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APA (6th ed) citation for this podcast:
Singer, J. B. (Host). (2013, February 18). #77 - Social workers and the media: Interview with Maiken Scott. Social Work Podcast. [Audio podcast] Retrieved from http://www.socialworkpodcast.com/2013/02/social-workers-and-media-interview-with.html