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Landmark child abuse reporting guide helps close divide between press and social work

A groundbreaking guide for media reporting on child abuse and neglect cases will help break down mistrust between journalists and health and care professionals, proponents claimed at a launch event today.

The booklet, Guidance for Media Reporting on Child Abuse and Neglect, produced with input from the Northern Ireland Association of Social Workers (NIASW), was published hours before the Leveson inquiry publishes its findings into press practices.

At a launch event in Belfast, it was heralded as a blueprint for the rest of the country that could help ensure more sensitive reporting of child abuse across the UK.

Northern Ireland’s health minister Edwin Poots MLA said: “This guidance marks the beginning of a more constructive relationship between my department, social workers, care and health professionals and the media.

"Too often we tend to operate with a level of distrust where the media believe they are not getting the information from us and the social workers and don’t believe they are getting the true story. There is also a level of distrust from social workers about things going out into the public domain and causing real harm and damaging the child as a result.

“But the media and social workers want the best outcome and the best outcome is the public are receiving information that tells the horror of the story but doesn’t harm the child that is involved."

The eight-page booklet was produced by a working group consisting of journalists and health and care professionals, including a NIASW representative. As well as background information, guidelines for journalists and case studies, it contains key facts and statistics about child abuse in Northern Ireland that can be used in media coverage.

The guidance has been endorsed by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety Northern Ireland.

Bridget Robb, BASW's acting chief executive, called on employers to allow staff to talk more openly about what they are doing to increase understanding of social work. “Journalists come to us and say ‘can we talk to a social worker?’ but so often employers don’t give permission for that,” she said.

“Part of what we would like to take forward is a greater discussion about how with the right constraints and authority, people can be given permission to speak out more widely so we are not carrying on with a position where it is often seen as a stand-off between what journalists are asking for and what employers feel they can give.” She went on to say that social workers and journalists had in common the fact that they were both working with people who “want and need to tell their stories”.

A contributor to the booklet, Seamus Dooley, Irish secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said its launch was taking place against a backdrop of heightened scrutiny of the press and reporting of child sex abuse.

“For those of us involved in the media it’s also a reminder that public trust is fragile. It must be earned, it must be nurtured, it must never be taken for granted and it can be undermined if we do not ensure that at every level policies and procedures are put in place to protect the highest professional and ethical standards in every sphere of our activity.”

Mr Dooley added the “perilous” state of print media and lack of investment in newsrooms was impeding journalists’ ability to properly investigate child abuse cases.

NIASW manager Carolyn Ewart said: "We hope this will provide a model for best practice for the whole of the UK. Journalists and care professionals can have different priorities and pressures but this jointly produced groundbreaking guidance aims to help ensure they work together in the interest of protecting the rights of children. We are very proud to have been part of it."