In a fresh start for South Australia’s child protection system, what’s the role of media and the public narrative?

Part of a 5-post series on a social innovation perspective on the Nyland Royal Commission into Child Protection Systems.

When we explore child protection reform, often we compartmentalise each piece of the system and make changes to specific chunks: supports for kinship carers, screening and training processes for new hires, more therapeutic out of home care options, intake and referral processes. When you’re looking at an incredibly complex system, compartmentalising helps us simplify, diagnose, and problem solve in a targeted way.

However, there are also larger pressures that influences every aspect of the system, and indirectly all of society. Strangely these forces like media, are rarely front stage in Royal Commission recommendations or reforms.

In Australia, we’re constantly consuming media: entertainment, advertisements, social media, web and print based news. Because media has a stronghold on the content we consume and contribute to, it has a lot of influencing capability.

In some respects it can act as a watch dog, having a check and balance on executive power in democracy. As an advocacy tool investigative journalism, can bring awareness to important issues (ie the Boston Globe’s exposure of systemic child abuse in the US). With enough momentum it can catalyse changes in law, policy or societal norms, as we saw with the transition of King Punch to Coward Punch. Media serves as a platform for public dialogue, potentially giving voices to excluded  and vulnerable populations. The media can encourage open debate and challenge views or assumptions. The media can be a source of credible information about critical events and issues that affect society, as the Guardian has been seeking to do whilst reporting on the Syrian Refugee Crisis.

However journalism and reporting is a competitive landscape. And amidst sensational stories, sometimes the truth doesn’t sell. Moreover, in our recent work, we’ve noticed just how much unhelpful power the media can have on decision makers in the child protection space.

When TACSI started a restoration (reunification) project in NSW, we asked stakeholders to describe what this three year project would look like if it was a success and what would it look like if it was a failure.

One of our partners said something that stood out to us in particular “No one’s going to put this project in the paper and celebrate you when you’ve done a good job, if it fails, you can expect us all to be sacked and end up on the front page.”   This stood out to us not because it was a rare sentiment but instead because it was pervasive — across states and territories. A fear of failure and a cautionary attitude around media exposure  is something we hear repeatedly from speaking with front line workers to meeting with high level decision makers.

Fear of messing up is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when we’re talking about children’s well-being and safety. However, refusing to innovate (because of fear) even when we know things aren’t working for kids and families…well that’s when the public narrative actually becomes unhelpful in solving child protection challenges rather than a helpful information-sharing tool (which it’s meant to be).

In South Australia, the Nyland Royal Commission recommendations referenced how high-profile cases receive media attention which “further fuels fears” among decision makers. Sensational reporting has ripple effects. Because of the way public narrative and media can influence conditions for good work to happen in child protection, we expected to see more recommendations on shifting the public narrative around abuse and neglect.

Serious incident after serious incident, we’ve observed a default toward an unhelpful loop between media, public perception, and government

Often we see the media presenting stories of families going through tough times in a negative light, calling them ‘derelict’ or suggesting they’re undeserving of their own children. Perhaps this happens without thinking of the repercussions not only for their parents, but also for their children, and for the hundreds of other families needing support from their communities. Perhaps without thinking about the unhelpful pressure this puts on government staff and policy makers to react quickly, sometimes at the cost of testing new ideas or thinking about the long term future.

Even with good intentions of speaking out for children, critical or condescending tones can perpetuate a cycle that leads to reactive responses from government and at times a misinformed public perspective on what causes abuse and neglect. This kind of narrative has knock on effects for:

The public who might provide help or be a part of the solution if they had a more factual understanding of what causes families to go through tough times

Families in crisis who are in touch with child protection and might feel stigmatised or deterred from seeking help

Front line workers and service delivery staff who may practice more cautiously, and to the procedures rather than using sophisticated professional judgement

High level political decision makers who may not feel that they have the authorising environment to take risks, innovate and respond differently

We know that in cases of gun violence reporting in the US as well as suicide reporting, sensationalising this content led to more copy cats and more similar instances. What if there is a similar effect for reporting negatively about abuse, neglect and domestic violence? What if this public narrative is normalising unsafe behaviours in certain communities? What if this public narrative is further stigmatising families who could really use help from their neighbours?

If the moral purpose and inherent capability of media is to credibly uncover important issues and hold decision makers accountable, why are aggressive news unlimited business models leading the pack? How can we start rebuilding media as an important public good?

We recently were reminded just how possible it is to leverage the positive power of media. When visiting 7 European countries to gain insight about international approaches to child welfare, we saw some very different approaches to media and reporting:

Norway: An alternative response to adverse events – Following serious incidents neither government nor media try to place blame or tarnish political credibility of others because that would be seen that as not a constructive way to address the problems. Following a serious incident, government seeks to understand why issues occurred and aims to learn from what’s not working to improve for the future.

Northern Ireland: A concerted effort to shift media and public perception

Recognising the unhelpful nature of media in Northern Ireland, an academic research institution brought together journalists to understand what tools and content would be helpful to them. The research group developed strategies to provide reporters with data that was accurate but would also help them produce “stories that sell.”

Scotland: A family-focussed media approach

They put policies and expectations in place to protect family image and safety in reporting. Social work and police agencies along with NGOs and carers liaise to decide what information is released and when in order to protect children and immediate family members from defamation and trauma following serious incidents. 

UK: Child Friendly City in Leeds
In Leeds, they created a new whole-of-community attitude and set of values to  turn the city around from one that wasn’t doing so great to a city that was ‘Child Friendly.’ While publicly the it wasn’t framed as a child protection effort explicitly, the combined efforts ultimately helped to improve child protection outcomes like reducing number of kids in care and increasing attendance at school. They co-designed a new brand, plan, and approach to including young people in city decision making. Young people are even included in budgeting conversations, journalism, and are given pages in the local news paper. 

These examples suggest that a different type of relationship between the public and the media is possible.

What if instead of a blame-oriented approach we had an information-oriented approach?

What if instead of focusing on worst case scenarios we celebrated learning opportunities and success stories?

What if instead of negative and condescending language we protected already harmed families and helped to shed light on the whole issue?

What if the public narrative was a helpful influence on child protection efforts, creating an authorising environment for politicians and civil servants to act differently?

What if we had a helpful media loop?


As South Australia looks to make a fresh start for child protection, there’s also an opportunity to look bolder and broader — there’s an opportunity to work toward shifting reporting norms and public perception so that media:

Informs the public with the truth – gives people information to help inform voting and pressure the government to make better decisions not just quick ones

Has empathy for families – includes them rather than isolates them

Holds government accountable to make good decisions but doesn’t pressure government to react  or operate in fear of ending up on the front page of the Advertiser

Encourages community to participate in the solution  and influences policy through evidence-based, empathetic media content issue at the start and stepping in when things get bad

At TACSI we believe creating a new narrative around child protection is crucial to transforming the system. We see interest in a new approach to change — moving beyond reform toward innovation. While this might sound like a massive transition, there are things that are surprisingly possible in the near term — five small steps toward a new public narrative could be:

1. Have 10,000 conversations across Australia to shape a more holistic perspective on the issue, one that’s understood from a public health lens, from an economic lens, from a multi-agency lens, from a cultural lens and from an intergenerational lens.

2. Bring together media companies, journalists, families and child protection leaders in Australia to co-design and redefine a new public narrative around child protection and develop a mainstream media campaign to shift public perception (i.e Slip Slop Slap, Drink Driving, Stop it at the Start).

3. Work with government and media agencies to re-write policy, guidelines and expectations for quality around protecting families and staff through media reporting. Establish intentional and productive information-sharing processes between journalists and child protection agencies to ethically equip journalists with facts that drive statutory child protection systems to be better by improving public knowledge, helping the public care about the real issues, and protecting already harmed families.

4. Embed the new narrative in fundamental learning opportunities for young people (i.e. schools and community groups); produce a series of co-created media outputs across web, print and entertainment channels.

5. Prototype a place-based approach to keeping kids safe through a whole of community attitude and new family-friendly-oriented city brand.