‘Social workers dismissed concerns’: A corpus-assisted discourse study of the portrayal of a profession in UK newspapers

Leedham, Maria (2020). ‘Social workers dismissed concerns’: A corpus-assisted discourse study of the portrayal of a profession in UK newspapers. In: Corpus Assisted Discourse Studies (CADS) International Conference 2020, 17-19 Jun 2020, Sussex University (online).


Previous research indicates that social workers are portrayed negatively in the UK press, particularly in child protection cases (e.g. Reid & Misener, 2001). But what is the nature of this negativity? And are social workers also mentioned in more positive contexts? To explore this, I compiled ‘SWP2019’, a corpus of 3 months of articles from Nexis-UK seeded around social worker(s) from the UK national press. Almost 1000 occurrences of the search term were located within 736 articles (5.1m words). Each instance was categorised within WordSmith Tools (Scott, 2019) as ‘positive’ (5% of instances), ‘negative’ (25%), or ‘neutral’ (71%) (91% intra-rater reliability). Occurrences of social worker(s) are predominantly ‘neutral’, simply referring to professionals doing their job. In a significant minority of occurrences, however, the story concerns an individual who happens to be a social worker and who has behaved badly in their personal life; this suggests that, in contrast to previous studies, the press tend to portray social workers as ‘good’ people held to a higher moral code.
Further categorising of concordance lines through iterative rereading and sorting, employing substantial co-text, indicates that negative mentions are dominated by children’s social work and by the subcategory ‘failure to notice/act’ (42% within ‘negative’) in contrast to ‘over-zealous’ behaviour (17%). The observation that social workers are criticized more for inaction is supported by the keyness of the semantic category FAILURE, FAILING, LOSING in SWP2019 when semantically tagged (Rayson, 2009) and compared to the BNC written sampler.
The presentation also draws on findings from 81 interviews from the WiSP project (Lillis, Leedham, & Twiner, 2019). These point to social workers’ fear of vilification in the national press and the potential emphasis on ‘defensive’ recording (Garcia-Maza, Lillis, & Rai 2010), indicating the importance of journalists and social workers developing a shared understanding of social workers’ role in society.

Garcia-Maza, G., Lillis, T., & Rai , L. (2010). Action research project on case notes recording. Final project report: The Open University/Derbyshire County Council.
Lillis, T., Leedham, M., & Twiner, A. (2019). Writing in social work professional practice (2014-2018). Retrieved from: http://reshare.ukdataservice.ac.uk/853522/
Rayson, P. (2009). Wmatrix: a web-based corpus processing environment. Lancaster: Computing Department, Lancaster University. Retrieved from http://ucrel.lancs.ac.uk/wmatrix/
Reid, W. J., & Misener, E. (2001). Social work in the press: a cross-national study. International Journal of Social Welfare, 10(3), 194-201. doi: 10.1111/1468-2397.00172
Scott, M. (2019). WordSmith Tools, v.7. from http://www.lexically.net/wordsmith/version5/index.html

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