Thursday, 22 December 2011

Scroungers, cheats and fraud: How does the media stigmatise benefit claimants?

We can all sense that over the past few years there has been a deep shift in attitudes towards benefit claimants and, more broadly, against the welfare state.  Data on social attitudes show as much - with huge swings since the early 2000s against supporting those who need social security.

But what role has the media played in this?  Excellent bloggers like Sue Marsh have consistently held the media to account for their often vitriolic and false accusations against benefit claimants.  Similarly, Ben Baumberg over at the collaborative Inequalities blog has recently written three excellent articles on John Humphrys' controversial TV show on the welfare state.

But how can we quantify the media's role?

So we all sense that there has been a qualitative shift in how the media represent benefit claimants, but is there also a quantitative shift?  Are the media not just being more pejorative about claimants, but are they doing so with increasing consistency?

One way to check this out is to examine the frequency with which the media uses certain loaded and derogatory terms aimed at benefit claimants.  Using the Nexis UK system, I explored the extent to which national daily newspapers in the UK used certain phrases associated with benefits: 'scrounger', 'benefit cheat' and 'benefit fraud'.  I looked at this for the past 12 years and the results are shown below:

Number of articles (per year) which reference certain phrases associated with benefits

The results are, sadly, as we might expect.  In short, I think we can split the above graph into three
different periods of time.  The first is between 2000 and around 2003/04, when media use of the above phrases was fairly steady.  Then, after this period we being to see quite a stark increase.  The number of articles referencing 'benefit fraud', for example, doubled from around 200 in 2003 to 400 in 2005.  Similarly, the number of articles referencing 'scrounger' jumped from 140 in 2003 to 338 in 2006.  These years in the mid-2000s appear to represent a first phase in the hardening of attitudes towards benefit claimants.

The third period - which the graph clearly shows as originating in 2009 - appears to mark a third, profound shift in how the media portrays benefit claimants.  Between 2009 and 2010, the annual media use of 'scrounger' jumped from 291 to 902, the use of 'benefit cheat' increased from 277 to 693 and 'benefit fraud' from 299 to 530.

While there has been a significant reduction in the use of these terms in 2011, the frequency with which newspapers use them is still way, way higher compared with the start of the century.  Thus, in what will surely confirm many people's worst suspicions, it seems true the media has used the onset of financial crisis and economic recession to increasingly pin the blame of our troubles at the hands of the poorest in society.  It is data like these which can sometimes make the UK a rather gloomy place to live in.


  1. Yes, it appears that claimants are being scape-goated for the nation's economic ills.

  2. True. It is an unusual turn of events as well - in previous economic crises sympathy for the poor and unemployed has increased, not hardened. Evidence that we as a country have changed our norms and values.