Maytree blog

A journalist’s instinct – making social policy newsworthy

Published on 21/02/2017

As the gaps in our social safety net get wider, and inflation outpaces income, a growing number of people are getting left behind and have to get help from organizations that support people in need. More and more, the non-profit sector is stepping in where the government and the private sector are stepping out.

As the director of research and communications at Daily Bread Food Bank, the largest food charity in Toronto and part of a network of neighbourhood food banks and meal programs, I see thousands of people every year who simply can’t afford food.

I’ve witnessed rapid changes in client demographics: more people with post-secondary education are accessing our food banks as they struggle to find stable work in an increasingly precarious labour market; and there are more people with disabilities relying on food banks to augment their disability benefit payments.

This will not come as a surprise to anyone working in our sector. These are well-known facts. But how can we tell this story to a wider audience, so they are more informed about important issues that affect society as a whole?

A journalist’s instinct

The Fellowship in Global Journalism program at the University of Toronto helped me understand the importance of thinking like a journalist. It pushed me to go beyond the local and look at the bigger picture, to explore how a seemingly isolated, local issue can be connected to larger forces nationally or internationally.

I learned to write for an audience beyond those who were already in or interested in my sector.

Instead, I wrote for those who might be asking, “Why should we care?” My responsibility became to help them grasp the issue within the limits of the column inches or time allotted to the story.

During the Fellowship, I discovered what it takes to make an often overlooked, complex issue newsworthy – but I also learned that assumptions and knowledge gaps do exist in newsrooms.

For instance, provincial social assistance – also known as welfare – is not often discussed in mainstream media. Despite the fact that social assistance is an income source for millions of Canadians and has a significant impact on their lives, conversations about it are usually limited to advocates and policy makers.

Figuring out what’s newsworthy

At Daily Bread, we were well aware of the impact of social assistance rates as a key driver of food bank use, especially among the rapidly growing number of single adults without children who receive extremely low levels of income from the program.

While working at the CBC during my Fellowship, this background knowledge led me to further investigate this issue, which ultimately resulted in a feature on The National, CBC’s flagship news and current affairs program, that uncovered a nationwide trend: the number of single males receiving welfare had skyrocketed over a ten-year period, surpassing single mothers who were presumed to be the main receipts of welfare. In fact, the numbers of single mothers had significantly decreased.

The story challenged commonly held assumptions, was not well known among the general public, and had data to back it up. We highlighted the changing labour market, the decline of manufacturing jobs, as well as improved income security benefits for households with children, as contributors to this trend. Most importantly, the story put a hidden yet important policy issue into the mainstream, national conversation.

Now, in my work at Daily Bread, while research on the drivers of client demand remains the central focus, I continue to look for the stories that add to the wider dialogue and go beyond just our local or organizational focus. For instance, in last year’s research we took a closer look at how global and national issues – such as the Syrian conflict and rising food prices – were influencing food bank use locally. When media reached out to us to speak to these topics, we were able to contribute informed, evidence-based material to a national audience, despite being a locally based organization.

I think that all non-profits would benefit from thinking like journalists; this shift in approach can help to inform public dialogue and enable wider exposure and an informed conversation on a range of subjects affecting the people they serve. Not only does this thinking increase the profile of the organization itself, it brings more attention to important issues that affect the communities we serve.

Related:

Richard Matern (FGJ14) is currently Director of Research at Food Banks Canada. Previously, as Director, Research and Communications at Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto, he was responsible for the development and implementation of a research program to support its government relations strategy. Richard and his colleagues at Daily Bread produced a number of reports on poverty and hunger in the GTA, including the annual Who’s Hungry report. Richard was also part of the research team that developed the Ontario Deprivation Index, the first poverty measure of its kind in Canada.

Summary

Non-profits would benefit from thinking like journalists; it would help to inform public dialogue and enable a wider, more informed discussion.