Whether it is online publications such as Quartz, Vice, BuzzfeedNews, or Vox, or more traditional news media such as CNN, Fox News, NPR, and the New York Times, social workers should know how to utilize major media platforms, and workshops at CSSW this month are teaching them to do just that.

Today, October 29, the CSSW Writing Center will offer a webinar called “Op-Eds: Building Strong Arguments.” Says center Director Adam Pellegrini, writing an op-ed “allows you to affect public discourse using knowledge and perspective you gain from study, work, and life.” Through the webinar, he explains, “Social work students can hone their writing skills and share their unique perspectives and knowledge with the public, and in doing so, they can incorporate writing into their advocacy practice, for the benefit of the clients and communities they serve.”

And on Wednesday, October 31, the Media and Social Justice Caucus offers a workshop with the playfully Halloweeny title “Altogether Ooky: Talking to Journalists 101,” to teach possibly apprehensive students how to give interviews, write press releases, and pitch a story to the media.

Of course, telling a story through the press can have pitfalls as well as rewards. Developing relationships with journalists and knowing how they operate can make all the difference. That was the main takeaway from the Media and Social Justice Caucus’s very first panel discussion, held October 10, “Time to Talk: Why (and How!) Social Workers Need to Talk to Journalists.”

Caucus leader Noah Phillips, a former journalist himself, explained later:

“I know from my discussions with my peers in this program that the majority of us are frustrated by what we observe at our field placements. We are confronted with systemic problems and often told by our supervisors to just get on with applying band-aids, even while our professors tell us advocacy is super important. I really believe that when we as social workers have access to media platforms and know how to use them, our insights can provoke systemic change. That’s the point of this caucus.”

One of the issues social workers have with reporters is that, unlike them, reporters are not certified, nor are they held to an ethical code, although many learn ethics as part of their schooling. At the October 10 panel, Karen Pennar, co-director of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media and editor of the website Voices of NY, explained that writers from different types of publications may, in fact, have standards that are all over the map.

“When you do have contact with reporters,” she cautioned, “you really do have to know who you’re talking to. You need to have ground rules.” Rule number one, she added, is “Nobody is obliged to speak to a reporter.”

CSSW Associate Professor Desmond Upton Patton, who moderated the discussion, said that when he first received media queries about his work, “I was so excited that I took every call.” Now, however, he researches journalists before talking to them and sets ground rules for the story and the words used to tell it. (For instance, he is careful not to use the word “gangs” when referring to his studies of youth violence.)

In addition, Dr. Patton prioritizes journalists who allow him to accuracy-check their work. “Fifty percent of the time the journalist has allowed me to see the full story or part of the story before sending it out.” If they agree, “I’ll say, ‘Oh, they really care about what’s coming out,’ and I will readily work with them more often.”

Representing the social work profession on the panel was Dr. Claire Green-Forde, who recently became the executive director of the New York City chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. She told students that while HIPPA laws prohibit them from violating clients’ confidentiality, a social worker who sees systemic injustice in their own organization may feel duty-bound to draw attention to it. When weighing personal risks against clients’ welfare, Dr. Green-Forde says, the challenge is following the code of ethics and balancing how to protect yourself while working to address the injustice you see.

In her work with the NASW, enlisting media platforms to help reshape perception is essential. For instance, the public may believe that “social workers are baby snatchers and just case managers.” In fact, she says, “Social workers are the people who provide most of the mental health services in this country, but is that story being told? How do we tell our story if we don’t own it?”

Another panelist, Simon Davis-Cohen, an investigative journalist specializing in criminal justice and editor of the Ear to the Ground civil intelligence newsletter, told students: “What social workers can bring to journalism is what journalism is missing—explaining how our systems work.”

Davis-Cohen said he builds long-term relationships with sources who are not closely connected to a story. “It’s valuable to have off-the-record sources that you can check in with and ask, ‘How does this fit in with your experience?’”

Dr. Green-Forde wrapped up the discussion by suggesting that even if social workers can’t speak on behalf of their employers or clients, they can still speak out as themselves. She suggested framing an op-ed in this way: “This is my story from what I’ve seen, and I know this because it’s backed up by research.”

She urged students not to shy away from bringing stories of injustice to the media. “Our job is to break systems down,” she said. “It’s in our code of ethics. Do it.”

Banner photo courtesy Unsplash. Top photo: CSSW student Noah Phillips. Lower photo: Panelists Karen Pennar, Dr. Claire Green-Forde, Dr. Desmond Patton (moderator), and Simon Davis-Cohen.

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