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June 28, 2024

Promoting Evidence-Based Reporting in Homelessness Coverage

Dr Lígia Teixeira

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the Orwell Prize Ceremony, an event that celebrates excellence in political writing and journalism. Of these prestigious prizes, one - which we are delighted to support - is for reporting homelessness. It was a truly inspiring evening, and I'm pleased to share how the Centre for Homelessness Impact (CHI) is working with the Orwell Foundation to promote evidence-based reporting in the field of homelessness.

Our collaboration with the Orwell Foundation is driven by a shared commitment to encouraging and celebrating evidence-led reporting on homelessness in the media. While individual stories are important and often very moving, there's a significant need for more coverage that highlights the structural causes of homelessness and explores policy solutions. Far too often, the media thrives on negative stories, and while it's crucial to acknowledge the gravity of the issues, evidence suggests that this approach can create a sense of fatalism about problems like homelessness.

To counter this, we need more stories that, while not shying away from the problems, also point to solutions and showcase the good work happening up and down the country. Highlighting effective interventions and positive outcomes can inspire hope and motivate action. Additionally, more journalists need to become better at assessing and interrogating the quality of their sources, particularly when reporting on data.

A recent example illustrates this point well: an OECD analysis of homelessness across the globe, which was widely reported, including by the Financial Times, suggested that the UK is performing worse than most other countries. However, this portrayal is deeply misleading. In many other countries, what we classify in the UK as temporary accommodation would be considered permanent housing. The OCED analysis was simply not comparing like with like. In fact, the UK performs relatively well in responding to homelessness by international standards, albeit that there is always scope to do more. This fundamental discrepancy underscores the importance of critically evaluating the evidence and data before using it in reporting.

So what are the elements of the more informed and impactful journalism that we want to commend and encourage?

1. Highlight Structural Causes: Focus on systemic issues such as housing policy, economic inequality, and social services that contribute to homelessness.

2. Policy Solutions: Emphasise the policy interventions that have been proven effective in reducing homelessness, and going beyond obvious ones such as Housing First.

3. Critical Assessment of Data: Scrutinise the primary sources of data and survey results, considering the methodologies and definitions used to ensure accurate representation of the issues. 

4. Long-Term Trends: Report on long-term trends and patterns in homelessness, rather than isolated incidents, to provide a comprehensive view of the crisis.

5. Diverse Perspectives: Include voices from a range of stakeholders, including those with lived experience of homelessness, to present a well-rounded narrative.

A good example of this latter point is the journalism of Daniel Hewitt, Investigations Editor for ITV News, and his colleagues Imogen Barrer and Mariah. His tenacity in chronicling Britain’s homelessness crisis is commendable, and indeed a credit to his editors for continuing to invest in this story. But it is his ability to tell the story through the experiences of ordinary families living in temporary accommodation or unfit housing, and to set these within the context of the long term structural causes of homelessness, that stands out.

It also matters greatly when journalists challenge misconceptions. For instance, Vicky Spratt, the Housing Correspondent for the ‘i’ newspaper and another of the Orwell Prize for Reporting Homelessness finalists, did an excellent job of addressing the myth that homelessness is ever a choice. Her work highlights the complexities and structural issues that lead to homelessness, providing a much-needed corrective to oversimplified narratives.

I should make clear that the Orwell Prize for Reporting Homelessness is not just for journalists. We encourage entries from people with direct experience of homelessness. Some of the people with lived experience of homelessness who have entered the Prize are themselves journalists or writers; the two can overlap. Other people whose lives have been affected by homelessness have submitted entries to the Prize that have not previously been published. It has been a joy, and indeed an honour, for us to publish a selection of such work during the first two years of the Prize.

But journalists, in particular, can play a pivotal role in shaping public understanding and driving effective action to address homelessness. By focusing on these evidence-based approaches, the impact of such reporting can be magnified. Our support for the Orwell Foundation is a significant step towards fostering a more informed and impactful discourse on this critical issue.

We look forward to continuing our work together and supporting journalists in their pursuit of high-quality, evidence-based reporting.

  • Ligia Teixeira is Chief Executive of the Centre for Homelessness Impact. She is pictured here with with George Orwell's son, Richard Blair.
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