Representations of welfare recipients and the production of stigma power: a critical analysis of pejorative and fraud language in newspaper reporting during an intense period of welfare reform

Stream: Social security, conditionality and risk
Date: Tuesday, 10 September 2019
Time: 1.35 pm – 3.15 pm


Welfare recipients have been, and continue to be, viewed as behaviourally and morally deficient in Australian welfare arrangements. Guided by neoliberal ideas and philosophies, the response by the state has been to reduce access to benefits by tightening eligibility and extending compliance measures aimed at enforcing behavioural change. The news media plays an important role in the construction of perceptions of welfare recipient’s that in turn influence public opinion and policy debate.

We consider the role of the media, as a potential source of structural stigma, in perpetuating negative characterisations of welfare recipients during a major period of welfare reform in Australia. Newspaper articles (N=8290) that appeared in Australia’s five largest newspapers between 2001 and 2016, and referenced either of the two most common working age payments, the disability support pension (DSP) and unemployment benefits (Newstart) were analysed. The occurrence of pejorative and fraud language in each article was analysed using Wordstat. We found an increased use of fraud language over time, especially in relation to the DSP, which coincides with an increased political and policy focus on this payment.

These findings illustrate the ways in which welfare reform and news media reporting reinforce and contribute to a culture of critical questioning about the validity of welfare payments and, in so doing, lend legitimacy to welfare retraction. We conclude that in a period of increasing political concern with welfare reform, media coverage has been aligned with other structural elements of society in the wielding of symbolic violence and stigma power.


Sonia Martin (Presenter), RMIT University
Sonia Martin is a lecturer in social work in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University. Her research interests are in the field of social policy and include welfare reform, poverty, inequality and policy formulation.

Timothy Schofield, University of Melbourne
Timothy Schofield was a Research Fellow in Centre for Mental Health in the School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne.They have since chosen to pursue interests outside of academia.

Peter Butterworth, University of Melbourne
Peter Butterworth is a Professor in the Research School of Population Health at the ANU and Professorial Fellow at the Melbourne Institute at the University of Melbourne. His research interests are in the social determinants of health, and the intersection between social policy and mental health.