In the words of an article in this week’s Independent, the ‘British public are wrong about nearly everything’. The article was prompted by the results of research carried out by the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London, which demonstrates the yawning gap between public opinion and fact. So just how far away from the truth have we wandered? And what role do charities have in setting the record straight?
According to research, the British public believes that £24 in every £100 of benefits is fraudulently claimed, in contrast to a mere 70 pence in reality. People estimate that 31% of the population is made up of immigrants, compared to an official figure of 13%. The public are also under the impression that 15% of girls under 16 become pregnant each year, 25 times higher than the true figure of 0.6%. Considerable numbers of us also think that foreign aid is among the top three items of government spending, that crime is rising and that the government spends more on Job Seeker’s Allowance than pensions. All of these impressions fly in the face of the facts.
Although this research brings the discrepancy between public opinion and fact into stark relief, for many it will hardly come as a surprise. The popular press is not well known for presenting a balanced view and it is often in the interests of politicians to play fast and loose with the truth. For a government wishing to cut benefits rather than raise taxes, it is convenient if the public believe that significant benefit abuses exist – laying blame with the poor rather than the powerful. For a party in opposition, the public’s fear that crime is rising is a pretty handy way to increase support.
What has all this got to do with charities? Surely a great deal; what the public thinks is or isn’t true matters for charities. If you’re under the impression that the government is spending vast amounts on international aid, would you stop for the Oxfam fundraiser on the street? If you’ve been told to fear criminals at every step, would you support a campaign to reduce the prison population through community sentencing? If you’ve been led to believe that the poorest are robbing the system, would you be motivated to volunteer at a foodbank or homelessness charity? Most worryingly, inaccurate perceptions might encourage the stigmatisation of vulnerable groups.
For charities this should ring alarm bells; the very people they aim to help could be harmed by misrepresentation. How can charities rest if potential supporters are being put off, and causes held back, by impressions that aren’t even true?
We can’t deny that politicians and the media have a heavy influence on public thinking. But might charities themselves become a trusted information source, able to counterbalance the escalating myths? Could charities act as truth tellers? Could they provide coherent, evidenced facts in a stream of misinformation?
Recent data from our research shows that trust in charities is up for the third year running; 66% currently trust charities either quite a lot or a great deal. In contrast, trust in political parties stands at just 8%, whilst newspapers are only slightly higher on 18%. The foundations are strong for the charity sector to become the voice of reason.
So do charities really have the power to change public opinion? I would argue they do and, in some cases, are already revealing the facts and shifting prejudices. For instance, Mind and Rethink’s ‘Time to Change’ campaign gave widespread publicity to the statistic that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in any given year. Snappy stats such as this are both powerful and memorable; it’s a lot easier for the public to challenge others’ prejudices and misconceptions if they can recall a key stat.
High profile support also helps – testimonies from figures such as Ruby Wax and Stephen Fry have altered the landscape on discussions of mental health. The campaign website also provides a useful myth buster, a tool which other charities might employ to set fact apart from fiction. The impact of Time to Change is encouraging for charities wanting to alter public perceptions. Research carried out by the campaign, as well as by external evaluators, shows that it is having a real impact on public attitudes and, most importantly, on levels of discrimination experienced by those with mental health problems.
It might not even be about trying to change the mind of a misinformed public. Instead, charities could play a role in getting the facts out before myths creep in. Our recent press release reveals the importance for charities in gaining support from youth audiences - those with the potential to become lifelong advocates for your cause.
The same could be said for setting out the stats and training young people need to be savvy in their identification of fiction and reality. Working with schools to engage young people in raising awareness about misinformation and myths in the issues charities care about could be really powerful; the same young people could become myth busters in their communities and in later life.
Most of us with an interest in the charity sector would like to see a public more engaged in fighting societal injustices or combating prejudice. Helping to reduce the noise of misinformation and reveal the facts might be a good starting point.
Has this made you rethink? Or have we myth-ed the point? Leave us a comment below.