In or out?

Picture from Cory Silverberg's 'What Makes A Baby?'
Picture from Cory Silverberg’s ‘What Makes A Baby?’

Advice columns in print, online and broadcast media are promoted as places where anyone who needs help can get it.

In reality, this isn’t always the case. For starters pretty much all advice columns, wherever they exist, will have more people getting in touch than can be included in any programme or page. Some media outlets and advice columnists have a policy of answering everyone regardless of what is published or transmitted, but that doesn’t apply everywhere.

Right from the entry point of asking for advice there will be people who may not get a reply to their letter or call.

You’re more likely to be featured in a column or programme if you’ve a compelling story, something that’s not been addressed for a while, or that fits a topical issue. Those who are willing to have their problems broadcast or perform their difficulties to wider audiences have a better chance of getting a response. As do people who can describe their situation coherently. Or who have the access, ability and freedom to write, email, or call an advice column or programme.

While plenty of people get in touch with agony aunts or uncles seeking assistance and advice, there are wider audiences tuning in who never actively ask for advice but are still using the advice column or programme to get information, help and ideas.

The way in which we then describe people and problems can make some people or topics seem ‘normal’, make others appear strange or unusual, and render some invisible. By what we decide to focus on and how we choose to do this we have the power to make people feel included, supported and safe. Or to further demonize, judge and shame them. And put them at risk.

Try this exercise
Whether you are making, watching or reading advice columns, think about how they talk about, or don’t talk about, people or problems based around their:
Relationship status
Physical/mental health
Friends and family

You may be able to think of more areas of our lives that are included or excluded in our advice giving.

What can we learn from this?
Looking critically at advice giving we can see
– what conversations or topics are we opening up, and what ones are we closing down?
– who are we bringing in, and who are we leaving out?
– what are the things we say clearly, and what is left unsaid?

From this we can think about how effectively information is offered to audiences. And who is harmed or hurt by what we do and don’t discuss.

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