d g e
- education for disability and gender equity
The news media also shapes the public's views and attitudes about disability. You might think that news media organizations would take a completely different approach to presenting disability issues, offering factual and analytical information. In fact, however, news reporters serve up many of the same myths and stereotypes which are so prevalent in charity advertising, popular entertainment, and other media.
Rather than investigating job bias, unfair public policies, the lack of affordable accessible housing, and other issues important to the disability community as a whole, newspapers and television news broadcasts frequently focus on a single individual with a disability. These "human interest stories" tend to focus on individual suffering, and "overcoming" disability.
Many disability activists argue that this approach is faulty. Individuals do not need to overcome their disabilities, insist these activists; instead, society needs to remove the barriers which discriminate against people who have disabilities.
Beth A. Haller, Ph.D., an assistant professor of journalism at Towson University, researches and writes extensively on media and disability issues. In an April 29, 2001, article she wrote for the Baltimore Sun, entitled "Confusing disability and tragedy," Haller challenges many journalists' one-dimensional stories about disability issues.
When reporters write about people with disabilities, Haller points out, they tend to overlook barriers and discrimination, and they rarely cover the organized disability rights movement which works to eliminate these problems through political action and policy change. Instead, says Haller, reporters focus on individuals "coping with adversity."
Writes Haller: "I am concerned about the messages these ‘coping with adversity' stories send to society about people who are physically different. I hope they promote acceptance, but I fear they sometimes promote pity."
From 1984 to 1999, Haller studied 56 news articles, which had won national journalism awards, dealing with disability or illness. Haller said she "was looking for the cultural messages about disability and illness hidden within the prize-winning stories. "What I have found is that many of these stories are awash in inspiration. "What's wrong with inspiration? you might ask. Isn't it uplifting? Doesn't it make readers and viewers ‘feel good?'
"The trouble with inspiration is that the flip side of its message is tragedy.... "However, this notion of disability and chronic illness as tragedy fits squarely with journalistic news values that focus on the unusual or the dramatic.
As one prominent college journalism textbook, ‘Reporting for Print Media,' explains: "Deviations from the normal ... are more newsworthy than the commonplace.'"
If you were a news reporter, how would you decide whether a disability-related story was "newsworthy"?
(Next - Section 8: Disability Culture)