News Coverage of Disability Issues:

Final Report for
The Center for an Accessible Society
July 1999

By Beth A. Haller, Ph.D.,
Media Research Consultant

This study was conducted as part of Grant No. H133A980045 from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

Copyright 1999 by The Center for An Accessible Society. For information on reprinting or other questions, please contact the Center.


This project seeks to understand what is being presented about disability in the major mainstream news media. The project discerns who is providing information about disability to the news media and what kinds of specific topics about disability are presented. This project, however, makes no claims to be a definitive representation of media content, rather it provides a slice of media content to assist in understanding the trends of media coverage of disability.

Content analysis of media is a traditional mass communication research method used to assess a wide range of media content trends. "The basic assumption is that both changes and regularities in media content reliably reflect or report some feature of the social reality of the moment. . .The purpose of the cultural indicator analysis is often to test propositions about effects from media on society over time, but it is also a method for the study of social change in its own right and for the comparison of different national societies and cultures," according to mass media scholar Denis McQuail.[1] This study, for example, investigates how the national news media presented disability during October and November 1998. This part of the project will provide baseline data to see if the framing of disability issues shifts and changes over the next five years.

Although much mass communication research has revealed the effects of mass media in the cultural lives of Americans, it should be remembered that content analysis does not make claims about the effect of news stories on audiences.However, content analysis can show how alternative ideas and minority groups, such as the disability community, are portrayed. This, in turn, reflects the access these groups have to the mainstream media. For instance, a major finding of this project is that during the entire year of 1998, the four major television networks presented only 34 disability-related news stories, many of which were clustered around two or three news events. This illustrates that disability is rarely presented in television news, which has been identified as most credible and most watched disseminator of news for many years.[2] This finding means that TV news is neglecting coverage of issues affecting about 52 million Americans with legally defined disabilities.

This project also provides a gauge of whether the disability rights perspective is beginning to take its place on the media agenda. Journalists select the content and frame of the news, thereby constructing reality for those who read, watch, or listen to their stories. However, these media frames are imbued with cultural meanings. Janowitz explains that the content of the mass media can provide two contrasting indicators of social culture: "The contents of the mass media are a reflection of the social organization and value system of the society or group interest involved. Simultaneously, the contents of the mass media are purposive elements of social change, agents for modifying the goals and values of social groups."[3] Voakes et al. also found that news audiences receive information about diversity issues directly from content in the news. „The content is what activates, motivates, interests, and involves its mass audience.š[4]

The ability of the news media to make people aware and characterize social issues fits with Max McCombs and Don Shaw's notion of agenda-setting.[5] McCombs and Shaw have shown us that the media not only tell their audiences what to think about but how to think about certain issues.[6] Therefore, McCombs and Shaw believe the way journalists frame the news is germane to agenda-setting: "Both the selection of topics for the news agenda and the selection of frames for stories about those topics are powerful agenda setting roles and awesome ethical responsibilities."[7] How the attributes of news stories about disability are played in the news media can sway public opinion about disability issues and toward the cultural representations of people with disabilities in general.

Because people with disabilities still face many architectural, occupational, educational, and communication barriers in the United States, interpersonal contact between able-bodied and disabled persons is still limited. Therefore, mass media images still provide many of the cultural representations of disability to American society. A 1991 Louis Harris poll showed that Americans surveyed were less likely to feel awkward around people with disabilities after having viewed fictional television and movie presentations about people with disabilities.[8] These surveyed Americans were relying on information about the disability experience from mass media to form their views.

Kathryn Montgomery argues that advocacy groups are extremely concerned with their mass media depictions because of their potential to demean them in the eyes of others. "To minorities, women, gays, seniors, and the disabled, television is a cultural mirror which has failed to reflect their image accurately. To be absent from prime time, to be marginally included in it, or to be treated badly by it are seen as serious threats to their rights as citizens," she writes.[9] In line with this, Dillon, Byrd, and Byrd perceived television as an instrument to change attitudes toward people with disabilities. They conclude that prime time television portrayal of disability might be more realistic if it could consistently integrate persons with disabilities into everything from news to sitcoms to talk shows.[10]

Therefore, as media scholar Todd Gitlin says, „The mass media are, to say the least, a significant social force in the forming and delimiting of public assumptions, attitudes, and moods -- of ideology, in short.š[11] One significant way in which this ideology flows to an audience via news content is the sourcing of the stories. These „actorsš within news stories help frame the news agenda. In agenda setting terms, sources tell the audience „what to think about.š



Gusfield has developed a useful framework for analyzing how a problem such as discrimination against people with disabilities comes to be seen as a problem within the whole of society. In his idea of the ownership of public problems, it is understood that all groups do not have the same power, influence, and authority to define social problems. A group must truly own a problem to push it into the public sphere.[12] For example, disability organizations and disability activists began to "own" the problem of full civil rights for people with disabilities in the late 1960s. By the 1970s that ownership led to the development of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which made discrimination against people with disabilities illegal at institutions that received federal money. However, the government had not truly embraced disability discrimination as a public problem, so disability activists held sit-ins across the nation to protest the lack of enforcement guidelines. The government began to understand disability rights, but for the general public, disability rights had barely made it into the consciousness of America.

It was not until the late 1980s that the disability community truly „ownedš the problem of discrimination against people with disabilities and thus made the general public more aware of disability rights. Events such as the 1988 Deaf President Now student demonstration at Gallaudet University to protest the appointment of a hearing president at the university for deaf people and national polls that delineated the problem of unemployment among people with disabilities gave the disability community more ownership of the discrimination problem. And finally through the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, this public issue moved into the consciousness of the whole of U.S. society.

Gusfield explains that a component of this culture of public problems is mass media. Media help construct the "reality" of a public problem.[13] In the case of the Americans with Disabilities Act, news media had only a little knowledge of the disability rights at the inception of the Act, so they had to begin to develop some news sources within the disability community. However, past research on news sources illustrates that news media prefer sources from government and other elite sources.

Research by Tichenor, Donohue, and Olien (1980) found in stories about conflict that the power elite helps form the media position, so the news media end up reinforcing the outlook of the dominant power in the community. In conflict situations, the press contributes to either a widening or narrowing of differences in knowledge within the system.[14] Olien, Tichenor, and Donohue again confirmed that the media lean in favor of the status quo and the "mainstream" when covering public protests. That study found the media are watchdogs on behalf of the mainstream groups. "Media report social movements as a rule in the guise of watchdogs, while actually performing as 'guard dogs' for the mainstream interests."[15]

This research helps us interpret the meaning of news sources in stories about disability issues. For example, many disability issues are tied to government, and some disability laws have implications for U.S. business interests, which means sources from business and government are expected in many disability-related stories. News about disability also deals with a social group that had been traditionally marginalized and a social issue that had not received much press attention in the past. Typically, social issues take up less space in newspapers than other types of news. Ryan and Owen found that only 8.8 percent of metropolitan daily newspapers‚ news holes was devoted to social issues such as health, housing, education, crime-law, poverty-welfare, ecology, mass transit, racism-sexism and drug abuse.[16] With even more unfortunate implications for disability coverage, Ryan and Owen found in a follow-up study that coverage of social issues contained more errors than general coverage. The accuracy data indicated that the most common errors were subjective, those in which the news source and the reporter may differ on how the information should have been treated.[17]

This has implications for the news coverage of disability issues because Clogston showed how in the past, the media reported on disability as a medical or welfare problem.[18] In fact, Shapiro reports that disability lobbyists for the ADA made little use of the media to push their ideas because they thought the media stories would perpetuate stereotypes and hinder the public's understanding of disability rights.[19] However, Haller found that once the ADA passed, the press saw the story on its own. The news media also quickly picked up on the conflict between business interests and the legislation.[20]

In terms of coverage of the disability community, it is crucial to consider how marginalized groups have been covered by the news media. Fedler, in a study of the Minneapolis media, found that minority groups received more, rather than less, attention than equivalent established groups.[21] However, the media stories on these non-mainstream groups may contain negative presentations, according to Shoemaker. She found that deviant political groups -- ranging from the Sierra Club and NAACP to the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis -- receive less favorable presentation in major newspapers. In surveys with news and political editors, she discovered that if editors perceive a group as more deviant, it is covered less favorably in newspaper articles.[22] Hertog and McLeod confirmed Shoemaker's findings in their study of anarchist marches in Minneapolis. They found that newspapers and television covered the marches from a pro-establishment bent and focused on the group's appearance and violence rather than the issues the group presented.[23]

Shoemaker maintains that it is socially functional that deviance and deviant groups be deemed newsworthy. In that way, the agents of the status quo can readily see any threats to their social control. The mass media act as instruments in the social control of deviance.In labeling deviance, for example, "mass media labeling is nothing more than journalists' normative judgments, and these judgments will draw and define the attention of those who control social change. The journalist acts as a surrogate judge of deviance for his or her audience members."[24]

In terms of disability-related stories, this has implications for whether journalists present disability issues in a positive or negative light. In Visualizing Deviance, Ericson, Baranek, and Chan explain how journalists help shape definitions of social deviance. The authors argue that journalistic methodology is one of visualization -- that is making something visible to the mind even when it is not visible to the eyes.[25] This would account for journalists need to write about the most visible disabilities in stories about the Americans with Disabilities Act.[26]

In addition, because most journalists do not actually see the original event of a story, they are left to construct it from the accounts of authoritative sources. They also learn from the norms of journalism and their particular newsroom what stories get play, what sources get used, and what representations get chosen.[27] It has been long understood that the organizational and cultural practice of journalists influence the sources used for stories. Roshco points to the institutional constraint of timeliness as giving already newsworthy sources greater saliency for reporters. Therefore, sources who have established their newsworthiness, because of their high rank in the social structure most likely, will dominate the news even if they are involved in less newsworthy events. In line with this, he argues that sources with little newsworthy status must act deviantly to gain the attention of the press. However, in these circumstances, reporters tend to focus on the deviant event rather than the issue. Roshco calls these symbolic protests "news management by the socially invisible."[28] In this way, both the authoritative sources and the low status sources make it into the news.

However, Roshco is relying on same narrow assumption that many reporters do -- that getting "both sides of the story" means there are only two perspectives on news events. This allows for narrow definitions of who makes and comments on newsworthy occurrences, as well as what groups should be interviewed during newsworthy events. Also, just because an alternative perspective does make it into news stories, that does not mean it will be presented as a legitimate perspective. The dominant perspective still may tend to win out.

Haller confirmed the impact of sources in stories about disability issues in 1996. In stories about the ADA, she showed how the perspective of the U.S. business community that made it into the ADA stories may have cast a new stereotype of people with disabilities in U.S. cultural narratives: That people with disabilities cost society money.The voice of the business community reflects the paradigm of capitalism in the United States, and journalists must ply their trade in this society. As Gans has argued, news media embody a belief in the goodness of a free market economy.[29] In a more critical approach, Dines has called the media "capitalism's pitchmen" because of the conservative nature of the sources they use. Her content analysis of the "voices" on network news illustrated that white, male, conservatives speak most often and the perspective of the Left gets little attention.[30]

Haller found that a „balancedš style of sourcing stories about disability issues may weaken the „disability sideš of the story. On the one hand, the news media's reliance on federal government sources worked in the favor of the „disability sideš of the ADA story because it was the same as the government side of the story. Disability activists and lobbyists basically wrote most of the federal legislation. On the other hand, in their adversarial role, journalists did challenge the federal government's side of the story by going to business and local government sources in the news stories. The business community and local governments, fearing the financial ramifications of the ADA, supplied information to the media with an alternative frame for the Act -- that the ADA would be costly to them.[31] For example, although the ADA is a civil rights law dealing with a myriad issues, especially employment discrimination against people with disabilities, the issue of architectural access was cited most often as the reason for the ADA in the media stories. This finding can definitely be tied to the business concerns about the ADA because architectural access has the potential to be the most costly to business and local governments. It should be noted that in the ADA stories, the federal government sources and local governments sources were typically on different „sides.š

This has implications for news media coverage of disability issues because numerous studies of news sources have confirmed the domination of sources from all forms of government in news stories. Brown el al. found that most news sources in both local and national newspapers were typically government sources who were men in executive-level positions.[32] Barker-Plummer found that the number of government-related sources used in two major national newspapers increased over the years. She found a great increase in the use of executive-level government officials and anonymous sources.[33] Lasorsa and Reese illustrated that the news media favored "high prestige" sources in covering the 1987 stock market crash and that the use of different sources affected the slant of news stories.[34] In studying the coverage of a riot, Sylvie found that a larger national newspaper used more diversity of sources than did a smaller local newspaper.[35] Bennett theorizes that the level of conflict between the Congress and the President influences the use of government sources in news stories. In an analysis of news stories about Reagan-era Nicaragua policies, he found that news content changes depending on the level of conflict between the Congress and the President.[36]

Seo showed that sources from government organizations are given more TV and newspaper coverage than those from other organizations, and the sources highest in the hierarchy are deemed most credible by journalists, as well as being covered most often.[37] Stories on cancer clusters cited an average of three sources, with two of these usually being government sources.[38] Stories on AIDS also used primarily government officials and high-ranking doctors as news sources.[39] Whitney et al., also revealed that most TV news sources were from government, the political arena, the military, or business.[40] Martin discovered that geographical proximity contributes to the number and type of news sources used.[41] Berkowitz found only a small number of women identified as news sources in local and network TV news.[42]

However, most of this past research did not consider the news coverage of disability issues in its analyses. So in this project for the NIDRR-funded Accessible Society Action Project, we discover how news media are disseminating information about disability issues and what sources they are using. This, in turn, has implications for how Americans perceive people with disabilities and disability issues in our society.



The study was a traditional content analysis of newspaper, news magazine, and network TV news stories about disability. Eleven newspaper and news magazines were selected primarily because of their large circulations and their prominence as agenda-setting elite media in the United States. The four networks -- ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN -- were used because of their availability through the Vanderbilt TV news archives. Although content analysis makes judgments about content, not media effects, this study is covering the news media most Americans say they use and are extremely important to them, according to a 1996 Gallup poll; therefore, the assumption is that they learn about disability information from the stories within these media.[43] See Table 1 for Americans news media use, which illustrates that although Americans use more network TV news as a source, they are more likely to value the information from newspapers.

The majority of the print stories in the data set were collected from Lexis-Nexis. See Table 2 for circulation figures of the newspapers and news magazines used. The search terms used were„disabled,š „disability,š „disabilities,š and „handicapped.š All the stories with these terms were evaluated, and the stories that were not connected to disability issues or people with disabilities were eliminated from the sample. For example, sports stories about an athlete on the „disabled listš were eliminated, and restaurant listings that had a reference to „handicapped accessibleš were eliminated. However, stories that had any mention of a person with a disability, even one reference unconnected to the rest of the story, were still included in the sample. The limitation of this search is that it missed stories about individual disabilities if there was no use of one of these terms, such as a story about a blind person that never used the term disability. However, because the focus of this media study is disability issues and people with disabilities in general, using the four terms above was the most viable option, although possibly limiting the number of stories in the study slightly. Three publications in the study are not listed or only have abstracts in Lexis-Nexis: The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chicago Tribune. The Philadelphia Inquirer was obtained from its web archives and generated numerous articles for the sample, especially from its suburban sections. The Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune were obtained via their web page archives. This also meant that information about whether a photo was used with the story could not be obtained for both Chicago Tribune and The Philadelphia Inquirer. In addition, The Wall Street Journal carries no photos.

The print sample consisted of stories in eight newspapers during October and November 1998 and three news magazines during the year of 1998 (N=256). Table 3 illustrates the number of stories per publication. The code sheet developed to analyze the articles looked for placement of the stories, kinds of disabilities mentioned, kinds of sources used, disability issues mentioned, and language about disability used. (See attached code sheet, Appendix A.) The study does not pretend to give an all encompassing picture of disability coverage but by using these two months hopes to show trends in news stories about disability.

The three coders were all trained in content analysis and have content analyzed news stories in the past. To verify intercoder reliability, 34 stories from two of the coders were selected for analysis. On the objective questions in the code sheet such as whether the ADA was mentioned or whether a person with a disability was mentioned as a source, the coders results typically matched in 33 of the stories. However, the coders had less matches on subjective questions such as the media models. It is suspected that this difference comes from the better understanding of the models by one of the coders, who acted as a coder for Haller‚s study of news coverage of the ADA, which used the media models. For example, that coder found 11 of the intercoder stories fit within the medical model, whereas the other coder only found one story. The two coders were much more in agreement on more clearcut models such as the legal model, in which they only differed by one story. This finding in the intercoder reliability does not weaken the overall study, however. In fact, it relays important information about how difficult it is for even someone trained in media content analysis to see the nuances of stereotypes about disability in news stories. The media models, especially, have always been difficult to assess and have been refined numerous times in an effort to reliably quantify them.

Using the Vanderbilt Television News Archives, all stories in 1998 with the terms „disabled,š „disability,š „disabilities,š and „handicappedš were collected for the television sample. Two additional stories were added when it was discovered that two abstracts used „physically challenged,š rather than the other four search terms. The archive covers only evening newscasts and only four networks ų ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN. Nielsen‚s ratings for the four evening newscasts are listed in Table 4.

The results of the TV news analysis were 34 television news stories in 1998. One additional story will be analyzed using qualitative methodology because it is a 30-minute special report on Casey Martin, not a news story. An almost exact replica of the print code sheet was used to assess the television stories. The only changes reflected the changes in the medium, such as length in minutes and no need for newspaper or magazine section identification. (See Appendix B.)



General characteristics of the print stories:

The total content analysis resulted in 256 stories in October to November 1998. Slightly more than that number may have existed because some shorter stories in the Chicago Tribune and Philadelphia Inquirer were missed due to their absence on Lexis-Nexis.However, using their web sites to collect articles from these two newspapers resulted in them having the largest number of disability stories. The larger number of stories in these two newspapers most likely results from their extensive suburban or neighborhood sections, which were easily searched via their archives. Although Lexis-Nexis also covers suburban sections of newspapers, it is unclear whether it covers specific neighborhood sections.

In terms of placement, stories about disability seem to be associated with the local angle most often. Table 5 illustrates that slightly more than 60% of the stories were located in the local Metro section or the neighbor/suburban section. Only about 14% of the stories were in the front national news section. Most likely due to the collection method, the Philadelphia Inquirer had the most suburban section stories at 57% of its stories. The newspaper has extensive suburban sections for the counties that surround the city and has several freelancers who seem to actively cover any disability-related stories in those counties. However, the Los Angeles Times had the largest percentage of its stories in its Metro section at 69%. The Los Angeles Times was also the most likely to use a photo with its stories at 62%, and it put 38% of its disability stories on the front of a section. However, a number of these stories appeared to be „inspirationalš features that editors may have selected for the Metro section to diversify the news. For example, one story tells of a deaf woman who found a career in taking care of pets[44] and another tells of a local guitarist with only one arm.[45] (Articles 65 and 67). Both are „fluffyš stories and have some pity and an inspirational tone imbedded within them and give no „newsš about any substantive disability issue. On the other hand, the LA Times also put some substantive disability stories on the front of its Metro section such an in-depth look at the problem of warehousing children with disabilities in psychiatric facilities or inappropriate group homes.[46] The story featured excellent comments from disability experts who explained the problems from institutionalization. (Article 68). Although it only wrote a small number of stories, the Wall Street Journal put four of its six stories on the front of a section as well.

However, most of the stories were news (48%) rather than feature stories (37.5%), which means disability issues are being associated with newsworthy information. See Table 6 for percentages of all types of stories. And even though many of the Philadelphia Inquirer‚s stories were in suburban sections, a larger number were news (53%), rather than feature (39%), stories. Due to its large number of stories, the Philadelphia Inquirer was also the most likely to mention the Americans with Disabilities Act with 10 of the 29 total mentions of the ADA (N=256) in that newspaper. The Baltimore Sun also had a high number of news stories with 11 out of its 20 stories in that category. It is interesting to note that the Sun also wrote slightly more stories related to disability than did the Washington Post. Considering the much larger resources of the Washington Post and its agenda-setting place as elite news media, this may signal problems in the coverage of disability issues if a premier newspaper is disregarding the issues. Many of the Sun‚s news stories were short reports on grants or new programs such as a story about the Baltimore Association for Retarded Citizens receiving a grant to provide job training.[47] (Article 117). The Chicago Tribune stories were the most feature-oriented with 50% being features. All the stories in the project were of substantial length, with 67% of the stories at longer than six inches; a good sign that some depth is being given to disability-related stories. See Table 7.

The study also tried to assess what types of disabilities were mentioned in the stories. As expected, due to the general search terms used, people with disabilities in general accounted for the largest category at 54%. However, the more interesting finding is the high number of disabilities mentioned that related to cognitive impairment. Learning disabilities were the No. 2 most mentioned disability at 14%, with mental retardation (12%), mental illness (9.3%), and emotional disabilities (6%) all in the top ten. See Table 8 for a full listing of the disabilities mentioned. These findings are surprising and very interesting because they seem to indicate that disability in these print stories is being associated with education and children‚s issues. A number of the stories reported on school districts‚ special education programs in both positive and negative ways. For example, a Baltimore Sun story called a county‚s special education program „bloatedš because of its high percentage of the budget. However, the story did balance that perspective by explaining that many students may be wrongly labeled as having learning disabilities, thus overburdening the program.[48] (Article 120).Another education and disability related issue that appeared and will probably take on greater prominence in the future is children with disabilities who need medical services while in school. A Chicago Tribune story reported on a school district in Illinois mandating that young children be in charge of their own prescription medication.[49] (Article 231).

This trend of education and children-related stories is confirmed in the topics covered by the stories. Table 9 illustrates that children with disabilities was the No. 1 topic covered in 23.3% of the stories. In addition, inclusive education issues (17%) and general education issues (10.5%) both were in the top ten issues covered in the print stories.

In terms of language use, the news media does seem to be understanding that the term „handicappedš is no longer a favored term. „People with disabilities,š which is less stigmatizing „people firstš language, was used most often in the stories. Table 10 illustrates the use of the terms in the news stories. Interestingly, the New York Times, which could be argued has the most agenda-setting function of all the print media, was the most likely to use the term „handicapped,š but it only contained only five references of the total 25 uses of the term.


Sourcing of stories about disability issues:

As previously mentioned, a major component of this study has been determining the kinds of sources in the disability stories because of their power to frame the message about disability issues. In an ideal world, people with disabilities should be involved as sources in any news story that concerns their issues. However, these findings indicate that people with disabilities are not ignored but they are not in total control of disability-related stories. A major finding is that almost 70% of the stories had no identifiable source with a disability in it. On the one hand, this could mean that journalists are not seeking out people with disabilities for these stories. On the other hand, it could mean that journalists are not identifying the disability status of sources. However, the latter scenario is probably unlikely because most journalists want to write in a style that allows readers to „seeš the sources, which Ericson, Baranek, and Chan have explained.[50] In addition, in news stories about racial groups, most journalists still feel they must identify the racial status of sources,[51] so it can be assumed that the same would hold true for disability status.

The print journalists were much more likely to use people with disabilities as examples in their news stories rather than as sources. About 56% of the news stories used a person with a disability as an example. The positive side of this finding is that at least people with disabilities‚ real world experiences are making it into the news as examples. For example, a Philadelphia Inquirer story illuminates the real problem of architectural access and inclusive education in Atlantic City‚s antiquated school buildings. No people with disabilities appear to be quoted in the story, but the problems students with disabilities face just getting to an accessible bathroom are clearly and vividly explained.[52] (Article 155)

Sometimes people with disabilities who were used as examples may have been used as sources too, during the interviewing process, but not in the writing process. Obviously, there would not be a way to see this in the story content. But either way, it means that their information is getting to at least one journalist, although not necessarily to the news audience. On the other hand, being used as an example and not being quoted in the story could be perceived as patronizing. Being an example might reduce the person with a disability to the status of object, rather than a person who has the power to speak on the issue. For example, a feature story about a beloved neighborhood letter carrier uses an example of a time she helped a wheelchair user who had fallen at home alone, but the person with the disability is not interviewed about the incident and appears in the story as an „objectš to be rescued.[53] (Article 209) Table 11 illustrates the findings on sources and examples.

Table 12 illustrates another interesting phenomenon: That people with disabilities were much more likely to be sources in feature stories, rather than news stories. Because substantive issues are more likely to be covered in a news, rather than feature, format, this may implications about the „voiceš people with disabilities are given in hard news stories. However, because feature stories are usually longer and because much news is less event-oriented and more analytical and featurized in modern journalism,[54] these factors might account for this finding.  A number of stories represented the interplay between being both a source and an example, which fit with a feature style story. However, just because someone was quoted in a story does not mean the story represented the person with a disability in a non-stigmatizing way, especially in feature stories. For example, the Los Angeles Times turned what could have been an informative feature on changes in people‚s lives due to new AIDS medications into a „supercripš story. The story quotes people who are HIV positive throughout, but the theme of the story is framed as „amazingš and „inspirationalš: Almost blind photographer still takes pictures.[55] (Article 94) Very little actual disability rights or disability general information seeps through this presentation. 

Gender is also an important aspect of sourcing because Wendell and Kent have reported that women with disabilities may be more stigmatized than men with disabilities.[56] Numerous studies have confirmed that the news is less likely to depict women in general or use them as sources.[57] This study had similar findings with many more males with disabilities being mentioned in disability stories (32.3%) than women with disabilities (14%). Table 13 illustrates those findings. According to the type of story, only about 17% of the hard news stories mentioned women with disabilities. See Table 14 for the gender mentions in each type of story.

This study also tried to assess specific types of sources. Haller‚s previous finding in news stories about the Americans with Disabilities Act was that sources tended to fall into three categories: disability, government, and business.[58] In terms of disability-related sources in this 1998 study, people with disabilities were sources in 24% of the stories, as were parents or family of people with disabilities at 24%. The high number of parents and family is most likely due to the large number of children‚s issues in the stories and is not parents speaking for adults with disabilities. Similar to Haller‚s 1996 study, local, not national, disability organizations were sources most often at 10%. Attorneys for people with disabilities and children with disabilities also made significant showings as sources at 9.7% and 5.8% respectively. Table 15 illustrates the specific disability-related sources. Many important disability-related sources appeared in no stories, such as NIDRR, ADAPT, the World Institute on Disability, and the National Federation of the Blind. See Table 16. A separate analysis was done of NIDRR in the news media over the course of five years and only five mentions were found in a Lexis-Nexis search of major U.S. newspapers. Only 14 mentions were found in magazines and primarily those dealing specifically with disability. Table 17 lists those publications and topics.

In terms of government, business, and general sources, the findings indicate an unexpected trend in disability coverage ų the repeated tie to education and/or children with disabilities. The most prominent government sources were school teachers, school officials, or school board members, all of which appeared in about 11% of the stories, making them the most prevalent „governmentš sources. University professors also appeared prominently in almost 9% of the stories, again showing the dominance of education-related sources. It is unclear, given the time frame of the study, how long journalists have been covering the disability and education story, but some stories illustrate that reporters see it as a „newš story. One Philadelphia Inquirer story reports on inclusive education as if it is a new phenomenon never heard of before: „This educational process is called inclusion ų teaching children with special needs in regular education classrooms.š[59] (Article 193)Table 18 illustrates the government sources.

In a change from the findings in Haller‚s study of sourcing of ADA stories, business sources took on very little prominence in these general stories about disability. However, the findings do fit with Clogston‚s 1990 study in which many disability stories were found to be within a medical or social welfare framework.[60] The significant number of medical doctors (9%), medical/scientific researchers (4%), and hospital spokepeople (3%) as sources reflect the number of stories that treated disability as a medical story. Table 19 illustrates the specific percentages. These findings illustrate that the business angle in stories arises primarily when they see their interests as involved such as in the case of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This, however, neglects other stories in which discrimination against people with disabilities might adversely affect businesses, such as through poverty, unemployment, or lack of consumer buying power.

Finally, the models of media representation were assessed through yes-no questions about the stories. It should be remembered that these assessments are very subjective, but they still give good information about the overall themes in many of the stories. For example, to assess whether people with disabilities were being presented in a culturally plural way, the following question was asked about story: „Are people with disabilities or their issues portrayed as able-bodied people would be, as a multifaceted people whose disabilities do not receive undue attention?š (See Appendix A for the rest of the questions that assessed the models.) This model was the most prevalent and was found in 44% of the stories. This is a good sign but it may be overly optimistic to believe that people with disabilities are being presented like anyone else in the late 1990s. It is suspected that resulted in part from many stories that only had a cursory reference to disability. For example, a story in the Washington Post about Medicare overpaying for prescription drugs mentions that the program covers senior citizens and people with disabilities but makes no other reference to disability and does not single out people with disabilities in a positive or negative way (Article 54).[61] The high number of stories that still fit within the medical model (21%) fits with the finding related to medical-related sources within the stories. This finding gives reason for concern about the ongoing representation of people with disabilities as „sick.š However, not all the medical-oriented stories were overly stigmatizing. Some just reported new information about treatments such as the Washington Post story on a federal government initiative to prevent arthritis and lessen the severity of symptoms (Article 51).[62] On the one hand, the article gives good information about preventing arthritis, and on the other hand, it calls people with arthritis „sufferersš and somewhat frames the disability within the „need for a cureš narrative. The legal model also found prominence within 18% of the articles, which is a good sign that people with disabilities are taking their issues through the court system and journalists are covering those stories. Many of these legal-oriented stories are making their way even into suburban sections as local disability groups advocate for disability rights. For example, a Westchester County section story in the New York Times detailed a community group‚s planned class action suit if Gov. George Pataki does not building enough housing for people with disabilities (Article 5).[63] Table 20 illustrates the remaining media models in the stories.

The television study:

The significant first finding from the television portion of the study is just how few stories were done on disability topics during 1998 ų 34 total. The stories were also clustered during the first half of the year. From July through December, only five television stories on disability issues were presented. Table 21 shows how many stories each TV network presented. However, most of the stories were fairly lengthy by television standards ų 11 stories were longer than 2 ł minutes and 13 stories were between 46 seconds and 2 ł minutes.

These 34 stories also cluster around a small number of topics, the most important being Casey Martin‚s fight with the PGA to be allowed to use a golf cart. This skewed the topics covered toward the access to recreation/sports and ADA categories. Table 22 shows the topics covered by the TV stories. This emphasis on the Casey Martin story and Supreme Court decisions also meant most of the stories were breaking news (65%) and reflected the legal model (68%) because they were about Martin‚s ADA lawsuit in Oregon to force the PGA to allow golf cart use and two Supreme Court cases about ADA definitions. This resulted in 53% of the TV stories mentioning the ADA. Table 23 reveals the other specific topics of the TV stories, which were assessed from the story abstracts specifically.

In terms of language, five stories used the term „the disabled,š five stories used the term „people with disabilities,š and six stories used the term „handicapped.š Again, the Casey Martin story probably skewed the gender of people with disabilities in the stories toward male, with 14 stories mentioning a man with a disability. Seven stories mentioned women with disabilities, and eight stories mentioned both men and women with disabilities. The Casey Martin story also may have meant more people with disabilities were used as sources because he was interviewed in numerous stories.

Table 24 shows people with disabilities in the television stories as examples and sources. It is not a good sign that so few people with disabilities were used as sources, although the most prevalent source in the TV stories was a person with a disability. Table 25, which lists all TV sources, illustrates the prominence of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the TV stories because about one-third of the stories cited its provisions as a source of information. However, the majority of the TV stories had no people with disabilities as sources in them. This is very disturbing because TV is the primary news medium of the American public, and people with disabilities are not speaking to them in news stories. The large number of people with disabilities as examples in the stories is most likely a function of the visual nature of television news. Journalists like the visual nature of disability in stories because it is entertaining and/or dramatic to show people with physical or mental disabilities happily skiing down mountains[64] or the abuse of children with disabilities, as in a long CNN story about the warehousing of children with Down‚s syndrome in Russia.[65] However, people with disabilities need to be speaking in TV news stories. They need to be the authoritative sources with power to best counteract the „pityš or „inspirationalš approach that television has historically tied into.[66]

The qualitative study: TV, disability, and the Supercrip factor

The final aspect of the study was a qualitative analysis of a 1998 „Nightlineš show discussing the Casey Martin case. Based on the Vanderbilt TV News archives, this show appears to be the only current events special related to disability in 1998. A number of TV news magazine stories on disability appeared in 1998; however, no national location collects or archives these programs. But based on previous analysis of some TV news magazine segments about disability, the more entertainment-oriented news magazines seem to embrace the Supercrip representation quite frequently.[67] But, it was anticipated that the more conservative „Nightlineš show might be less inflammatory. That wasn‚t the case.

First, it is important to understand the long history of Supercrip representation in news media. Covington believes it has been around since U.S. newspapers‚ penny press days.[68] Kenneth Jernigan, the longtime president of the National Federation of the Blind, succinctly explained how in the 1970s a journalist came to a news story with the Supercrip stereotype already in place:

A reporter. . .came to one of our meetings and said, 'I'd like to get pictures of blind persons bowling and of some of the members with their dogs.' I tried to explain to him that such a story would be a distortion -- that we were there to discuss refusal by employers to let us work, refusal by airlines to let us ride, refusal by hotels to let us stay, refusal by society to let us in, and refusal by social service agencies to let us out. He said he was glad I had told him and that it had been very helpful and enlightening. Then he added, 'Now, can I see the dogs and the bowlers? I'm in quite a rush.'[69]


Almost 30 years later, this anecdote still illustrates the problem TV journalists, videographers, and photojournalists have in understanding how to depict people with disabilities. They still want the inspirational Supercrip image because they know that‚s what their news directors, editors, and audience want.

Clogston defined a Supercrip this way: The disabled person is portrayed as deviant because of "superhuman" feats (i.e. ocean sailing blind man) or as "special" because they live regular lives "in spite of" disability (i.e. deaf high school student who plays softball). This role reinforces the idea that disabled people are deviant -- that the person's accomplishments are „amazingš for someone who is less than complete.[70] Covington explains how the media‚s Supercrip stories cause problems. „Too often, the news media treat a disabled individual who has attained success in his field or profession as though he were one of a kind. While this one-of-a-kind aspect might make for a better story angle, it perpetuates in the mind of the general public how rare it is for the disabled person to succeed.š[71]

In addition, Laura Mitchell asserts that the press misses important stories related to disabled persons because of their persistence in portraying them as inspirational "SuperCrips" or as "helpless victims." „The press misses the boat largely because of a narrow view that pigeonholes people with disabilities and makes subconscious assumptions about who we are and what we do. . . Insensitivity and stubborn ignorance characterize much press coverage of disability-related stories,š Mitchell explains.[72] Much of this is tied to the attitudes and assumptions U.S. society has about people with disabilities. Paul Miller connects some of these societal attitudes to able-bodied people‚s fear of becoming disabled themselves. „This fear is based on the notion that a disabled person‚s life is inferior to, and less precious than, an able-bodied person‚s life.š[73] These fears lead people to seek out stories of Supercrips, so they can „take comfortš and feel hope from the fact that Supercrips succeed „in spite ofš a disability. The news media know their audiences and what they like and give it to them by making many stories about disability fit the Supercrip model. Even high school journalists know this is what the public wants, according to Laura Miller, whose survey of high school journalism students, found that the majority of the students said they „would treat a person‚s disability as a news oddity, worthy of top placement in a news story.š[74] Interestingly, the students all had positive attitudes toward people with disabilities due to today‚s more inclusive education environment, but in terms of their news values, they had not been sensitized about non-stigmatizing ways to present people with disabilities.

Many of the TV stories in the ASAP study are still similar to findings by Biklen 12 years ago: When covering disability, reporters "typically cast in terms of tragedy, of charity and its attendant emotion, pity, or of struggle and accomplishment."[75] Biklen found that the themes of news stories had become predictable. They focused on the angles of inspiration and courage.

The „Nightlineš show on February 12, 1998 illustrates how TV can frame a legal story about an ADA ruling within the Supercrip presentation. The introduction of the show uses classic Supercrip images: a one-handed baseball pitcher and a football kicker with half of a foot. The voiceover says the show will look at the „heroic accomplishments of Casey Martin.š The introduction also allows the PGA supporters to criticize the Martin ruling, saying it will „change golf from a sport to a game,š like „tiddlywinks.š[76] Here‚s how Forrest Sawyer framed the show in his introductory statement:

It may be heartening to give Casey Martin a chance to play out his dreams but is it fair? In professional sports, which is intended to be a competition among the most elite athletes, should there be compensation for handicaps? In a nation that cherishes fair play, how do we find the right balance between making sure disabled Americans are not discriminated against and making sure athletes compete on a level field?[77]


Sawyer is trying to tie into the issue of fairness and its application to sports, which are based on specific skills. However, he is sending a distorted message about the intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA employment provisions apply only to disabled individuals who are qualified to compete in a specific field of endeavor. Casey Martin was a two-time All-American golfer at Stanford University who easily qualified for the PGA Tour based on his golfing. The ADA‚s intent is to enhance fairness, rather than to promote inequity. But Sawyer‚s statements imply that the Casey Martin case might lead to a dilution of fair play in professional sports, rather than vice versa.

Before the „Nightlineš interview with Casey Martin, the show has a report from Mike von Fremd about the February 1998 Oregon court ruling, which allowed Martin to use a golf cart during the PGA tour as an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The von Fremd voiceover begins by calling Martin „the man who beat the system,š and „this David slew Goliath.š Both characterizations are problematic because Casey Martin‚s case was really a straightforward legal process that used the ADA to appropriately accommodate his disability. The reference to „beating the systemš makes it seem that there is manipulation on his part. And calling Martin „Davidš to the PGA‚s „Goliathš represents him as a lone fighter in the arena of disability rights when in fact, he has good federal legislation and much precedent behind him. It denies the context of his case, which represents one of the many, very appropriate ADA enforcements.

The report allows the Supercrip representation to be voiced by both Martin‚s mother and Sen. Tom Harkin, one of the sponsors of the ADA. Martin‚s mother says, „his life has been a victory.š Tom Harkin says, „because of his courage to go out and fight and this judge‚s decision, thousands of kids with disabilities are picking up golf clubs.š He explains the Martin decision will have long-term impact but doesn‚t explain how. It is likely that Harkin said much more to say on the topic, but this particular quote fit with the TV show‚s framing of Martin as a Supercrip. Harkin‚s quote basically presents Martin as the „Tiger Woodsš for kids with disabilities. However, what is missing is the „big picture.š They have an interview with one of the architects of the ADA, but the show doesn‚t allow him to contextualize the Martin decision in terms of the ADA, its enforcement, or disability rights in general.

When the report gives the PGA‚s „sideš on the case, PGA officials contend the issue is not about Martin. They state the sympathy they have for Martin, but say their issue is organizational rights. They want to make their own decisions about the tour. Once again, this might have been a perfect opportunity for context in the story. It could have tied the story of the ADA to that of civil rights. Consider how many African Americans were denied access to activities such golf because of segregation in the past. The history of many forms of civil rights legislation shows us state governments and businesses have opposed the initiatives because of their desire to control their own destiny, even though it represented discriminatory practices against many groups.

Two professional golfers quoted in the von Fremd report continue the Supercrip narrative by linking Martin to other Supercrips. The report introduces golfer Arnold Palmer as someone who switched sides on the Martin issue, from formerly opposing his golf cart use to now supporting it. The report implies the switch came because Palmer reflected on his own father‚s situation. Palmer explained that his father was a „polio victim.š „He couldn‚t play the tour or walk that much but later played golf,š Palmer says. Golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez, ties Martin to the ultimate Supercrip: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. „If FDR could run the country out of a wheelchair, Casey Martin should be able to play golf out of a golf cart. That golf cart is not going to hit the ball,š Rodriguez said.[78] It‚s wonderful that they support Casey Martin, but they reveal another problem with the Supercrip representation: It distorts the reason people with disabilities receive accommodation. Palmer and Rodriguez seem to be on Martin‚s side because they see him as a person who „succeeded in spite of a disabilityš and therefore deserves the „rewardš of accommodation. In fact, accommodation is a straightforward Congressional mandate and a civil right. Every person with a disability is supposed to be treated within this civil rights framework, not just the Casey Martins of the world, who is described as an „athlete who never gives up.š

These distorted Supercrip images reflect a stigmatizing and individualistic view of disability. Richard Scotch explains these perspectives come from a medical or social welfare view of disability, in which it is seen as a physical problem alone residing within individuals.[79] This contrasts with the disability rights perspective, which views disability as a phenomenon created by society, which has yet to modify its architectural, occupational, educational, communication, and attitudinal environments to accommodate people who are physically different.[80] The focus is away from the disabled individual as the problem and on society's structures instead. Media images, such as those on „Nightline,š affect society as a whole, but they also have implications for the self-concept of people with disabilities themselves. Zola said U.S. society gives people with disabilities a dual message through the media. On the one hand, stories about the successes of people with disabilities illustrate that they can live full, happy, goal-oriented lives. On the other hand, the message of success sets up expectations that all disabled people must try to meet. This message "states that if a Franklin Delano Roosevelt or a Wilma Rudolph could OVERCOME their handicap, so could and should all the disabled. And if we fail, it is our problem, our personality, our weakness."[81] Higgins adds that in U.S. culture "we present disability as primarily an internal condition that estranges disabled people from others."[82]

The final portion of the von Fremd report shows a Nike advertisement featuring Casey Martin. It embodies both Supercrip and ageist narratives. Casey Martin says: „I don‚t want to be known as a person with a disability so much as a good golfer. You might as well chase your dreams while you‚re young, before it‚s too late. I‚m not going to let my leg stop me.š It is assumed that Nike, in consultation with Martin, crafted these words. The message is that Martin plans to be a good golfer „in spite ofš his leg ų a typical Supercrip message. The sentence that says, „while you‚re young, before it‚s too lateš can be interpreted two ways. First, it sounds very ageist, as if he is saying people become useless when they age. Secondly, it could be applied to his specific situation, which is the continued deterioration of his leg, so he must use it now while it is as functional as possible. It is doubtful that any company trying to sell a product would intentionally be ageist, but considering the youth culture that sports ties into, Nike probably didn‚t understand it was stigmatizing older people in the message. The company‚s intent was to use Martin‚s status a Supercrip to sell sports clothing and equipment.

After the von Fremd report, Forrest Sawyer interviewed Casey Martin and later another pro golfer, Scott Verplank. In the this half of the show, Sawyer managed to call Martin „inspirationalš twice, so the Supercrip tone continued in the segment. First, Sawyer questions Martin about his potential advantage when other golfers may have health problems such as heat exhaustion, diabetes, or bad backs. Martin explains that he knows he doesn‚t have an advantage because of the difficulties he has walking due to his leg. He then explains how he fits within the intent of the ADA. Martin says, „I needed one and the law of the land said I was entitled to one so I took advantage of that.š[83]

Sawyer countered that in sports everyone has to play by the same rules. Then Casey Martin gives a contextualized quote that ties his case to the larger societal expectations under the ADA:

You could take that argument to every level and there‚d be no ADA. A corporation could say you have to play by our rules or find another job. When Tom Harkin developed the ADA that was the gist of it -- to give people like myself an opportunity. I can play golf like anyone else. I just need a little lift here and there. So I don‚t see it changing things. I would trade my leg and that cart for anyone‚s healthy leg under any condition.[84]


The context at the beginning of the quote is very appropriate and needed. He shows that his situation is no different than a corporation that refuses to hire a person with a disability because it has discriminatory rules. He explains that the ADA is meant to give people with disabilities the opportunity to perform, but they have to be able to do the task at hand. He swiftly addresses the „unfair advantageš issue and replaces it with the correct narrative of „opportunity.š However, his last sentence practically destroys the whole quote, by switching into the medical rhetoric of „cureš in which he would happily rather have had his leg fixed than have had his ADA case. He‚s probably just being honest because his rare circulatory condition does cause him much pain, but statements like his are interpreted by the TV audience within the framework of tragedy and pity. Statements such as these are better left unsaid due to the high level of misinterpretation and stigma they foster. Interestingly, in many of the other TV news reports on him, their brevity allowed him to be quoted on more ADA or case-specific issues. His quotes were much more disability rights-oriented as soundbites. For example, in an ABC news report in January 1998, when Martin competed in a tournament before the final court ruling, he clearly explains that his accommodation for the tour is deserved because he has proven himself as a golfer. „I want to see if I have the talent to make it. I want that to be the determinant whether I can make the PGA tour. Whether I can hit the shots. Not whether I can walk well enough.š[85] In terms of the employment provisions of the ADA, Martin is explaining that he is „qualifiedš and that walking is not an „essentialš part of the „jobš of professional golfer on tour.

However, Martin makes matters worse in his next quote on „Nightline,š related to Sawyer‚s question about the relationship of his case to other sports. Martin responds: „How many disabled people can pursue the highest level sports? It has to accommodate a professional athlete. Maybe a person who is deaf or blind. Golf can definitely allow disabled people to play.š[86] Ironically, he‚s actually questioning the ability of people with disabilities in the professional sports arena. He is falling prey to the same misconceptions that the general public do, associating disability with wheelchair use primarily. Also, ironic is the fact that many people with disabilities who may have had professional-level athletic skills were segregated into Special Olympics as children or were not given opportunities in professional sports because of discriminatory practices. Casey Martin broke down one of these walls of discrimination, yet he mimics the same rhetoric of those who said he shouldn‚t compete. He counters his own statement in his next quote and explains the implication of his case: „I hope and pray people watch this situation and say I can do it, just like anyone else. The laws of their country allow them to pursue almost anything.š

Forrest Sawyer tells Martin: „You‚ve been a tremendous inspiration for heaven knows how many disabled people.š In fact, the real „heroš of the Casey Martin case is the ADA, which was used appropriately and effectively to halt discrimination. But because of a Supercrip story‚s individual focus, this most important aspect of the story is lost.

Finally, one last aspect of the Supercrip representation finds its way into the „Nightlineš show. It seems nondisabled people may be fearful and intimidated by Supercrips and their salience with the general public. This may lead to resentment from nondisabled people as well. Scott Verplank, a pro golfer with diabetes, who according to Forrest Sawyer, „used a cart but now believes all golfers should walk the course,š is hesitant to honestly say what he believes because of Casey Martin‚s inspirational status. In fact, he contradicts Sawyer‚s characterization of him later in the interview, by explaining „I would prefer to have the right to have a golf cart, but I don‚t know that I would actually ride it.š[87]

Verplank dances around the issue verbally by explaining how he used a cart, which put him ahead in a tournament, but that „golf is an endurance test/marathon,š so he thinks carts change the game. But Verplank finally gets to the reason he can‚t bluntly state what he believes:

„I don‚t want the general public that has been so supportive of him (Martin) to turn on me.š[88]

Verplank understands the power of the Supercrip model, which means he knows better than to criticize Casey Martin. But the power of the Supercrip is a false power. People with disabilities are put on pedestals because of their inspirational quality in doing ordinary things, which is actually a patronizing way to laud people and imbedded with charity. In these Supercrip representations, framing someone as inspirational is just another way of pitying them for the „tragedy of their fate.šBecause society may have few expectations for people with disabilities, any disabled person who does any basic tasks of living becomes „inspirational,š and any disabled person who does more than daily living like competing as a professional golfer or playing pro baseball with one arm becomes a Supercrip.



The most surprising finding from the quantitative part of the study is the conspicuous link between disability issues and education and children in the print stories. Several common sense reasons contribute to this. First, the study collected stories from October and November, when all U.S. schools are in session. Secondly, mandatory public education is a prominent feature of American society and has been for decades, and each U.S. newspaper, no matter how large or small, traditionally covers education and schools as part of their geographic community. Thirdly, inclusive education for children with disabilities has been a major focus for local disability activists and parents of children with disabilities since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) became law.

The fact that the print media are finally covering education issues related to disability is of major importance. One question answered by this study is how they are covering it. And many times they are writing stories that have no person with a disability as a source. Print journalists are much more likely to use people with disabilities as examples in their news stories rather than as sources. In addition, people with disabilities were much more likely to be sources in feature stories, rather than news stories, which means they may not have been used as sources on more hard-hitting issues. This has implications for the message that may be getting across to the general public: That people with disabilities can‚t speak for themselves. This is obviously untrue, but that is the impression that might be left in the minds of readers.

Also of concern is the finding that so few women with disabilities are involved in news stories about disability issues. This is especially problematic given the fact that there are slightly more females than males in the United States in general, and that women continue to be prominent in education-related jobs. Yet, women and girls with disabilities are largely ignored.

However, people with disabilities and local disability organizations did have a „voiceš in disability-related stories. People with disabilities or their families were most often sources in the stories, which is a very good sign. Local disability organizations were also often sources in 10% the stories. The disability groups that were largely missing from the coverage were national disability organizations, which is a somewhat unexpected finding because the newspapers and news magazines used in the print study are the largest in the United States and many consider themselves to be „nationalš newspapers. The journalistic practice of localizing stories may have accounted for this lack of national disability sources.

But because numerous studies have shown that the news media heavily relies on government sources and „expertš sources, their lack of contact with the major disability experts in America is cause for concern. Experts affiliated with NIDRR, the Society for Disability Studies, or the World Institute on Disability could have commented on many of the topics covered by the news stories, but journalists don‚t seem to know they exist.



1. In terms of news stories, disability-related organizations need to stick to the slogan on the disability rights poster: „Nothing about us, without us.š This study shows that journalists do know to use people with disabilities in stories about disability issues because they are used as sources in about 30% of the articles. But the disability „sideš of the story should be in every story that includes those issues.


2. With the obvious media and public interest in education issues, disability and education spokespeople need to actively work together to get correct information about these issues into the news. As found previously in the study of ADA coverage, other groups can work against laws preventing discrimination against people with disabilities and their side of the story may be given equal credence. For example, people who are against inclusive education ų even schools and parents ų may actively seek to turn the news discourse into one about inclusive education being „bad.š Disability organizations must be pro-active in controlling the news agenda on this and other topics about disability issues.


3. Because research has found that source diversity does not necessarily lead to news content diversity,[89] disability organizations must educate journalists to pursue a diversity of ideas. Disability topics are part of the multicultural discourse that needs to be entering the journalistic marketplace of ideas. Disability organizations should be aggressive and not wait for journalists to decide it‚s time to do a story. They should actively pitch serious story ideas. For example, before a major Supreme Court decision is even handed down, disability organizations should show journalists the implications of the case in their local community. Normally, journalists will do this story anyway, but the disability focus will be stronger if disability sources intervene as early as possible.


4. In suggesting print stories, disability organizations need to plug into current print media norms of featurizing stories and localizing stories. Because of today‚s information overload among news audiences, the public‚s relationship to different media has been changing. People tend to watch TV for spot news, and those who want to know more about the issues in-depth read newspapers and news magazines. People who make an effort to keep up with the news are the opinion leaders, so disability organizations need to get correct information about the issues before them by getting into the major print news media.


5. In terms of television, disability organizations should focus on getting more stories onto the evening news because it is the number one news source in the United States. They should also work on creating non-stigmatizing sound bites that can get into disability-related stories because there is not the opportunity to go into the issue in-depth. As discussed in the Casey Martin stories, the shorter TV stories were less stigmatizing than the longer „Nightlineš show. The longer the TV story, the more need for the program to be entertaining and provocative to hold viewers‚ attention. Therefore, the longer format has more potential to perpetuate stigma. TV news magazines, which are a more recent media phenomenon that fit somewhere between TV spot news and print news magazines, have an „infotainmentš focus that has the potential to do double damage if not managed properly. They look to Supercrips as sources and as subjects of stories because they fit with the „infotainmentš format. These news magazine segments can give lengthy, in-depth, possibly incorrect, disability information in a visually compelling and potentially stigmatizing format. In contrast, a TV news story has less chance to stigmatize or give incorrect information because it usually lasts only 30 seconds to 2 minutes.


6. Disability organizations need to get the names of their expert sources into the hands of TV news producers and prominent print journalists. Most journalists and producers don‚t even know the names of national disability groups or national disability experts. In contrast, they do know national business experts or national education experts. Disability experts must be equally as prominent. However, disability expert sources should be trained so as to avoid being turned into a Supercrip on camera. It is crucial that the issues, not a person, be the subject of the stories.


7. NIDRR should have press conferences at least quarterly to announce results from the numerous projects they fund. The reason the American Medical Association or the National Institutes of Health receives so much news media coverage is because of their events and constant release of research results. What appears to be happening is that NIDRR funds numerous excellent research projects, whose results are known only to NIDRR and other disability researchers.


8. NIDRR must have a public information effort that is in tandem with the universities, medical schools, and other organizations where the researchers it funds work. This will mean double the efforts to get disability information to the public. It will also probably be much more successful because the news media cover education so prominently. So, for example, if NIDRR funds researchers attached to Northwestern University, the Chicago Tribune will be more likely to publish information about the project.


9. NIDRR would be well served to start a journal that could publish research findings from its funded projects and other disability and rehabilitation research. This could be provided as a government report to university libraries across the nation and press releases about the findings in each journal could be sent to the mainstream and disability media. It would follow a model similar to that of the Journal of the AMA, which gets heavy media coverage. With a journal, NIDRR could turn the medical model of coverage that the news media follow in its favor. Journalists are drawn to government and medical experts, and by playing on that, much more important disability-related information will get into the news.

[1]. Denis McQuail, Mass Communication Theory. (London: Sage, 1989): 178.

[2]. „Media critics,š Media Studies Journal (1995, Spring).

[3]. Morris Janowitz,. "Harold Lasswell's contribution to content analysis.š Winter 1968-69, Public Opinion Quarterly, (1968): 648.

[4]. Paul S. Voakes, Jack Kapfer, David Kurpius, and David Shano-yeon Chern, „Diversity in the news: A conceptual and methodological framework,š Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly (1996, Autumn): 593.

[5]. Maxwell McCombs & Donald Shaw, „The agenda-setting function of the press,š 36, Public Opinion Quarterly, (1972): 176-187.

[6]. Maxwell McCombs & Donald Shaw, „The evolution of agenda-setting research,š 43:2, Journal of Communication, (1993): 58-67.

[7]. Maxwell McCombs, „Explorers and surveyors: Expanding strategies for agenda-setting research,š 69:4, Journalism Quarterly, (1992): 813-824.

[8]. Louis Harris and Associates, Inc. Public attitudes toward people with disabilities. (New York: National Organization on Disability, 1991).

[9]. Kathryn C. Montgomery, Targeting Prime Time. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989): 8.

[10]. Carol Dillon, Keith Byrd, & Dianne Byrd, „Television and disability,š October-November-December, Journal of Rehabilitation, (1980): 67-69.

[11]. Todd Gitlin, The whole world is watching. (Berkeley, Ca.: University of California Press, 1980): 9.

[12]. Joseph Gusfield, The culture of public problems. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

[13]. Gusfield, 1981.

[14]. Phillip J. Tichenor, George A. Donohue, & Clarice N. Olien, Community conflict and the press. (Beverly Hills: Sage. 1980).


[15]. Clarice N. Olien, Phillip J. Tichenor,  & George A. Donohue,„Media and protest,š in Larissa Grunig (Ed.), Monographs in environmental education and environmental studies. (Troy, Ohio: North American Association for Environmental Education, 1989): 24.

[16]. Michael Ryan & Dorothea Owen, „A content analysis of metropolitan newspaper coverage of social issues.š Journalism Quarterly, 53, (1976): 634-640, 671.

[17]. Michael Ryan & Dorothea Owen, „An accuracy survey of metropolitan newspaper coverage of social issues,š Journalism Quarterly, 54, (1977): 27-32.

[18]. John C. Clogston, Disability Coverage in 16 Newspapers. (Louisville: Advocado Press, 1990).

[19]. Joseph Shapiro, „Disability policy and the media: A stealth civil rights movement bypasses the press and defies conventional wisdom,š in Sara Watson and David Pfeiffer (Eds.) Disability Policy as an Emerging Field of Mainstream Public Policy Researchand Pedagogy, a symposium edition of the Policy Studies Journal, (1993).

[20]. Beth Haller, Balancing Acts:Government, Business, and Disability Sources in News Representations of the ADA. Paper presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication annual meeting, Anaheim, Ca., August 1996.

[21]. Fred Fedler, „The media and minority groups: A study of access,š Journalism Quarterly, 50, (1973): 109-17.

[22]. Pamela Shoemaker, „Media treatment of deviant political groups,š Journalism Quarterly, 61, (1984): 66-75, 82.

[23]. J.K. Hertog & Douglas McLeod, Anarchists wreak havoc in downtown Minneapolis: A case study of media coverage of radical protest. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. Portland, Oregon, August 1988.

[24]. Pamela Shoemaker, „The communication of deviance,š in B. Dervin (Ed.), Progress in Communication Science (Norwood, NJ; Ablex, 1987): 172.

[25]. Richard V. Ericson, Patricia M. Baranek, & Janet B. L. Chan, Visualizing deviance: A study of news organization. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987).

[26]. Beth Haller, „When they limp, they lead? News representations and the hierarchy of disability imagesš in Dawn Braithwaite and Teresa Thompson (Eds.) Handbook of Communication and People with Disabilities: Research and Application (Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999).


[27]. Ericson, Baranek, & Chan, 1987.

[28]. Bernard Roshco, Newsmaking. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975): 101.

[29]. Herbert Gans, Deciding what's news: A study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek and Time. (New York: Vintage, 1980).

[30]. Gail Dines, „Capitalism's pitchmen: The media sells a business agenda,š Dollars and sense, 176, (1992, May): 18-20.

[31]. Haller, 1996.

[32]. Jane D. Brown, et al. (1982). Invisible power: News sources and the limits of diversity.Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Athens, Ohio, August, 1982.

[33]. Bernadette Barker-Plummer, Look who‚s talking: A study of institutional sources in two major papers, 1885-1985. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Washington, D.C., August 1989.

[34]. Dominic L. Lasorsa & Stephen D. Reese, „News source use in the crash of 1987: A study of four national media,š Journalism Quarterly, 67(1), (1990): 60-71

[35]. George Sylvie, Study of a riot: The effect of news values and competition on coverage by two competing daily newspapers.Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Washington, D.C., August 1989.

[36]. W. Lance Bennett, „Toward a theory of press-state relations in the United States,š Journal of Communication, 40(2), (1990): 103-125.

[37]. Sae K. Seo, The source-journalist relationship: Coverage of sources by the news media. Unpublished doctoral dissertation at The University of Texas, Austin, Texas, 1990.

[38]. Michael Greenberg and Daniel Wartenberg, „Newspaper coverage of cancer clusters,š Health Education Quarterly, 18(3), (1991): 363-374.

[39]. David C. Colby & Timothy E. Cook, „Epidemics and agendas: The politics of nightly news coverage of AIDS,š Journal of Health Politics, 16(2), (1991): 215-249.

[40]. D. Charles Whitney, et al., „Geographic and source biases in network television news 1982-1984,š Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 33(2), (1989): 159-174.


[41]. Shannon R. Martin, „Proximity of event as factor in selection of news sources,š Journalism Quarterly, 65(4), (1988): 986-89.

[42]. Dan Berkowitz, „TV news sources and news channels: A study of agenda-building,šJournalism Quarterly, 64, (1987): 508-13.

[43]. Joe Schwartz, „Local news matters,š American Demographics, (1996, July): 18.

[44]. John M. Glionna, „Woman‚s deafness proves no barrier to listening,š Los Angeles Times (6 October 1998): B2.

[45]. James Ricci, „Guitarist uniquely strums to the rhythm of his heart,š Los Angeles Times (17 October 1998): B1.

[46]. James Rainey, „County policy on troubled children faces court test,š Los Angeles Times (19 October 1998): B1.

[47]. „Three nonprofits get training, job grants,š The Baltimore Sun (21 October 1998): 1D.

[48]. Kris Antonelli, „Auditors say special education misused,š The Baltimore Sun (23 October 1998): 3B.

[49]. Jeremy Manier, „Medicine in kids‚ hands,š Chicago Tribune (22 November 1998): SW1.

[50]. Ericson, Baranek, & Chan, 1987.

[51]. Carolyn Martindale, „Coverage of black Americans in four major newspapers, 1950-1989,š Newspaper Research Journal, 11:3 (1990): 96-111.

[52]. Amy S. Rosenberg, „Referendum seeks new school for the disabled,š The Philadelphia Inquirer (30 October 1998).

[53]. Bob Brown, „Delivering friendship,š Chicago Tribune (6 October 1998): NW3.

[54]. Kevin G. Barnhurst and Diana Mutz, „American journalism and the decline of event-centered reporting,š Journal of Communication, 47:4 (1997, Autumn): 27-53.

[55]. Lorenza Munoz, „AIDS picture gets brighter,š Los Angeles Times (30 November 1998).

[56].Deborah Kent, „Disabled women: Portraits in fiction and drama,š In A. Gartner and T. Joe (Eds.), Images of the Disabled, Disabling Images (New York: Praeger, 1987): 47-64 and Susan Wendell, The Rejected Body (NY: Routledge, 1996).

[57]. R.E. Blackwood, „The content of news photos: Roles portrayed by men and women,š Journalism Quarterly, 60 (1983): 710-714; S. Miller, „The content of news photos: Women's and men's roles,š Journalism Quarterly, 52:1 (1975): 70-75; Michael W. Singletary, „New photographs: A content analysis, 1936-1976,š Journalism Quarterly, 55:3 (1978): 585-89; and

Berkowitz, 1987.

[58]. Haller, 1996.

[59]. Gloria A. Hoffner, „Helping teachers reach students of differing abilities,š Philadelphia Inquirer (26 November 1998).

[60]. Clogston, 1990, 16.

[61]. William Branigin, „Study says Medicare overpaying for drugs,š Washington Post (1998, November 28): A7.

[62]. Sally Squires, „Dispelling arthritis myths; awareness and treatment offers help for sufferers,š Washington Post (1998, November 24): Z19.

[63]. Elsa Brenner, „Class-Action lawsuit,š New York Times (1998, October 18): 14WC.

[64]. NBC Evening News, „Schwarzkopf's America (Adaptive Skiing),š April 2, 1998.

[65]. CNN Evening News, „Children in Russia with Down‚s Syndrome, March 16, 1998.

[66]. Guy Cumberbatch and Ralph Negrine, Images of Disability on Television (London: Routledge, 1992): 36 and Paul Longmore, „Screening stereotypes: Images of disabled people in television and motion picturesš in A. Gartner and T. Joe (Eds.), Images of the Disabled, Disabling Images (New York: Praeger, 1987): 65-78.

[67]. I have several years of TV news magazine segments on disability from acting as an Easter Seals EDI Media Awards judge. Some discussion of these segments can be found in: "Prizing Disability in Journalism: Inspiration as Code," a paper presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication annual meeting, Baltimore, August 1998.

[68]. George Covington, „The Stereotypes, the Myths and the Media,šWashington, D.C., The News Media and Disability Issues  (Washington, D.C.: National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, 1988): 1-2.

[69].Douglas Biklen „Framed: Print journalism's treatment of disability issues,šin A. Gartner and T. Joe (Eds.), Images of the Disabled, Disabling Images. (New York: Praeger, 1987):82.

[70].John S. Clogston, „Media models.š [Personal communication]. (1993, March 8).

[71]. Covington, 1988, p. 1.

[72].Laura Renson Mitchell, „Beyond the Supercrip syndrome,š Quill, (1989): 18-23.


[73]. Paul Miller, „The impact of assisted suicide on persons with disabilities ų Is it a right without freedom?š Issues in Law & Medicine, 9:1, (1993): 47-62.

[74]. Laura Miller, „The Supercrip Syndrome: A look at attitudes behind disability newsworthiness,š [Unpublished manuscript]. (1995, March 21): 3.

[75]. Biklen, p. 81.

[76]. ABC Nightline, „Casey‚s Triumph,š [Television program]. February 12, 1998.

[77].ABC Nightline, February 12, 1998.

[78].ABC Nightline, February 12, 1998.

[79]. Richard K. Scotch, „Disability as the basis for a social movement: Advocacy and politics of definition,š Journal of social issues, 44:1, (1988): 159-172.

[80]. Frank Bowe, Handicapping America. (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).

[81]. Irving K. Zola, „Communication barriers between 'the able-bodied' and 'the handicapped,'š in R.P. Marinelli and A.E. Dell Orto (Eds.) The psychological and social impact of disability (New York: Springer, 1991): 161.

[82]. Paul C. Higgins, Making disability: Exploring the social transformation of human variation. (Springfield: Ill.: Charles C. Thomas Publisher, 1992): 19.

[83]. ABC Nightline, February 12, 1998.

[84].ABC Nightline, February 12, 1998.

[85]. ABC Evening News, „Casey Martin at tournament in Florida,š January 8, 1998.

[86]. ABC Nightline, February 12, 1998.

[87]. ABC Nightline, February 12, 1998.

[88]. ABC Nightline, February 12, 1998.

[89]. Voakes, et. al., 1996, p. 582.

[90]. Gale‚s Directory of Published and Broadcast Media, 132 edition, 1999.

[91]. Media Wire, „Kosovo helps cable news,š MEDIAWEEK, (19 April 1999).