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Center Study Looks At Coverage

"Print journalists are much more likely to use people with disabilities as examples in their news stories than as sources."

This is one of the major findings in the study "News Coverage of Disability Issues," a study done to determine how agenda-setting U.S. news media cover disability issues. As part of the NIDRR funded project to get mass media coverage of disability research, the Center examined news coverage of disability issues in major news outlets during a two-month period in the fall of 1998.

"Almost 70 percent of the stories concerning disability "had no identifiable source with a disability in it," reports study author Beth Haller. While this could simply mean that journalists are "not identifying the disability status of sources," said the report, this is unlikely since reporters tend to identify the "status" of sources. What's more likely, writes Haller, is that journalists are not using people with disabilities as sources; in any case, the sources are not identified as being with any disability organization.

The finding suggests that people with disabilities, "while not ignored, are not in control of disability-related coverage," said the report. In the list of sources used in stories in agenda-setting media, "national disability organizations were largely missing." "The message that may be getting to the public" is that "people with disabilities can't speak for themselves."

People with disabilities were more likely to be used as news sources on local stories than national stories.

Haller is Associate Professor of Journalism at Towson University.


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 "voice" 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 "national" 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 "expert" 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.

From the Recommendations:

-- In terms of news stories, disability-related organizations need to stick to the slogan on the disability rights poster: "Nothing about us, without us." 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 "side" of the story should be in every story that includes those issues.

--. 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 -- even schools and parents -- may actively seek to turn the news discourse into one about inclusive education being "bad." Disability organizations must be pro-active in controlling the news agenda on this and other topics about disability issues.

-- 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.

-- 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.

-- 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.

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 "infotainment" 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 "infotainment" 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.

-- 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.

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Media Circus, from Ragged Edge magazine



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