Media still ignoring us

newspapersI may be retired from journalism, but the topic of how media covers issues important to the disability community still ranks high on my list of worries. So last week I got up very early from my nice, warm bed and headed over to a local college campus for a conference on that very subject.

The situation was grim a decade ago when I worked with newspaper reporters on writing more substantive stories about problems in housing, education, transportation and employment. A reporter would suggest a story on why the unemployment rate was so high in the disability community, but nine times out of ten, her editor would reject the idea and instead assign a story about a local high school basketball player who had Down syndrome and got to play half of one game.

At the conference last week I learned that coverage is still grim. A professor who monitors stories written about people with disabilities all over the world said no matter the country, the stories focus on one of these areas:

  1. Biomedical, heroic perspective (‘overcoming’ a disability)
  2. Charity case
  3. New medical breakthrough that will get rid of a disability
  4. Human rights

You won’t be surprised to learn that the majority of coverage falls into areas 1, 2 and 3. But if media coverage shapes societal attitudes and public policy, as the professor pointed out, then it would be in our best interest for reporters and editors to start seeing disability as a human rights issue.

He warned that disability-as-human-right is still a non-issue in the eyes of the world’s media outlets – whether print, radio, or TV. They either haven’t made the connection, or they don’t want to. It doesn’t help that when media does a story on a disability issue, only 20 percent of the stories ask someone with a disability to comment on the issue. That’s one in five, meaning we’re not even given a voice on our own issues.

Doesn’t that make you mad? It does me. But what can we do about it?

Beth Haller, another speaker at the conference who writes the blog Media dis@dat, suggests we do it ourselves via the Internet. We utilize Facebook, web sites, blogs, YouTube, any Internet tool, to speak out, speak up, and let the world know what we think should be done about the problems and issues that restrict our lives.

We craft our own message and pressure media to do a better job. Then, perhaps, we can start to have more influence on the public policy decided without us.

One amazing thing about the Internet, Haller pointed out, is that “it can bring together the global community” and allow us “to connect with disability activism around the world.” If that’s not both empowering and hopeful, then I give up.

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