By selecting the content and frame of the news, journalists construct a form of reality for the audience receiving that news. Thus, mass media coverage that paints people with disabilities in an unattractive light can create a demeaning mindset toward people with disabilities.
With this in mind, this study looked at the content of 256 stories from 11 newspapers in October and November in 1998 and from 1998 news magazines. The information was retrieved with search words on the Lexis-Nexis database; articles in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chicago Tribune were obtained through different archives. Coverage in the networks of ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN was also examined and resulted in 34 stories useful for the study.
Findings suggested that people with disabilities are somewhat ignored and not in control of disability coverage. This finding stems from the fact that almost 70% of the disability stories didn't use information from people with disabilities.
A person with a disability is more likely to be used as an example in a news story than a source for information, Beth Haller, associate professor of journalism at Towson University, wrote. The message that comes across is that people with disabilities can't speak for themselves. If a person with a disability is a source, chances are the story is a feature story rather than a news story about an important issue.
Other findings were:
Few women with disabilities were involved in disability news stories.
Local disability organizations were used more as sources than national disability organizations.
Mentioned disabilities included disability in general (54%), learning disability (14%), mental retardation (12%), mental illness (9.3%), and emotional disability (6%).
"Handicapped" often was used instead of "disability."
There were several stories about children with disabilities and education that may be a result of newspaper's practice to cover education stories, the time period (October and November in the school year), and advocates' continual work with special education.
To improve disability news coverage, people with disabilities and related organizations should heed the slogan: "Nothing about us, without us." When people with disabilities have the opportunity to be information sources, they can control the news agenda better.
Another recommendation is to be pro-active in getting news coverage and to pitch article ideas to reporters. Disability organizations should ideally try to get on evening news, because it is the number one news source in the country. Another pro-active move is to provide news sources with a list of expert sources to make information retrieval easier for reporters and to get the right people in the spotlight. #963
Haller, B. A. (1999). News coverage of disability issues: Final report for The Center for an Accessible Society. San Diego, CA: The Center for an Accessible Society.