Coverage of disability is focus of journalism ethics panel 

by Paula Bach 

News coverage of issues centered on people with disabilities needs less focus on “pity stories” and more on accomplishments and issues affecting community members. That was a key message during the 2022 Journalism Ethics Week Panel, One in Four. The panel was organized by the Silha Center for Journalism Ethics at the university Minnesota and the Twin Cities chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists. 

The panel title refers to the fact that 26 percent of U.S. adults have a disability, according to the centers for Disease Control. The panel featured excerpts from The Real Story, a documentary on news media and disability produced several years ago by Access Press and Jerry Smith of the University of Minnesota’s Institute for community Integration. 

The panel discussed how journalists and communications professionals should depict people with disabilities  and address the challenges they face without resorting to “inspiration porn” and pity stories. Panelists were Access Press Editor Jane McClure; Scott Libin, Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication senior fellow; former news director at KSTP and WCCO, and former ethics chair of the Radio Television Digital News Association; Peter Tressel, advertising creative director with 38 years’ experience; and Sophia Schmaltz, first-year student with dyslexia, College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota. Jane E. Kirtley, Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law and director of the Silha Center, was moderator. 

McClure said that on the panel she wore two hats, one as a disabled person and the other as a journalist. “My contention is that the stereotypical coverage of people with disabilities unfairly tags us as lesser beings, and we are relegated to lesser lives because of it,” she said 

While coverage has gotten better, McClure said there are still reporters who bring out stereotypes of people with disabilities as objects of pity or as heroic figures. While Access Press doesn’t focus on “pity stories,” she said it has to be recognized that some people like coverage about people overcoming obstacles. So how is that balanced? That is a question journalists must ask themselves. 

Part of that has to be how the media have historically covered disabilities. “As journalists we are supposed to be fair. We’re supposed to look at an issue and bring forth all sides, providing readers with information to draw their own conclusions,” she said. 

Other panelists discussed work and school situations they have encountered. Libin showed a TV news story produced by one of his former students, as an example of how to cover a disability issue in a balanced and informative manner. Tressel spoke of his work on campaigns including “make it OK” with its focus on mental health. 

Panelists also discussed journalistic style and how that has changed over the years, with phrases like “confined to a wheelchair” or “emotionally disturbed” falling out of favor. 

McClure offered some pointers for journalists. “The first thing to remember is that while we refer to a disability community, it’s by no means a monolith.” That creates more complexity. She also outlined the debate within the disability community on whether to use people or person-first language or identity-first language when describing a person who has a disability. Person-first language is language that puts a person before their diagnosis, such as being a woman with a disability. Identity-first language is language that leads with a person’s disability, i.e. “John is an autistic man.” 

There are pros and cons to each reference and it may be best to ask people how they wish to be described. See the panel video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2i_38bMpX4