Media coverage of disability issues is documentary’s focus

“The Real Story” is a story worth seeing. The documentary about media coverage of disability issues in Minnesota premieres at 6:30pm Monday, October 28th at the University of Minnesota’s McNamara Alumni Center, 200 SE Oak St., Minneapolis. A panel discussion with journalists, news-makers, scholars, and activists will follow the film.

A second screening and event is 4-7 p.m. Monday, November 4 at the U of M’s Coffman Union, 300 Washington Ave. SE, Minneapolis. Both events are free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served. The on-campus events are sponsored by the University of Minnesota’s Disabled Student Cultural Center, with support from Disability Services.

Narrated by Kevin Kling, “The Real Story” explores biases in media coverage of disability issues in Minnesota and nationally. It also examines the role of grassroots and mainstream media outlets in reporting on stories important to all people with disabilities.

The documentary was produced by Access Press, Minnesota’s disability community newspaper, and Verso Creative with generous support from UCare. Newspaper staff and community members worked with producer and documentarian Jerry Smith to prepare the film.

One theme of “The Real Story” is how news coverage of disability issues has changed over the years. Minnesota has often led the nation in responding to the concerns of the disability community by reporting on the issues that affect them. Investigative journalists, particularly in Minnesota, have been instrumental in advancing the cause of equal rights for people with disabilities. Starting in the 1940s and culminating in the 1970s, journalists reported on the horrible condition of state institutions for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

That reporting led to changes that improved the lives of many people. Still, stories intended to be factual are often influenced by misconceptions that are ultimately harmful to people with disabilities. In some cases, the mainstream media has recognized its biases in reporting. But in others stereotypes persist.

Longtime Minnesota broadcast journalist Don Shelby said, “It wasn’t that we [the mainstream media] became enlightened, it was because those people in those communities with these disabilities found their voices and they spoke up.”

Too often, stories about disability are more inspirational than factual, or rely on old stereotypes that perpetuate misconceptions about what it means to live with a disability. People are either portrayed as heroic figures or as objects of pity.

“People with disabilities aren’t just those heroes or those people who rise and walk when there’s five minutes left with the Family Channel movie of the week. That doesn’t happen in reality,” said John Tschida, Vice President of Public Affairs and Research at Courage Kenney Rehabilitation Institute.

“I think that we used to do stories a lot more that were more charity stories that’s like here’s a guy who can play basketball in a wheelchair,” said Jon Tevlin, columnist for the Star Tribune.

Another change reflected in media coverage is the rise in self-advocacy. Being a self-advocate is a benchmark of the community now as people are encouraged to speak up for themselves. Television can do an especially effective job of amplifying voices of the community.

Today many more journalists and media outlets are more careful about making assumptions and realize, to get “The Real Story” they have to listen to the disability community.

One change seen over the years is the emergence of news media by and for people with disabilities. Speaking on the role of disability-focused media like Access Press, said Margot Imdieke Cross of the Minnesota State Council on Disability. “What I love about publications that focus on disability issues is they focus on the facts. They focus on what’s going on. They don’t get caught up in the emotional aspect of disability.”

An excerpt from “The Real Story” will be shown at the November 1 Access Press Charlie Smith Award Banquet.

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