During the opening day of the three-day World Congress on Disabilities (WCD) at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, panel members discussed how to get more and better, general news coverage for the disabled community. The panelists included: Art Carey, Philadelphia Inquirer fitness and outdoors columnist whose articles include the disabled; Josh Prager, a special assignment reporter for The Wall Street Journal, who had a limited spinal cord injury; Beth Haller, associate professor/mass communication and communication studies in the Dept. of Journalism and New Media, Towson (MD) University; Carol Sowell, publications director for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and Joseph Valenzano Jr., president, CEO, and publisher for EP Global Communications Inc. and publisher of Exceptional Parent Magazine.
In her remarks, Prof. Haller discussed how media images of disability are important. She and I agree positive news of the disabled often gets cut by general media members. Her study, News Coverage of Disability Issues, found “print journalists are much more likely to use people with disabilities as examples, not sources. This suggests people with disabilities, “while not ignored, aren’t in control of disability-related coverage.” In her study, Prof. Haller found journalists “tend to identify ’status’ of sources.” This suggests people with disabilities, “are not in control of disability-related coverage. National disability organizations were largely missing.” People with disabilities weren’t likely to be sources in “news stories on hard-hitting issues. The message may get to the public that people with disabilities can’t speak for themselves.” Then, there was the finding, “women and girls with disabilities are largely ignored.”
A spokesman for Cornell University said the U.S. disabled had 2004 disposable income in excess of $220 billion. That reflects, Prager said, his belief the ADA turned disability issues into “front section news, and the Internet dropped barriers. The disabled, their families, friends, and caregivers could go online and buy products, even stuff the non-disabled sought.” Years ago, Prager termed it “handicapitalism” and said he thought it described the “realization by businesses that people with disabilities shouldn’t be viewed as charity cases or regulatory burdens.” Instead, they represent “profitable marketing targets. Mainstream companies tailor products to attract them. Johnson & Johnson Co. invested more than $100 million in its Independence unit, whose first product was the iBOT transporter, an all-terrain wheelchair.”
Taking that cue, Carey explained the kinds of feature stories newspapers seek: “We’re interested in the new, the different, and the surprising stories that teach and delight, inform and entertain, that are sweet and useful.” He added that the “stock story on disability is where an individual overcomes obstacles. It’s very predictable and rarely tells us anything new or surprises us. While making that comment, Carey removed his jacket, took off his tie, unbuttoned the top of his shirt, and revealed a Superman T-shirt and said, “Surprise us!”
Sowell countered: “Be aware of every opportunity to get your story out, and know how to present [it] in a way that has the best chance of getting coverage. [Remember,] local stories often grow into national ones.” In the process, she believes “media are looking for stories that offer: something different, but not too different; something uplifting; powerful visual images.” Sowell is “a big believer in using one person’s experience to show readers a trend or an issue.”
She urged that interviewees “be articulate, patient, courteous, not hostile; know what kind of story this is, and decide if you want to be part of it. Respond to wrong attitudes or language of the reporter patiently and helpfully. Offer to provide background information; suggest other people who could be interviewed.” After any article appears, “if you don’t like a story, write a letter to the editor and ask others to do so. Be to the point, write well, think and edit before you send it. Write letters of praise or reinforcement for a story you like. Write an Op-Ed [piece] or TV commentary. Get the medium’s guidelines and stick to them.”
The panel concluded with the words of Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “In the hands of [someone] of courage, the printed word is the most awesome power on earth.” It was also suggested that the audience, “Get the word out on what the disabled can do. If we can try to rebuild the Gulf Coast, we can all get along, be a village, be `One America,’ and make sure no one is excluded, no one is victimized, and absolutely no one is invisible.”