Best Practices for News Media

The cover of Disability Reporting in the Media (2021) for African journalists from Internews. On the cover are two African adults, a man with albinism who is wearing sunglasses and a woman in a polka dot top who uses crutches. They are looking down at a video camera used for broadcast news. The Internews logo is a multi-colored orb with the words, “Internews. Local voices. Global change.” At the bottom of the cover, it says, “Diversity & Inclusion in Media.”GADIM’s first recommendation to the news media in a country is to read Article 8 of the UN Convention on the Right of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD):

  1.  States Parties undertake to adopt immediate, effective and appropriate measures:

a) To raise awareness throughout society, including at the family level, regarding persons with disabilities, and to foster respect for the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities;

b) To combat stereotypes, prejudices and harmful practices relating to persons with disabilities, including those based on sex and age, in all areas of life;

c) To promote awareness of the capabilities and contributions of persons with disabilities.

  1. Measures to this end include:

a) Initiating and maintaining effective public awareness campaigns designed:

i. To nurture receptiveness to the rights of persons with disabilities;

ii. To promote positive perceptions and greater social awareness towards persons with disabilities;

iii. To promote recognition of the skills, merits and abilities of persons with disabilities, and of their contributions to the workplace and the labour market;

b) Fostering at all levels of the education system, including in all children from an early age, an attitude of respect for the rights of persons with disabilities;

c) Encouraging all organs of the media to portray persons with disabilities in a manner consistent with the purpose of the present Convention;

d) Promoting awareness-training programmes regarding persons with disabilities and the rights of persons with disabilities.”

GADIM understands the free speech and business constraints that a country’s news media face, but there are ways for journalists, editors, and news directors to produce more accurate coverage of persons with disabilities and disability issues.

News media stories are a significant part of how the general public understands disability issues. The International Labour Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, explains in its publication, Reporting on disability: Guidelines for the media:, “How people with disabilities are portrayed and the frequency with which they appear in the media has enormous impact on how they are regarded in society. Portraying people with disabilities with dignity and respect in the media can help promote more inclusive and tolerant societies and stimulate a climate of non-discrimination and equal opportunity.”

Accuracy in the News Representation of Disability

Because nondisabled people control the news media, the majority of content reflects the beliefs of nondisabled people about disability. Every aspect of news media content contributes to how society perceives disability. News media content about disability affects attitudes and behaviors toward disabled people in a society, therefore it must be accurate.

News content should not misrepresent the experiences of disabled people and how they interact with the world.  News and feature stories should avoid perpetuating myths and negative stereotypes about disability. News media content should not objectify disabled people as a way to make audiences feel pity or inspiration.

“There are two extremes,” says Gary Arnold, president of Little People of America, in an article about “Reporting on Disability with Sensitivity.” “One extreme is portraying people with disabilities as people who are helpless and deserving of pity. That reinforces the stigma of disability as something that is bad and that would need to be changed. On the other extreme, you have the overly heroic portrayal of disability, where the person is portrayed as a superhero for doing things that a non-disabled person does on an everyday basis.”

Arnold continues, “’What the disability community wants is attention to our issues:’ access to health care, education, and government services, as well as the right not to face discrimination.”

Treating Disabled People as Sources, not Subjects

People who work in the news media need to examine their own misunderstanding of or even biases about disability. “Sometimes reporters—as a reflection of society in general—will write about the poor, or people with a disability, or people with some kind of challenge, with a hint of condescension. You have to clear your head of prejudices,” says The New York Times’s Dan Barry, who wrote an award-winning multimedia report called “The Boys in the Bunkhouse.” The 2014 story and short documentary, “The Men of Atalissa,” detailed the exploitation and abuse of men with intellectual disabilities who worked at a turkey processing plant in Iowa for 35 years.

When Barry began his reporting, he discovered no journalist had ever spoken to the disabled men, who were part of a $240 million lawsuit seeking damages for their exploitation for 35 years. Barry said in a Neiman Reports article that “there was ‘no trick or special approach’ to his reporting; he just talked to the men and asked them to tell their stories.” The article adds, “That approach—treating people with disabilities as sources, not just subjects—is what advocates want more of.”

Hiring Disabled People to Work at News Organizations

As the news media creates content about disability, GADIM recommends that news organizations hire more disabled employees, disabled freelancers, disabled video production teams, and disabled consultants.

GADIM can recommend consultants with disabilities who can be paid to read news content, watch planned videos, etc. GADIM believes all consultants should be paid for their work.

GADIM recommends the Disabled Writers database, which can “help editors connect with disabled people working in journalism, or trying to break into the field. It also includes disabled experts who are available to serve as sources, such as attorneys, physicians, social workers, artists, and others with professional experience or education that makes them expert sources in their fields.”

Diversity

News media content should seek to reflect the diversity across individual experiences of disability and tell the stories of people with physical, sensory, cognitive or intellectual disabilities. People whose disabilities affect their appearance should be included as sources, as well as those people whose disabilities are hidden or are not apparent.

The media should understand that disability intersects with other factors. People of all genders/sexuality, races/ethnicities, ages, and in all geographic locations experience disability. Too often news media content only features interviews with cisgender white males with physical disabilities.

A Word about Disability Terms for the English-language News Media

The words the news media use to describe disability has the power to either empower or stigmatize the disability community. The Center for Disability Rights in New York State says, “one of the most important things that journalists can learn is how to properly discuss disability…. [many] articles written about disability or disabled people are harmful, in part, because they use stigmatizing language.”

Many online guides about disability terminology now exist. They can help news organizations avoid outdated, inaccurate, and problematic terms.

Useful Online Guides about Language and Terminology about Disability:

Journalists should not be hesitant to use the word “disabled” – it is the preferred terminology in the English-speaking world. In fact, a hashtag #SayTheWord began in 2016 to remind the world that using the term “disabled” is acceptable and even applauded by many disabled people in North America. Lawrence Carter-Long, the Director of Communications at DREDF, started the hashtag because pride in being disabled has grown since the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. “Those who grew up under the ADA didn’t feel shame. They had no need to distance themselves from anything,” Carter Long said. “The Internet and burgeoning field of disability studies as an academic field of study gave people like me — who identified as disabled since birth but came to advocacy later in life — unprecedented access to read the work of, or engage directly with, pioneers in the disability rights movement for guidance and solidarity. Disability was no longer an individual burden as so many of us were led to believe but rather a diverse and vibrant community with a history, and a legacy, all our own. That changes everything.”

With regards to terminology, the news media should ask disabled news sources the words they prefer. Specific disability communities have their own preferences. The “big D” Deaf community in the U.S. prefers Deaf to be capitalized to signify they are a culture that shares the language of American Sign Language, according to the U.S. National Association of the Deaf. People with dwarfism would like the M word to be abolished, because as Little People of America says, it is “considered a derogatory slur.” Similarly, people with intellectual disabilities would like to see the R word go away. Dony Knight, a Special Olympics Oregon athlete, explains on Spread the Word: Inclusion that “when you say the “R” word, it makes people feel bad, and it hurts my feelings and I don’t want to hear you guys say it. Instead, you can call me a leader, a hero, or a human being, but please don’t call me the ‘R’ word.”

Finally, people-first versus identity-first language are other disability terms to navigate. People-first language, terms such as people with disabilities or woman with cerebral palsy, is the terminology that many in North America have heard of in the past few decades. It represented the shift away for outdated terms like “handicapped” or the offensive R word.  A growing number of North American disabled people, especially from the Deaf community and the autistic community, prefer identity-first language, such as autistic woman. Autistic disability justice activist Lydia X.Z. Brown explains the identity component of the terminology: “When we say ‘Autistic person,’ we recognize, affirm, and validate an individual’s identity as an Autistic person.”

Identity-first language is also the terminology of choice for many disability activists in the U.K., who say identity-first language fits with the Social Model of Disability, which advocates for removing societal barriers that disable the access to society for people with a variety of impairments. GADIM recommends news organizations become familiar with the nuances of language and terminology regarding disability.

Resources for the News Media:

 #WeThe15, “Downloadable Assets” (images and graphics) [A global movement founded by a coalition of organizations from sport, human rights, policy, communications, business, arts and entertainment, uniting to change attitudes and create more opportunities for persons with disabilities]

ABC Network (Australia), “Reporting and Portraying Disability in ABC Content” 

American Foundation for the Blind, “Resources for Reporters Writing About Blindness and Vision Loss”

American Public Media, Call to Mind. Mental Health in Media Style Guide [PDF]

The Asia Foundation, Getting it Right: Reporting on Disability in the Philippines

Cristiana Bedei, “How to make digital news more accessible to audiences with disabilities,” International Journalists’ Network 

Genevieve Belmaker, “porting on disability with sensitivity, not sensationalism,” Nieman Reports

Jean Burke, “How the media can help protect people with albinism. A Tanzanian case study”, The Conversation 

The Carter Center, Journalism Resource Guide on Behaviorial Health [PDF]

Rebecca Cokley, “Why ‘special needs’ is not helpful,” Medium 

Council of Europe, Enabling Access to the Media for All

Disability:IN, Disability Etiquette – A Starting Guide 

Disability Rights Education &Defense Fund, Disability Media Alliance Project (DMAP) 

Easter Seals, “Interviewing People with Disabilities” 

Annie Elainey, “Disabled Person OR Person with a Disability?” [YouTube video]

Endeavour Foundation (Australia), Journalist’s Guide to Intellectual Disability 

European Economic and Social Committee, “The media have a major role to play in breaking down the stigma surrounding disability”

Michael Fitzgerald, “Making news websites accessible to all,” Nieman Reports 

FWD-Doc, Documentary Filmmakers With Disabilities Engagement Pack

Eric Garcia, We’re Not Broken. Changing the Autism Conversation, Clarion-Mariner Books

Michelle Hackman, “Obstacles and Opportunities for Journalists with Disabilities,” Nieman Reports 

Beth Haller, Representing Disability in an Ableist World. Louisville, Ky.: Advocado Press 

Beth Haller, “Journalists should learn to carefully traverse a variety of disability terminology” [NCDJ website]

International Labour Organization, Reporting on disability: Guidelines for the media 

International Paralympic Committee, IPC Guide to Reporting on Para Athletes 

Internews, Disability Reporting in the Media Manual [PDF in English and French and focused covering disability in Africa]

Raul Krauthausen, “Tips for the Media,” Leidmedien (Germany) 

Sarah Kim, “Why intersectional reporting can’t ignore people of color with disabilities,” NBCU Academy

Marcela Kunova, “Pandemic opened newsrooms to journalists with disabilities,” journalism.co.uk 

Emily Ladau, “Disability Euphemisms That Need to Bite the Dust,” Center for Disability Rights 

Emily Ladau, “Beyond Inspiration: A New Narrative,” New Mobility magazine 

Jackie Lidubwi, “Victim tropes still common in coverage of persons with disabilities,” African Women in Media 

Wendy Lu, “hat journalists can do better to cover the disability beat,” Columbia Journalism Review

Sara Luterman, “True Newsroom Diversity Must Account for Disability Status, Too,” Nieman Reports

Rich McEachran, “The challenges facing disabled journalists entering employment,” The Guardian (UK)

Media Diversity Australia, Disability Reporting Handbook

Mencap (UK), A Journalist’s Guide to Learning Disability

Mental Health Association of Portland (USA), Media Guide: Your Language Matters When Writing About Mental Illness [PDF]

Julia Métraux and John Loeppky, “How COVID-19 exposes a disability reporting gap,” Poynter 

National Center on Disability and Journalism, “#NCDJ30for30: Thirty Story Ideas for Journalists Covering Disability” 

National Center on Disability and Journalism, “Disability Journalism Background” [Video: An overview of facts, stats and trends within the disability community from Erica McFadden, Executive Director of the Arizona Developmental Disabilities Planning Council]

National Center on Disability and Journalism, “Reporting 101 for Disability Stories” [Video]

National Center on Disability and Journalism, “Tips for interviewing people with disabilities” 

New Zealand Office of Disability Issues, Disability Etiquette 

Andrew Pulrang, “How to Avoid ‘Inspiration Porn,” Forbes 

Andrew Pulrang, “Here are Some of the Do’s and Don’ts of Disability Language,” Forbes

Queensland government (Australia), A way with words. Guidelines for the portrayal of people with a disability [PDF]

Jen Ramos, “Journalism Is Ableist, Down to Its Language,” The Objective 

Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar, “Why You Need to Stop Using These Words and Phrases,” Harvard Business Review  

Julia Rehmeyer, “How to Report with Accuracy and Sensitivity on Contested Illnesses,” The Open Notebook 

Chloe Reichel, ” key tips for writing and reporting on people with disabilities,” The Journalist’s Resource 

The Secretariat of the African Decade of Persons with Disabilities, The Invisible People. A Practical Guide for Journalists on How to Include Persons with Disabilities [PDF]

S.E. Smith, “How to Talk about Disability Issues on the Internet,” The Daily Dot 

Special Olympics. “Discriminatory Language about People with Intellectual Disabilities – Particularly the ‘R’-word – Remains Prevalent Across Social Media” [Press Release]

Karina Sturm, How to Report on Disability 

Karina Sturm, “Why disabled journalists should report on disability,” Columbia Journalism Review 

Suicide Prevention Resource Center, Style Guide: Reporting on Mental Health [PDF]

United Nations, Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs, “Disability and the Media”

United Spinal Association, Disability Etiquette [PDF]

Victoria government (Australia), The Reporting it Right guidelines for portraying people with a disability  [PDF]

WGBH, Accessible Digital Media Guidelines

World Institute on Disability (WID), “Disability Representation in the Media” [Podcast episode]

Stella Young, “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much” [TED Talk]

Rachel Zamzow, “Writing well about disability,” The Open Notebook

 

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