The Media Edge

 Feeding the Beast

by Jennifer Burnett


Jennifer Burnett handles public relations for ADAPT.

When a network news producer calls you to get information on a disability issue, you're sure to talk to him, right? Heartbeat accelerating, you will take that call no matter what you are doing, because you are grateful that a disability issue is getting some attention from the media. That's what happened to me in the summer of 1997, when CBS producer Steve Glauber called. He was working on a story about MiCASA, and said he needed details. If CBS was considering doing a segment on MiCASA for the Bryant Gumbel show, I was glad to lend a hand.

Glauber ended up sending a camera and reporter to a statewide conference we were organizing in Pennsylvania. The crew spent four days with hundreds of people with disabilities, talking, filming, interviewing people who have been or currently are incarcerated in nursing homes. Many others across the country were involved in the same way I was, supplying leads and information to CBS so they'd get the story right. Bob Kafka of ADAPT was interviewed several times, and spent hours poring over issues with Glauber.

We all anxiously waited for Bryant Gumbel to air the piece. We were disappointed when the segment on MiCASA, finally scheduled, was bumped in order to cover the news that Linda McCartney had passed away. And then the Bryant Gumbel show was canceled.

Many of us gave up any hope of ever viewing that MiCASA piece we'd worked so hard on.

And then CBS decided to air it--on the Oct. 18 edition of "CBS Sunday Morning."

The disability community had been anticipating the MiCASA broadcast for over a year. It was expected to capture the essence of ADAPT's struggle to reform Medicaid.

I doubted it would be perfect. When it finally aired, I was prepared.

"We think of nursing homes as places for the aged. People who may be suffering from infirmities now, but at least had a chance to enjoy their life in their prime," said "CBS Sunday Morning" host Charles Osgood, introducing the piece with a grave look on his face. "So it's surprising to learn that there are young people in our nursing homes . . ."

"Oh boy," I thought. "Here we go." Sure enough: The piece seemed to suggest that we ought to be concerned if "young people" were forced to live there, but that it was okay for old folks to be locked away.

The "young people" angle made it "a more compelling story," Glauber told me later. "Young people in nursing homes living with old people in nursing homes is much more interesting than old people living with old people." He's probably right: to make it a more appealing story, to hook viewers, it needs to be more interesting than a bogus "outdated" Medicaid policy. It had to have mass appeal.

This is an important lesson for us in the disability rights movement who care about our issues being portrayed accurately in the mass media.

Osgood redeemed himself a little when he ended his lead on this accurate note: "There are young people in nursing homes stuck there in large measure by an inflexible law." I'd have been happier if he'd left off the "young," or said "young and old." The story would have been more accurate. But would people have switched the channel?

Should we trust the conventional wisdom of the media, expect that they know how to spin the story to attract viewers? Is it wise for us to risk spoiling the interest we ARE getting from the media by complaining, getting picky, demanding complete accuracy?

The answer to this is not clear, at least not for me. The civil rights movement of the 60s did not attract attention of the media until years into the struggle. Parallels can be drawn, as they always are. While the news of an ADAPT action, the arrests, the takeover of a governor's office gets covered, we often work hard to make sure they get the story BEHIND the action, and we aren't always successful.

The reporter writes the story, not us. We cannot insist that they read all the background we give them. We can't force them to include its points in their coverage. But we can always make sure that background material is given to them. And we can make sure that they talk to our people--not some "professionals" or "experts."

"The protesters drew the parallels for me," explains Joe Smydo. "There was no doubt in my mind that the disability rights movement is a civil rights movement." Smydo is a reporter for the Observer-Reporter, the daily newspaper in Washington, Pennsylvania, a small rural community in southwestern Pennsylvania. Smydo learned this when he covered his first ADAPT action, which involved the takeover of the CIL board in his community. It was that recognition--that civil rights "thing"--which hooked him. Two years later, he published an in-depth series in the paper, covering our issues. It was factual and readable, right on target.

As a reporter, Smydo had at first known nothing about our issues. Mention "attendant care" before he'd begun researching the series, and he'd have had no clue what you meant.

"It took me a very long time to grasp the issues, months and months to understand what a 'waiver' is--and I still have only a rudimentary knowledge," Smydo told me. And this is a guy who really wanted to know the story, who wanted to write about our issues, who made it a project. He was hooked early on, and stuck with it.

It isn't always like this with the press. No matter how much you work on them, no matter how many phone calls you make or faxes and news releases you send, no matter how much schmoozing you do, it is really hard to hook reporters. They just aren't very interested in disability issues. And they are far from seeing disability rights as civil rights. Still, we cannot let that stop us. We gotta keep at it, or our issues will never, ever get accurate coverage.

"You gotta feed the beast," says Gordon Mayer, editor of Disclosure, the national newspaper of neighborhoods in Chicago. What he means is that every day, editors are looking for story ideas. They need to fill their pages (or news hours, if they're TV or radio news producers).

Our challenge is to give them the story.

"They need to hear it over and over, because they are still writing around the issue," says ADAPT's Bob Kafka. "They're starting to get it, but they're not quite there." What Kafka recognizes is that the media seem to be starting to pay attention to our issues. And so we must encourage them.

Nursing home abuse and reform and "the cure" are both easier things to grasp and write about, perhaps, than the MiCASA story about REAL choice. These issues certainly get more attention in the media.

Our job is to get them focused on our story about why we need MiCASA. We must focus them clearly. We need to articulate the "real choice" issue at every opportunity we get. Long-term services must start being viewed as an issue independent of health care.

If we focus reporters on the issue clearly enough, then concepts such as the "most integrated setting" and MiCASA, the building blocks of ADAPT's Campaign for REAL Choice, will get coverage. If we frame the story this way, and tell it the same way, every time, then someday reporters will pay attention.


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