March 14, 2006 Instructs Reporters How To Get Real About Disability

Often the most compelling stories about disability have nothing to do with one's medical condition. Susan M LoTempio instructs the influentual journalism blog how to get it right.

In an excellent piece entitled, "From 'Special' To Substantial" LoTempio, an assistant managing editor at the Buffalo News, instructs journalists how to avoid annoying cliches in covering disability stories.

"Far too often," writes LoTempio, "stories that cover people with disabilities fall into familiar categories." They include stories that show the disabled as:

-- Inspiring
-- Overcoming physical or mental challenges
-- Developing "super-human" skills intended to negate a disability
-- Victim of a disease or the medical "miracle" du jour
-- Invariably, the stories use words like suffers, afflicted, different. My personal favorite: special. (Could it be that people with disabilities are special just for being alive?)

Add this type of coverage up. What message hits you between the eyes? What I hear is that being disabled means being a sad, helpless victim whose goal is to inspire others.

Sounds harsh? Consider the last few stories your media outlet ran that dealt with a person with a disability.

-- Did you assign it because it was meant to inspire readers or tap into feelings of pity? (Think the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon.)
-- Did you run the story because you needed some "good news" on your pages?
-- Was there a solid news angle?
-- Was it a slow news day?

LoTiempo concludes her instruction guide by reminding reporters that if they dig beneath the surface:

Most ... stories go to the heart of discrimination and second-class treatment in a society that is uncomfortable with physical differences.

To get at these stories, we first have to put away the stereotypes. Then we must decide that as much as we crave "good" news, and as much as we want to give our readers inspiring stories, it's time to go after the harder stories -- the ones that reflect the reality of being disabled in America today.

Well done. It'll be interesting to view feedback on the Poynter message boards (requires registration) and see how the piece is received by the pros.

Could LoTempio's piece be an indicator of an emerging overdue trend toward shifting the focus of disability news coverage?

Posted by Lawrence Carter-Long

Posted on March 14, 2006