Rebooting the Connection: The Deaf in the News Industry

    by Brein McNamara
    July 12, 2008

    Deaf people have an interesting relationship with the news. For over 100 years, the Deaf literally made the news. That is, a relatively large percentage of press operators have been Deaf. This just happened to be one of a few jobs where Deaf people could be hired due to the quite comfortable environment of loud, noisy presses. This gave the Deaf experience making the physical product of newspapers, which did translate into Deaf people creating their own newspapers. One of the most notable was Silent News. But even at its height, Silent News was little more than a monthly tabloid with a circulation in the low four digits. Exposure did not necessarily correlate with success.

    The current problem of massive layoffs in the newspaper industry is a repeat of a similar issue over twenty years ago. But this time, the outrage is louder since it is affecting journalists themselves, and not the press operators. The last time, increased press automation and computer layout tools starting in the late 70’s rendered the jobs of many press operators obsolete. Deaf people no longer work in the news industry in any real numbers. This crisis also affected their publication activities. Most Deaf newspapers have long since folded. Silent News managed to limp along until 2001.

    The traditional separation of reporters from society could not be more starkly illustrated in the gap between these two classes in the newsroom and the pressroom. Reporters were highly educated, socially connected and ‘elite’. In contrast, the working-class pressroom was largely staffed by a group of non-speaking Deaf who were given the very un-politically correct term ‘dumb’. Such disparagement reveals both their lack of standing in society, and the gap between the two groups.


    Despite this label, the press operators worked hard as the backbone of the news industry and attempted to apply their news knowledge to their own community. This division can be seen as a stark model of how isolated the journalism industry was to the community at large. For despite being one of the groups closest to the newsroom, Deaf people never really gained the full benefits of that knowledge.

    Rebooting the connection

    With Internet media, the activity of psychical publishing is no longer required. So the Deaf are now pretty much starting from scratch, trying to gain a foothold in this world despite being part of the so-called ‘digital divide’. Groups that have been marginalized before now have opportunities to share in the creation of news as never before. Yet we still face new and different challenges in eliminating barriers.


    A similar attempt to provide barrier-eliminating opportunities, but on a global scale, can be seen in the Rising Voices project. I am looking at many similar issues as the ones David Sasaki noted in his excellent post Three Obstacles to a Truly Global Conversation. The aims and points are similar but instead of looking at the level of exclusion on a global scale, I am looking at exclusion that is happening even in the ‘first world’. How do we aim to include a marginalized group like the Deaf?

    The answers to this are primarily similar to most marginalized groups. The overall methods that Rising Voices uses will be useful even in the ‘first world’. But each type of group is different and has different needs. Deaf people are just a little more unusual than most.

    What divides Deaf people from the rest of society is of course communication and language. The Deaf have two distinct issues related to communication that are different from other linguistic groups. Many linguistic groups in the United States do have publications in their own language. This provides a level of comfort and unity for these groups. But even so they eventually learn English and are assimilated into the majority English-speaking society. But Deaf people don’t hear the language. This barrier prevents assimilation, and prevents many from feeling completely comfortable using spoken and written English. Its important to note that written English is still a subset of a spoken language, so the barrier still exists even when printed. This means the use of their primary language becomes even more important as a tool to communicate. But their primary language, American Sign Language, is a visual language with no written equivalent.

    This raises a number of issues. Considering that the primary method of Internet communication is through writing, many of the basic publication tools become unacceptable to use. The rise of Internet video is now presenting the perfect opportunity for sign language communication. A large part of what I wish to do is to look at how to effectively use such video for this purpose. How do you effectively create such video in a grassroots manner as the sole basis of community news? Thats not a quick thing to answer, so I’ll be exploring more of that in future posts.

    Tagged: deaf sign language Signcasts

    One response to “Rebooting the Connection: The Deaf in the News Industry”

    1. Tina says:

      NetSignNews.com is addressing this issue by providing The News in ASL by Deaf Anchors.

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