In 2011, leading global media players gathered at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., to discuss Advocacy Journalism in the Digital Age. Three years is a long time in the digital space (consider — Instagram was launched late 2010), but the words of the conference’s keynote speaker, Monumental Sports and Entertainment CEO Ted Leonis, could easily be said today, as relevant they are to the current state of digital journalism.
“Everyone is a journalist now — individuals will become their own media companies,” Leonis said. His words resonate across the public sphere but most loudly within the advocacy journalism debate.
Advocacy journalism has a long history — whether known as Yellow Journalism, Radical Journalism, Critical Journalism or Activist Journalism, it dates to the early 19th Century. Some contend all journalism is advocacy journalism. As author and journalist Matt Taibbi wrote in Rolling Stone: “No matter how it’s presented, every report by every reporter advances someone’s point of view. The advocacy can be hidden, as it is in the monotone narration of a news anchor for a big network like CBS or NBC (where the biases of advertisers and corporate backers like GE are disguised in a thousand subtle ways), or it can be out in the open …”
While advocacy journalism, defined by Robert Jensen as “ … the use of journalism techniques to promote a specific political or social cause,” is far from limited to digital space, it has thrived within the blogosphere where the classic tenants of journalism — objectivity and neutrality — are often sidelined or ignored at the expense of personal or community priorities. Dave Berman, writing for the Indy Media Centre, says journalists should not be bound to the tenants, and they are no longer “universally observed.”
“If we are ever to create meaningful change, advocacy journalism will be the single most crucial element to enable the necessary organizing,” he said.
Change through self-representation
Among those seeking “meaningful change” and embracing the capacity to self-publish and, importantly, self-represent are minority groups. Included in the ranks of those keen to negotiate a new way other than the “mainstream” are people with disabilities. While some online entities, Ouch! on the BBC in the U.K. for example, have successfully embedded disability-focused and produced content within mainstream outlets, others have struggled. In Australia, people with disabilities have launched a crowdfunding campaign to establish a new website to replace RampUp, a site formerly run and funded by the national broadcaster but now mothballed as a cost-cutting measure. RampUp was “the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s website featuring news, discussion, debate and humor for everyone in Australia’s disability communities.”
The proponents of the crowdfunding campaign are unabashed advocacy journalists and supporters. Dr. George Taleporos is the driving force behind the campaign. “This project is designed to ensure that the important perspectives of people with disabilities and our families are heard and to make real the disability rights motto of ‘Nothing About Us, Without Us’,” he said. Taleporos and his colleagues are among a growing group of people frustrated by mainstream representation of minority groups and their issues. The once silenced “media critics” have found a space to be heard and to operate beyond traditional media frames of diversity.
“Once relegated mainly to the alternative press, where scraggly anti-establishmentarians would rail against ‘the Man,’ as represented by whatever major metropolitan newspaper was close at hand, these days documenting the sins of the media is a favored activity of cable pundits, think tanks of the left and right, and an ever expanding multitude of bloggers,” Dan Kennedy wrote in Nieman Reports
Taleporos and other advocacy journalists are driven by a desire to redress the news agenda and public discourse. Despite the considerable consumer power of people with disabilities and long-established media guidelines on disability, mainstream news media remains inclined to follow the well-trodden path of stereotypical representation of people with disabilities and disability issues.
Disability & Media History
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Optional Protocol was adopted by the UN in 2006. The Convention was the result of decades of work by the UN to “change attitudes and approaches to people with disabilities.” The UN says the Convention, in line with the widely adopted Social Model of Disability, “takes to a new height the movement from viewing persons with disabilities as ‘objects’ of charity, medical treatment and social protection towards viewing persons with disabilities as ‘subjects’ with rights, who are capable of claiming those rights and making decisions for their lives based on their free and informed consent as well as being active members of society.”
The Convention has been signed by 158 countries, and there are 147 partners, and it has eight guiding principles.
- Respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one’s own choices, and independence of persons
- Full and effective participation and inclusion in society
- Respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity
- Equality of opportunity
- Equality between men and women
- Respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities and respect for the right of children with disabilities to preserve their identities
Embedded within these guiding principles are elements that serve to inform journalists, editors and newsrooms on the representation of people with disabilities. Article 8 of the Convention is most relevant to the news media, as it deals specifically with awareness-raising and stereotypes.
As framers, agenda-setters and gatekeepers, reporters and editors are uniquely placed to deliver on the aspirations of Article 8. It says, in part, that signature States have a responsibility to “combat stereotypes, prejudices and harmful practices relating to persons with disabilities,” “to promote awareness of capabilities and contributions of persons,” and encourage “all organs of the media to portray persons with disabilities in a manner consistent with the purpose of the present Convention.”
People with disabilities and those who research their representation in the news media are consistent in their observations about the way a disability is presented. Professor Beth Haller is a world leader in the field and helped develop the “media models of disability.” Haller and colleagues claim the news media is still, despite decades of disability activism, inclined to represent people with disabilities as tragedies or heroes, and to use language and imagery that serves to embed stereotypes and put at risk members of an already vulnerable community.
“I think media are important to all disability rights efforts because if the media are misrepresenting the disability community, then the general public has wrong information and may not support rights efforts,” she said.
Students learning reporting need lessons on covering people with disabilities. Instructors can get creative in exercises focused on broadening their perspectives. For instance, interacting with the Save ABC RampUp Facebook group, dedicated to fair and accurate depiction in the news media and self-representation, reveals important themes for students to understand.
- Represent (make sure every show, every ad, etc. has people with disabilities) and don’t use sadomasochistic language (“suffers,” “bound,” etc.).
- Use common sense — that’s subjective, but don’t default to “heroes” or pity.
- Include people with disabilities in the media without always focusing on the disabilities. “The ‘wheelchair-bound’ woman, is actually a mum, an officer worker, a volunteer, a sister, an aunt, a daughter, who happens to use a wheelchair. The “Blind Lawyer” is actually a man, a person, a father, etc., who happens to be blind.” People with disabilities should have voice on a range of topics, not just disability-related topics. One in three households has experience with a disability, so people are not “novel.”
- Often young journalists use appropriate, people-first language — “person who uses a wheelchair” — but an editor, generally someone who is at least 25 years older, changes “person who uses” to “wheelchair bound” because that was the language he learned.
- “I can do without the ‘inspirational porn’ of disability. We are not heroes or pity cases. We all get out of bed the same way, or near enough, as everyone else. We eat, we work, we participate in community and working life, just like anyone else, in our own way.”
- Cover people with a disability on on a wider range of topics, not just assisted suicide or the Paralympic Games.
- Stop saying “suffers from.” Say, “living with.”
- Do not represent a disability as if physical disabilities are the only ones.
- Understand that people with disability live constantly with the “hero” or “brave sufferer” or “charity case.” Resist the media stereotypes of putting people in the pit or on the pedestal.
- If we write for your publication, don’t dumb our language down. Look to good publishers like Daily Life, The Guardian and ABC Ramp Up (now defunct). Get someone with a disability to write it! We’re underemployed and are often spoken about, not listened to.
A section of this article first appeared on WAN-IFRA blog.
Shawn Burns is a former print and television journalist and news director, and now teaches journalism at the University of Wollongong, Australia. His research interests include representation of people with disability in the news media, including his PhD research and an MA(R) on the subject, the convergence of news media, the role of experiential learning in contemporary journalism pedagogy, and newsroom practice. Burns received a National Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT) Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning 2013.