Misused tools

Photo Credit: http://pastoralmeanderings.blogspot.com.au/2012/10/the-words-matter.html


Words are a part of a journalist’s tool set in the same way an electrician has his wire stripper. If the electrician fails to fix a light properly, it is possible there will be pyro-consequences. A journalist can face serious consequences for the misuse of his words – defamation being the most precarious. Some words appear to carry less of a feeling of social injustice than others, however – mainly because they are largely unrecognised as being bad.

Invisibility, Kurt Fernley OAM points out in this video, is one of the major problems facing people with a disability.

The media is largely at responsible for obscuring people with a disability.

As with many large issues, this one is more complicated than can be surmised in a few hundred words. So before reading on, I suggest you consider this issue like a big bowl of spaghetti – this article will extract and examine just one strand of pasta.

The process of hiding people with a disability is two-fold. First, the way a story is framed can and does inform the way we think about that topic. Shawn Burns, a journalism educator and media researcher at the University of Wollongong, found that journalists use just a few stencils in their reporting of an issue.

the use of limited frames consequently limits the community perceptions of disability

– Shawn Burns (2010, p.281)

The two most common frames are the ‘heroic’ and ‘tragic’ frames. Burns stresses that people who have a disability are people first – they should not be defined by their disability. People with a disability, as you’ll commonly hear in the media, are struggling through a trial, like it is something they are either tragically struck down by or something that they must heroically overcome. In this way, the person with a disability is ‘framed-out’ of our consciousness into a box we can easily understand. Why this happens is, simply put, because it is an easy way to sell an article; but it is more complicated than this and would require a whole other post.

How this happens is a simpler pinpoint. Derogatory words used to describe people with a disability are still in use, despite decades of effort to mute such rhetoric and numerous guidelines being produced. ‘Wheel-chair bound’ for example, assumes a certain disadvantage. A person who uses a wheel-chair may prefer to think of their abilities first. Therefore assigning this term to someone with a wheel-chair is consigning them to a passive status, one of lesser ability. Similarly, someone with a disability doesn’t necessarily suffer. Yet news reports still say someone ‘suffers-from’ their disability.

Still wonder why this language is not OK? Burns quotes Snow (2008) who “has written extensively on people first language” (p.282). He provides a useful metaphor:

People first language puts the person before the disability, and describes what a person has, not who a person is. Are you “myopic” or do you wear glasses?  Are you “cancerous” or do you have cancer?  Is a person “handicapped/disabled” or does she have a disability?

– Snow in Burns (2010, p.282)

A second way people with a disability are made invisible by the media is they are sometimes simply forgotten. Decisions (yes, multiple) to frame-out the sign-language interpreter during announcements made by key officials during flood coverage in 2011 were rectified by the producers only after viewers made complaints.  This example is perhaps the most stark case study highlighting how people with a disability are do not enter mainstream media’s common thought process.

How does this change?

the challenge for journalists, journalism educators and students is to appreciate the alternative frames of disability and not be limited to the familiar and, indeed, clichéd story line.

– Shawn Burns (2010, p.281)

These lessons are certainly something I’ll take on as a young reporter heading into the industry.


Burns, Shawn, Commentary: Words matter: Journalists, educators, media guidelines and representation of disability,Asia Pacific Media Educator, 20, 2010, 277-284. Available at:http://ro.uow.edu.au/apme/vol1/iss20/28

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