Things reporters say – and write – about disability

“The snake you just saw Matt holding isn’t the one that bit him. He no longer owns that one.” via CNN broadcast

Sometimes at the end of a video clip on one of the 24 hour news station, the news announcer stops, looks at the prompter and then, with some resignation, reads inane words like this to the audience – with a straight face. Usually. Once in a while, he or she can’t pull it off and simply chuckles or points out how inane the words are.

I sometimes wonder if there are frustrated writers behind the scenes who have their fun by wording things this way and then watching the newscasters deal with it.

But the news in and of itself creates constant awkward, very human situations. No matter what the story is, there remains not only the potential and risk of getting the facts across wrong but in a biased or offensive way – or both. There’s always the message – and the meta message, as they say.

When I studied communcations at Rutgers as an undergrad, it was a new field and our studies of the media were drawn from other disciplines, like sociology and political science. Although I didn’t enter the communications field, I’m fascinated by the variables that affect our viewing as well as the dissemination of news. And, although the methods used now are much more sophisticated than when I studied the field, how much does the human factor enter into what a reporter, well, reports – or says – about a story?

What comes to mind is one reporter who stood outside a hotel during Hurricane Katrina, watching as bits of the roof – and trees – flew by where he stood, rain soaked in a poncho. Others were holding onto him at times so he wouldn’t join the debris blowing down the road. The situation seemed to create one in which his experience of the hurricane was like a resident’s. But it took one interview with a true victim who lost his home in the aftermath to realize how staged this presentation, no matter how dramatic, was.

The same is true when reporters report on issues about disability. I just read a story from wsbtv.com carried on CNN about a possible suspect in a murder who has no arms. He was referred to as the armless man about half a dozen times and I pictured the reporter pondering how to refer to him and finally settling on “the armless man”. Mentioning it once is quite different than having it not only in the headline but as the only description of the suspect. The metamessage? I suppose it may seem to some that I’m picking on the reporter until you stop and consider what the purpose was to constantly refer to him as “the armless man”, choosing a term that not only defines him as “less” but as different and, in a way, representative of his disability.

We are all the sum of our parts and none of us who are disabled are just disabled. I’m not just a quad. I’m also Irish American, a female, and Catholic. I could probably list a dozen other classes I fall into, but the point is that when reporters report only about the disability, that one dimensional view in and of itself is reminiscent of the “staring” phenomenon. Oops – armless. Wow. And it stops there. This is dehumanizing because it implies that all we are is our disability.

Like the reporter standing outside to report on a hurricane, those reporting on stories about disabled people need to be careful to remember that the lenses of their camera or the words they type are about people as well as events. They reflect social mores and their own beliefs.

And they can look as ridiculous as the newscaster telling us that the snake the man is holding is not the one who bit him.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Things reporters say – and write – about disability

  1. “We are all the sum of our parts and none of us who are disabled are just disabled. I’m not just a quad. I’m also Irish American, a female, and Catholic.”

    This is spot on. I’ve seen this kind of thing from more than one angle.

    For 37 years I had normal health. Frankly never gave disability much thought at all.

    For about the next decade I had an insdiously progressive disease. I was able to keep working until about four years ago.

    Despite the fact that my functional limitations and fragility were on the order of advanced old age, I basically appeared normal and while I was working was treated as an equal.

    Now that I’m visibly emaciated and obviouslyseverely disabled, the only new people I meet – mostly people who come to help me around the house or health aides – look at me in one of two ways: I can see in their eyes that they think I represent a different life form; or I can see them seeing me. That second group is smaller.

    All the time I wasn’t visibly disabled I could see people seeing me alll the time. I miss it.

  2. Paul,
    thanks so much for your comment. Your words stand as a valuable message to all who encounter the “visibly disabled” in their everyday lives – and to those of us who are visibly disabled yet treated at times invisibly. Best wishes…

  3. This is so true. I come across this kind of attitude a lot when reading the BBC online news.
    Whenever there’s news involving a disabled person, even if the disability hasn’t got anything to do with the actual story, it’s always ‘a disabled man was robbed’ or ‘a disabled woman was hit by a car’ or something.

    Also, though I can’t judge this ‘cos I’m blind, I suspect that when I’m out and about people always first see my white cane, then my different looking eyes, and finally that I happen to be a Goth as well.

  4. Just wanted to say thank you for sharing this post with us for the Disability Blog Carnival re: Disability and the Media!

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