Journalists urged to improve reporting on disability

A NEW digital resource entered the media sphere in November 2021, putting an onus on journalists to up the standard of disability reporting.  

The Disability Reporting Handbook is a digital resource designed to change the narrative of disability in the media launched by Media Diversity Australia (MDA) in partnership with disability organisation Hireup, Griffith University and, Getty images. 

Director of communications and content at Hireup, Mr Andrew Thomas suspects misrepresentation “starts in the media.”  

“For all the influence and impacts, media in the traditional sense still matters;” he said.

“If you think of society as a funnel, media still has an out of size voice within that funnel.”

Supporting this opinion is senior journalist and handbook curator at Media Diversity Australia, Ms Briana Blackett, who intentionally shaped the resource for journalists. 

Briana Blackett is a Disability Affairs Officer at Media Diversity Australia IMAGE: MDA Website

“The media reflects and represents the world we live in,” she said. 

“Changing the narrative means working with people who write and produce that narrative.” 

Dominant disability stories in the media are offensive and unconsciously dehumanising. 

Pity pieces that teeter on inspiration porn are longstanding narratives in Australian media. 

In June 2014, journalist and comedian Stella Young presented the formidable I am not your inspiration thank you very much, a TED talk concerning society’s habit of addressing the disabled community as charity cases. 

Ms Young calls out misconstrued representations, confirming “most people have only experienced disabled people as objects of inspiration.”

“We are not real people; we are there to inspire,” she said.

Stella Young’s TED Talk SOURCE: Youtube/ @TED

As a successful journalist, Ms Blackett knows the ins and outs of the scene, yet admits to only becoming aware of this narrative, after raising children who have disabilities. 

“I did not have an awareness of it myself until my children came into the world,” she said. 

“I became quite disappointed and sometimes disturbed by the way people with disability were being presented.

“I wanted to change that for the good of my kids and everyone else in the community.” 

Change means normalising the presence of disability in a news story rather than accentuating it.  

“People with disabilities want to be appreciated for their achievements, but not because they have overcome something to get there,” Mr Thomas said.   

“The narrative needs to be reframed, where disabled people are using their talents rather than overcoming disability.”  

By reforming the fourth estate’s representations of the disabled community,  its curators hope adjustments will have a ripple down effect on the rest of society.  

“If they are getting it right, the rest of society, from social media to face to face communication, will follow,” said Mr Thomas. 

“…but crucially, if they get it wrong by using the wrong language, they set the tone for the rest of society.

“If you start with the media, to some extent the rest of society will follow.”

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Tia Haralabakos

Tia Haralabakos is a Media Communications student at Monash University specialising in Journalism and human rights. She is interested in the multi-faceted landscape of digital media, particularly addressing challenges to online reporting like diversity and content moderation. Tia’s journalistic interests include human rights and social affairs.

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