By Shai Franklin
With Presidential primaries looming, so much international unrest and a global climate agreement in the works, last week’s gathering of two-dozen top media and political figures, at Washington’s Newseum—among them former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, PBS NewsHour Anchor Judy Woodruff, Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron, Bloomberg columnist Al Hunt, political analyst Norm Ornstein, and legendary pollster Peter Hart—shouldn’t have surprised anyone. And yet, the addition of Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver and other leading disabilities activists, all convened by the Ruderman Family Foundation (RFF), made for a discussion that was both relevant and beyond the clutch of daily news cycles.
Left to right: Newseum CEO Jeffrey Herbst, NPR reporter Joseph Shapiro, RFF President Jay Ruderman (photo: Maria Bryk/Newseum)
What kinds of facts and stories, what kinds of pitches what kinds of conversations, and with whom… what will it take for news reports and policy proposals to instinctively reflect and account for the 20 percent of Americans who have a disability at any point in time, and their friends, relatives, and co-workers?
The Foundation, in partnership with the Newseum Institute
, brought them together to better connect advocates with journalists and to begin developing a strategy for raising the disabilities profile within American political and media culture. Over the coming months, the Foundation aims to generate more discussions and respond to suggestions with impactful resources and opportunities.
The launch pad for last week’s discussion was the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which enabled an entire generation to enter the workplace and find their voice, and yet 70 percent of Americans with disabilities are not in the workforce. Ironically, the fact that the ADA was enacted without the need for a long, unified, visible civil rights struggle has made it more difficult to reach a broader audience. As Joseph Shapiro, award-winning NPR investigative reporter, stressed, every story has a disability aspect—veterans, prison reform, #BlackLivesMatter, long-term care, and many more.
Left to right: PBS NewsHour Anchor Judy Woodruff, AUCD Executive Director Andy Imparato, ASU Cronkite School Associate Dean Kristin Gilger (photo: Maria Bryk/Newseum)
Other journalists in the room shared some of their industry’s challenges and perceptions in reporting on disabilities. Disabilities are diverse and often less apparent than race or gender. As RFF President Jay Ruderman noted, there is no single “Martin Luther King” for disability rights. Kristin Gilger, Associate Dean of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School, acknowledged that reporters often feel uncomfortable or unprepared to cover disability issues; the Cronkite School has published a style guide for appropriate language and draws attention to good reporting on disabilities.
Andrew Imparato, Executive Director of the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD
), observed that very few reporters in general even have a disability, which means they’re not a visible presence in the newsroom; one veteran journalist recalled that just seeing a colleague with disabilities shattered the stereotype. Much of the discrimination or ignorance about people with disabilities isn’t as obviously wrong or clear-cut as racism or sexism. Reporters don’t always need a Martin Luther King—often they just need someone to turn to for guidance or a quote. At the same time, not every journalist with a disability wants to be the resident “disability expert”.
Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus (photo: Maria Bryk/Newseum)
Even tailor-made disability stories often get sidelined. When Washington cuts workers’ compensation, it’s reported as a “budget” story.
As much as we might push reporters and their editors to be more aware and more inclusive in their coverage, shorter news cycles and shrinking budgets don’t easily lend themselves to thoroughness. There’s much that disabilities advocates and media partners can do, beyond convening more such conversations:
- Make information, experts and “real people” available on short notice to reporters who have little to no background in disabilities.
- Build long-term working relationships with editors and key reporters.
- Promote internships and hiring of more reporters with disabilities.
- Include disabilities as part of the Diversity Conversation.
- Beyond covering disabilities as a story, also make the coverage and websites accessible to the sizable audience with disabilities.
- Collect the newsworthy stories reporters can tap for ideas.
- Train disability activists in media outreach.
Shai Franklin (photo: Maria Bryk/Newseum)
Shai Franklin of Your Global Strategy is a consultant to the Ruderman Family Foundation. He has previously served in executive capacities for community-based organizations in the United States and overseas, and lives near New York City with his family. Twitter: @ShaiFranklin.
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