quinta-feira, julho 20, 2006


Journalism with a Difference
From Fear to Storytelling: Covering Disability from Outside Your Comfort Zone
How to tell stories of people with disabilities without reverting to the pity/hero/inspiration models.

We know we're supposed to leave our biases at the door when we enter our newsrooms, but what about our fears?

No one -- including journalists -- wants to think he or she or a loved one might become disabled at some point in his or her life. But every day we learn of serious injuries resulting from car accidents; people who have been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease or ALS; diving accidents that have left someone paralyzed; a relative facing sudden blindness or total loss of hearing; a neighbor with diabetes who has had a leg amputated; or a local soldier severely injured while serving in Iraq.

How do most of us deal with such fears? By pushing them out of our minds, which, for journalists, might result in not covering important disability stories in our communities because they make us uncomfortable.

Out of sight, out of mind, as they say.

"Centuries of tradition that regarded anyone with a disability as malevolent or cursed by a vengeful god might help explain why such deeply held prejudices have endured," writes Jack A. Nelson in "The Disabled, the Media, and the Information Age."

"In addition, deep-seated anxieties exist in each of us as to our own vulnerability," Nelson bluntly warns.

We like to think of ourselves as consummate professionals, capable of rising above our biases and fears. But the fear of disability is so personal, so deeply ingrained, that we must first acknowledge it before we can write the real stories.

You can start right now by reading over the following scenarios. Think about how each one makes you feel. Don't over-think them; just go with your gut.
1.) You see a picture of Christopher Reeve, post-accident, with his breathing tube and strapped into his high-tech electric wheelchair.
2) On the evening news, you hear the brilliant Stephen Hawking lecturing through his voice synthesizer.
3) You watch a family that includes a child with Down syndrome playing in a park.
4) You're walking in the corridor of your office, and a new employee who is sight-impaired and using a cane approaches you.
5) You're in a movie theater and a patron with cerebral palsy is making loud sounds that are disruptive.
6) You receive a phone call from your cousin, who tells you her 6-year-old daughter has just been diagnosed with a severe form of autism.
Do you feel pangs of pity? Moments of discomfort or shame? Do you feel angry? Most of us would feel all these emotions, and very few of us could leave them at the newsroom door.

That's why we are more likely to gravitate toward stories in our comfort zones -- stories that calm our fears or offer uplifting themes. These most often include:
  • Pity stories, which focus on "victims" of a disability, make others feel they aren't as bad off as the "victims."
  • Hero stories are about those who "overcome" their disabilities (often disabled athletes) and are designed to show there is some good in the world.
  • Inspirational stories -- any piece on Christopher Reeve, Jerry Lewis' "kids" during his MDA telethon -- make us believe that some good can come out of inexplicable tragedy.
Yes, such stories can calm fears, but they also reinforce inaccurate stereotypes and prevent journalists from digging deeper and doing better.

You can do something about it.

The next time you're about to assign or report a story about an issue or person with a disability, ask yourself if you are automatically going for the pity, hero or inspirational angle. What is a better story, the one that would give readers a more accurate picture of the disability experience in your community?

Learn from Joseph P. Shapiro, a reporter for NPR who said in the manual, "Reporting on Disability: Approaches and Issues" that "disability issues are rich territory for unusually rewarding stories. Why? Because disability issues are interesting and often complex. Because most coverage is cliched, leaving plenty of room for thoughtful stories that stand out. Because good reporting can change the way people think."

Shapiro should know. His reporting on disability is widely praised as the best in the business.