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The Best and Worst: Some Journalists Get It, Others Miss The Point

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from NewsWatch, copyright 2002. Mary Johnson is editor of Ragged Edge magazine, which serves the disability community. Her latest book, "Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve and The Case Against Disability Rights," is being published by The Advocado Press.

"On Reeve's journey, everything seems possible." "Christopher Reeve labors to beat the odds." "Christopher Reeve: a medical Superman?"

Media observers would likely put these stories -- the first from USA Today, the second from The Bergen Record, the third from The Palm Beach Post. -- into the "good" category if asked to decide good, bad and ugly stories about disability that appeared in U.S. news media outlets this last year.

They're not good, though, says Cyndi Jones of the Center for An Accessible Society, an organization that works with journalists covering disability stories.

Most disability rights activists agree with Jones. Coverage of former Superman star Christopher Reeve since his 1995 paralyzing injury has been a particular thorn in their sides.

It points to, they say, an overarching flaw in the way disability news is reported -- or not reported.

"When people listen to what Christopher Reeve is saying, instead of getting on with their lives, they wait for something that may never happen," Denver disability activist Carolyn Linnell told Rocky Mountain News reporter Bill Scanlon.

Medical experts pretty much insist that while Reeve regained some movement it does not signal much more than increased fitness; it's not a prelude to walking. In any case, the therapy equipment Reeve gets -- much of it free to the celebrity -- is far beyond the budgets of most people with spinal cord injuries. Insurance usually won't pay for motorized wheelchairs, much less the $15,000 electrical stimulators or therapy sessions Reeve's regimen requires.

But only the most dedicated newshound would come away with this picture from the nearly 1,000 stories that ran in the weeks around Reeve's 50th birthday.

Scanlon's was one of only a handful of stories to put the Reeve hype into context, to discuss what it meant for the nation's 200,000 people with spinal cord injuries (what it meant was "almost nothing").

He was one of an even fewer to interview disabled people working in the disability rights movement for context.

Media critics within the disability rights movement say Reeve's views are reported as if they represent the thinking of the mainstream disability movement (and to be fair, Reeve has done little to discourage reporters).

It points to a deeper problem, too, which has little to do with Reeve.

Reporters don't seem to know there are national disability rights groups to turn to for perspective in stories about disability issues. Print journalists "are much more likely to use people with disabilities as examples in their news stories than as sources," says Beth Haller, an associate professor of journalism at Towson University.

Among the most significant findings of Haller's study for the Center for An Accessible Society was that, in story after story, "national disability organizations were largely missing," and those interviewed were often healthcare providers or government officials. The impression, says Haller, is that people with disabilities can't speak for themselves.

The past year has seen excellent reporting on a number of issues relating to the lives of Americans who have disabilities. In "The New Math of Old Age," U.S. News and World Report's Christopher H.

Schmitt reported Sept. 30 on the financially healthy nursing home industry's poor-mouth demands for more Medicare and Medicaid dollars even as they give increasingly sub-standard care.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Nursing Home Negligence Graphic The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in a stunning series that began Oct. 13, reported that thousands die in the nation's nursing homes from neglect and are "rarely detected by government inspectors, investigated by law enforcement, appraised by medical examiners or prosecuted by anyone."

In a series in April, Clifford Levy of the New York Times reported on New York's treatment of mentally ill residents in group homes; Levy has continued to cover the issue.

These issues are top concerns for the national disability rights movement, which has been working to shift national policy and money from nursing homes to in-home services -- services that keep recipients in charge of their own care.

There has been scant coverage of a 1999 Supreme Court decision, the Olmstead decision, which said states must give people a choice of staying home and getting help rather than going into a nursing home -- and that many states are quietly moving to do that.

There has also been little coverage about the bill in Congress, the Medicaid Attendant Services and Support Act, or MiCASSA, that would force changes in national policy to keep people out of nursing homes.

The problem is that reporters and editors don't know about these stories.

They don't seek out national disability movement perspective. They don't seek out disability spokespersons on local and regional stories, either.

"When Missouri. Gov. Mel Carnahan died, the newspaper planned a series of stories about his contingency groups," said the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Jennifer LaFleur.

"It took a lot to convince editors that disabled people made up a true contingency group. If we treated another minority group the same way, our newsroom would be up in arms."

In the past three years, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on a number of employment cases brought under the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which outlaws disability-based discrimination.

The court has consistently ruled for employers and against plaintiffs seeking workplace accommodations for their disabilities. But no story has yet looked at these rulings in light of larger disability rights movement, nor the implications for the average American.

Repetitive-motion injuries accounted for more than a third of the 1.7 million workplace injuries reported in 2000, yet Toyota worker Ella Williams was told by the court that RSI wasn't a "disability" so she had no standing to sue under the law.

It said the same thing to Robert Barnett, who has high blood pressure. Workers who now face discrimination on the job because of these kinds of "nontraditional" disabilities can't seek redress.

"If Americans knew what they had lost, they would weep," Jones said. Local media do report on lawsuits filed by disability rights groups and individuals against inaccessible grocery chains, theaters, drugstores and restaurants.

Yet national coverage of such access lawsuits has almost uniformly taken the perspective of business and trade associations, who condemn the suits as costly and unnecessary, the product only of disgruntled malcontents.

Trentonian Roasted Nuts Headline on Front Page

And as for the "ugly" two headlines stand out: "Execution of Retards to Be Reviewed," appeared on the Associated Press Online in February. "Roasted Nuts" read another -- this one in the July 10 Trentonian for a story about a fire at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.

Both news outlets were reprimanded and apologized.

The question is: how could they have been published in the first place? The disability rights perspective hasn't penetrated very far into newsrooms, and definitions of "diversity" from professional journalism groups still fail to include disability.

It is still routine to find a story of a disabled person cheerfully overcoming obstacles with a smile and a heartful of courage plastered over the front of the Sunday feature section.

A tale a wheelchair user tells a reporter about being denied job after job ends up not as a piece on the issue of job discrimination but a feature on the pluckiness of the disabled jobseeker.

Reporters and editors associate disability with tragedy or adversity, says Haller; they feel that "disabled people are different from us more than they are like us, that their disabilities somehow set them apart from the rest of us," she wrote in The Baltimore Sun.

Journalism award-winners still focus on "coping" and on "illness or disability." They're "awash in inspiration," says Haller, who studied stories that had won the Pulitzer Prize and other major journalism awards to see how disability was treated.

A woman whose story had been given the inspirational gloss told Haller: "No matter who you are, what you do, how you feel, to some people you'll always be a tragic figure."

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