Confusing disability and tragedy

Assignment: Reporters need to explore why it is so difficult for society to see the human being underneath a disfigurement or disability.

April 29, 2001|By Beth A. Haller

Coping with adversity. The recent Pulitzer Prizes in journalism confirm that this theme is still a winner.

The Oregonian won the 2001 prize for best feature writing a few weeks ago with its series on Sam Lightner, a teen with a facial deformity. It is poignant and gripping, as it draws the reader into his life and his decisions about trying to "fix" his face surgically.

Like all good journalism, the series is well-written and researched. It has a depth that actually puts the reader into the scenes within Sam Lightner's life.

However, I am concerned about the messages these "coping with adversity" stories send to society about people who are physically different. I hope they promote acceptance, but I fear they sometimes promote pity.

A few years ago, I conducted a study of national journalism award winners that dealt with disability or illness from 1984 to 1999. In those 56 stories, I was looking for the cultural messages about disability and illness hidden within the prize-winning stories.

I looked at winners from Pulitzers to Peabodys and from magazine awards to Society of Professional Journalists awards. The idea for the study came from previous research into the news values of National Press Photographers Association winners, which found that that award-winning feature photos most often fell into a content category called "coping with adversity." Another prominent content area was illness or disability.

Prestigious journalism awards signal "validation" of excellence for newspapers, magazines, and TV news. But these award-winning stories also forcefully put information about disability or illness onto the public agenda and put images of people with disabilities into the news. Because of their prestigious status, these prize winners remain in the public's consciousness much longer and provide models for younger journalists.

Put succinctly, these stories have staying power.

So my concern is about the impact of these award-winning stories on attitudes toward people with disabilities.

What I have found is that many of these stories are awash in inspiration.

What's wrong with inspiration? you might ask. Isn't it uplifting? Doesn't it make readers and viewers "feel good?"

The trouble with inspiration is that the flip side of its message is tragedy. HolLynn D'Lil, a wheelchair user, explained in Mainstream magazine that, "Being told that you're inspirational when you're doing something ordinary is an assault on your self-concept. Suddenly you're reminded once again of the traditional attitudes about disabilities, that no matter who you are, what you do, how you feel, to some people you'll always be a tragic figure."

However, this notion of disability and chronic illness as tragedy fits squarely with journalistic news values that focus on the unusual or the dramatic.

As one prominent college journalism textbook, "Reporting for Print Media," explains: "Deviations from the normal ... are more newsworthy than the commonplace."

However, as a former journalist and current journalism professor, I want to challenge journalism's continuing use of the value of "unusualness." I fear that it may cause negative stereotypes in the news, especially of people who are physically different.

When journalists focus on how someone deviates from the norm and when they "pull on heart strings" to add drama to content, they may send a message of pity and tragedy to their audience.

D'Lil explains what nondisabled people don't understand: "That a life with a disability is still a life after all, to be enjoyed and lived to the fullest."

So should journalists, many of whom obviously don't understand the disability experience, stop writing these award-winning stories?

Actually, journalists should be covering disability issues more, rather than less. But they could promote better acceptance of disabled people by focusing their coverage on society's barriers, rather than on inspirational and one-dimensional stories of a person's life with a disability.

Depicting people with disabilities doing something symbolically empowering or confronting barriers sends positive cultural messages of people with disabilities as equal citizens in society.

The barrier that Sam Lightner confronted, as chronicled in the Oregonian series, was negative attitudes.

"Except for the deformity, Sam was normal in every way. But everyone outside Sam's circle of family and friends would have a hard time seeing beyond the mass of tissue on his face," Tom Hallman Jr. writes in the Oregonian.

To me, this problem that society has with difference in appearance, not Sam's face, should be the focus of a prize-winning series.

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