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Recent newspaper coverage about persons with disabilities.

Recent Newspaper Coverage About Persons with Disabilities

Lay persons and professionals alike apply stereotypes to persons with disabilities that negatively effect the way in which these persons are treated. For example, research on the effects of labeling students "EMR" (for "educable mentally retarded") found that stereotypes and the resulting attitudes towards children with this label are associated with more severely retarded children (MacMillan, 1982). Thus, children labeled "EMR" are thought to be unable to learn academic tasks or to successfully adjust to the regular education classroom environment.

Such stereotypes are presumed to develop through repeated exposure to stimuli that consistently portray persons with disabilities as helpless and incompetent. One way in which such stimuli are communicated is by readily available media such as literature (Harris & Baskin, 1987; Margolis & Shapiro, 1987; Thurer, 1980), newspapers (Biklen, 1987), and television (Donaldson, 1981; Elliot & Byrd, 1982). These media have generally described persons with disabilities in more negative than positive terms. Persons with disabilities were typically portrayed as menaces to society, or persons to be pitied because they were helpless. Donaldson (1981), in a sample of television programs, found that a person's disability was portrayed as the central focus of a person's life rather than his or her behavior in occupational or social situations, regardless of the disability. Given the strong influence that the media may have in developing poor images about persons with disabilities, several organizations, such as the National Easter Seal Society (1981) and the

Research and Training Center on Independent Living (1984), have published guidelines for more appropriate portrayals. Similarly, the periodical Disability Rag has critiqued media materials in terms of their sensitivity in describing persons with disabilities.

The previous sources, however, have not addressed an equally important aspect of how the media present persons with disabilities to the public. Several investigators of the print media have argued that newspapers have considerable influence over the formation of public opinion on issues concerning foreign relations and domestic programs (Bogart, 1981; Epstein, 1981; Schulte, 1983). Newspapers minimally provide information about current events and issues occurring in the local community. Furthermore, the presentation of issues--or the lack of presentation--may influence the way in which the public thinks about particular issues, such as programs for persons with disabilities. Does instruction in special education programs get media space, or do budgetary issues predominate? Do the media feature the process and effects of deinstitutionalization, an issue of major importance to special educators? Do the media discuss issues focusing on children or adults?

Given our lack of knowledge about what information is available to the public about persons with disabilities, the present study sought to determine with a sample of articles from large city newspapers for 1986 and 1987 (a) the percentage of articles covering specific issues of concern to service providers of persons with disabilities and (b) the percentage of articles written for each type of disability and the age level of the persons featured in the articles.


Sampling Procedures

We selected five metropolitan-area newspapers according to circulation (more that 350,000 daily copies) and availability of a subject index that referenced education and special education and various terms used to described persons with disabilities (Austin, 1986, 1987; Holmes, 1986, 1987; Juvezar, 1986a, 1986b, 1987a, 1987b; Schindler, 1986, 1987). The newspapers represented the following regions: Midwest--Chicago Tribune (CT); Northeast--New York Times (NYT) and Washington Post (WP); South--New Orleans Times-Picayune (NOTP); and West--Los angeles Times (LAT). Two coders reviewed the description of each article listed in the indexes for 1986 and 1987 to determine whether it should be included in the population. An article was included if both coders judged that the article highlighted a person or a group of persons with a disability. The most frequently eliminated articles were those listed under mental illness; these articles typically discussed how a regimen of exercise or biofeedback could reduce stress, anxiety, or depression. We randomly sampled 15% of the article distributed among the newspapers as follows: 39, CT; 32, LAT; 40, NPTP; 46, NYT; 31, WP.

Coding Procedures

The newspaper articles were classified according to the following variables.

1. Issue. Based on a pilot study of a sample of 1986 newspaper articles, 30 issues and one miscellaneous category were developed for classifying the subject matter of each article. Only 20 issues were used in further analysis; the remainder were eliminated because no newspaper covered the issues in 5% or more of its sampled articles.

2. Focus. Each article featured an individual or group of people who may or may not be described as having a disability. Each type of disability mentioned in an article was coded according to Public Law 94-142 terminology. An article was coded as disability--not specified when it described no specific disability but mentioned persons with disabilities in general. Finally, the focus of an article was coded as parents of persons with disabilities or nondisabled persons when these people were the subject of the article.

3. Age. The age of the persons featured in each article was coded into three categories. The age range for the child category was birth to 21 years. The adult category included persons over 21 years of age and those attending an institution of higher learning. Finally, an unspecified category was used when a person with a disability was referred to without an age level and was not designated an elementary or secondary student.

Coders were permitted to check more than one option, if appropriate, for the variables. One graduate student and two faculty members in special education categorized the newspaper articles and checked one another's categorization on 10% of the articles. They reached 97% agreement on whether a category should be checked.


Table 1 presents subject matter that was presented at least 5% of the time in one newspaper. Considerable variation was found in the extent to which particular topics were covered. Five newspapers mentioned the following topics: budget, expenditures, or taxes (16.5% of all sampled articles); housing or normalization (16.0%); and treatment in institutions (13.3%). The budget topic most frequently focused on the costs for developing community-based programs for persons with mental retardation and for providing services through state agencies to persons with emotional handicaps. Articles about treatment in institutions most often criticized the quality of services. Finally, the housing topic was closely related to normalization, in which articles more often discussed the establishment of new community-based homes.

Four newspapers mentioned six topics in more than 5% of the sampled articles: policy making through legislation or court decisions (10.7%), personal story about a disabled person (8.0%), technology (7.5%), employment (6.9%), sports (6.4%), and medical advances (6.4%). Articles about policy making exclusively discussed court decisions; no articles reported legislative action. Personal stories generally portrayed persons with disabilities in heroic terms in which they were able to overcome their disability. No articles discussed use of technology in instruction; rather, the focus was on how technology could enhance prosthetic devices such as hearing aids. Articles about employment were about equally divided between those that discussed job discrimination and those that presented programs designed to prepare persons with disabilities for specific jobs. The success of athletes participating in the Special Olympics was the exclusive content of the sports category. Finally, articles about medical advances discussed a variety of procedures, such as new surgical techniques that ease paralysis or genetic tests to determine whether a fetus may have a particular condition.

Three newspaper mentioned two optics more than 5% of the time: educating nondisabled persons about persons with idsabilities (9.0%) and crimes committed against the disabled (6.4%). Many articles focused on informing the readership about the barriers confornting persons with disabilities. Physical harm was the general theme concerning crimes against the disabled, such as abusive care of disabled persons in group homes.

Finally, two or fewer newspapers discussed nine topics more than 5% of the time. The presentation rate for these topics, however, was less than 5% when all newspapers were considered. Table 1 shows that most of these topics concerned instruction or school-related issues including vocational rehabilitation and parental counseling. Furthermore, these topics were covered primarily by the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Without this newspaper's contribution, school-related topics received almost no coverage.

Table 2 presents the percentage of articles that discussed each of 11 disabilities and two categories representing parents of persons with disabilities and nondisabled persons. Five disabilities were featured more than 10% of the time: mental retardation, 53 times (28.2% of the articles); emotionally disturbed, 45 (23.9%); orthopedically impaired, 39 (20.7%); handicapped--not specified, 32 (17.0%); and hard of hearing/deaf, 21 (11.2%). Persons with learning disabilities were discussed only 4 times (2.1%), almost as infrequently as the persons with deaf/blindness, 2 (1.1%); persons with multiple handicaps were discussed 3 times (1.6%).

For the entire sample, only 18.6% of the articles focused specifically on children, whereas 47.9% featured adults. The unspecified age-level category comprised 33.5% of the sample; these articles discussed persons with disabilities but without stating a particular age or age group, such as child, student, or adult. Other than the categories of disabled--not specified and parents of persons with disabilities, the adult category percentages were higher than those for the child category.


Our sampled newspapers covered a variety of issues concerning persons with disabilities. More important, nine issues appeared to have universal interest to the reporters and readers. In an era of rising public-sector spending, it is not surprising that the issue of budget, expenditures, or taxes heads the list.

However, newspapers reported several issues of current interest to special educators. Almost 30% of the articles reported on the increasing development of community homes for persons with severe disabilities and their appropriate treatment in institutions. Employment issues were presented in terms of court tests challenging the dismissal of persons with disabilities from the workplace and the preparation of adults with physical disabilities for work in computer environments. Nevertheless, no articles discussed the preparation of high school students in special education for the workplace even though this issue has received considerable space in special education journals and is currently an initiative of the U.S. Department of Education and Special Education Programs. Similarly, articles about technology focused on new prosthetic devices, such as hearing aids, but did not mention technology as applied to instructing persons with disabilities.

The lack of articles about instruction is reinforced by the low percentage of articles devoted to this issue. Only two newspapers presented articles about instruction in public schools more than 5% of the time; and only one newspaper, about instruction in private schools. Furthermore, a specific reference to mainstreaming was found in only one newspaper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Perhaps newspaper editors and reporters do not consider articles about special education newsworthy. The 1986-1987 period was one in which the school-effectiveness issue seemed to predominate. Given that regular education serves more students, more attention was probably focused on these students and teachers.

An alternative explanation would be that newspaper editors and reporters are uninformed about what happens in special education. Thus, they are unable to write about special education. One clue to this possibility is that children were specifically cited in less than 20% of the articles; articles about adults were in the majority. Furthermore, children with learning disabilities, the largest category of children with disabilities in schools, were referred to in only 2% of the newspaper articles, whereas persons with mental retardation, exclusively those with severe and profound retardation, were mentioned in 28% of the articles. Similarly, 24% of the articles described adults with emotional disturbance who were generally located in institutions or recently released from institutions (category of emotionally disturbed in Table 2).

How likely to be true is the hypothesis that reporters and editors are uninformed about special education programs? In a follow-up, we asked all reporters whose bylines appeared in our sample of newspaper articles to propose reasons for the small number of special education articles. The response was small, because a large number of reporters no longer worked for the newspapers in which their articles appeared; but several comments reinforce the need for special education professionals to work with newspaper reporters and their editors. A reporter from the New Orleans Times-Picayune stated:

I'd say that in N.O. (New Orleans) such programs do get good coverage in the newspapers. But, personally, I hear about them through third parties, hardly ever from the schools or the system. You do need a "greater effort" to publicize such programs. Which are here that we might pursue?

Another reporter, from the Chicago Tribune, suggested:

The most important key for the future is to build working relationships with the reporters who write about the issues which interest your group. This happens over time and I would encourage you not to give up. Just continue to pitch the stories. Believe me, we are listening.

Finally, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times stated:

In order to increase visibility in newspapers, the network of relatives, counselors, teachers, and others who are concerned about people with mental and physical handicaps have to take the initiative. They must develop story ideas, write up the stories and send them in. Or, at least develop contacts with local papers. It's sad, but true: even this area requires a public relations effort. I think, however, that the newspapers will be responsive.

In short, the interest in special education issues appears high among reporters. The question for special educators is to inform reporters about programs and to lobby editors so that important stories are considered and printed.

This study is a first attempt to determine what issues newspapers present to the public. Although we attempted to select representative newspapers, our sample did not include articles from small-city or rural newspapers or tabloids. The issues presented in those newspapers may be different from those found in our sample. Furthermore, the issues from 1986-1987 may be time bound to this period. They may not represent issues of long-term interest to newspaper editors and their readership. Nevertheless, the present study provides data about what information the public in five large cities currently receives about persons with disabilities. To develop continued support for special education and other programs for persons with disabilities, professionals must reflect on what is communicated not only in the professional literature, but also in more widely read sources such as newspapers.


Austin, J. (Ed.). (1986, 1987). The Times-Picayune: The States-Item. Wooster, OH: U. Microfilms.

Biklen, D. (1987). Framed: Print journalism's treatment of disability issues. In A. Gartner & T. Joe (Eds.), Images of the disabled, disabling images (pp. 79-95). New York: Praeger.

Bogart, L. (1981). Press and public: Who reads what, when, where, and why in American newspapers. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Donaldson, J. (1981). The visibility and image of handicapped people on television. Exceptional Children, 47, 413-416.

Elliot, T. R., & Byrd, E. K. (1982). Media and disability. Rehabilitation Literature, 43, 348-355.

Epstein, E. J. (1981). The selection of reality. In E. Abel (Ed.), What's news: The media in American society (pp. 119-132). San Francisco Institute for Contemporary Studies.

Harris, K. H., & Baskin, B. H. (1987). Evolution of disability characterization in young adult fiction. Educational Horizons, 65, 188-191.

Holmes, H. L., Jr. (Ed.). (1986), 1987). The New York Times index: A book of record. New York: New York Times Company.

Julvezar, J. (Ed.). (1986a), 1987a). Chicago Tribune index. (Vols. 5, 6). Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms.

Julvezar, J. (Ed.). (1986B, 1987b). Los Angeles Times index. (Vols. 3, 4). Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms.

MacMillan, D. L. (1982). Mental retardation in school and society (2nd ed.). boston: Little, Brown.

Margolis, H., & Shapiro, A. (1987). Countering negative images of disability in classical literature. English Journal, 75,(2), 18-22.

National Easter Seal Society. (1981). Portraying persons with disabilities in print. Rehabilitation Literature, 42, 284-285.

Research & Training Center on Independence Living. (1984). Guidelines for reporting and writing about people with disabilities. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas.

Schindler, S. (Ed.). (1986), 1987). The official Washington Post index (Vols. 8, 9). Woodbridge, CT: Research Publications.

Schulte, H. F. (1983). Mass media as vehicles of education, persuasion, and opinion making in the Western world. In L. J. Martin & A. G. Chaudhary (Eds.), Comparative mass media system (pp. 113-146). White Plains, NY: Longman.

Thurer, S. (1980). Disability and monstrosity: A look at literary distortions of handicapping conditions. Rehabilitation Literature, 41, 12-15.

ROLAND K. YOSHIDA is Professor, Department of Educational and Community Programs, Queens College, City University of New York, Flushing.

LYNN WASILEWSKI is Research Associate, Department of Psychological and Educational Services, Fordham University, New York, New York.

DOUGLAS L. FRIEDMAN is Research Director, NACME, Inc., New York, New York.
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Author:Yoshida, Roland K.; Wasilewski, Lynn; Friedman, Douglas L.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Feb 1, 1990
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