For the 107th episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Ken Ward, researcher Joy Jenkins describes how the language used in news media to describe people with disabilities has changed through the case of a 1977 protest in support of civil rights regulations.
Joy Jenkins is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee. Her research has focused on the influence of market concerns on journalists’ public service roles and the potential of journalistic narratives to spur civic engagement.
Joy Jenkins: It’s really important to see how disability is represented in different types of media because that’s often how we understand the world.
Ken Ward: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. And together we’re professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history.
Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.
For more than a century, the college has educated students to relentlessly pursue the art, science, and integrity of stories. They’re committed to following First Amendment principles in a digital-first environment as they prepare democracy’s next generation.
The news media have a habit of presenting certain topics and events in the same way over and over again. It’s often unintentional and it’s often benign, but with certain topics and certain groups, those templates can have adverse effects such as delegitimizing causes or marginalizing groups.
Discussing this with me today is Dr. Joy Jenkins, assistant professor in the University of Tennessee Knoxville’s School of Journalism and Electronic Media. Joy explains the problematic language the media historically used when covering people with disabilities and relates that to a 1977 protest in which roughly 150 disabled activists demanded enforcement of civil rights regulations.
Along the way, Joy provides advice for today’s journalists on how to avoid falling into the same old routines. Joy, welcome to the show. Now this seems like an under-researched topic, representations of people with disabilities in the media, in historical research as well. And oftentimes that’s just because I’m not that, you know, well read.
I always am hesitant to ask that, but it seems to me this topic doesn’t get as much research as you might expect. Why is that? And is that, is that even accurate in the first place?
Joy Jenkins: Yeah, no, that’s absolutely accurate. And it’s definitely a really important area to consider just the broad scope of disability representations in media. You know, there are books and there are studies and there are case studies, in particular movies and shows and things like that, and also some historical looks at how disability representations have evolved, particularly in mainstream film and things like that.
But I would say disability representations in news in particular is certainly an understudied area and one that we need more investigation into because there are so many important kind of watershed events in the disability rights movement. There’s opportunities to look at this historically and to see how news coverage of people with disabilities has evolved, how it’s changed, how the language has changed, and also what it looks like now and being able to put all of that into context.
I’m not sure, you know, exactly why it is this under-researched. I think part of it is just, when we look at minority groups, disability does often fly under the radar. It’s a massive minority group in the U.S. and around the world, and one that continue to grow. A lot of us, probably most of us, have been touched by disability in some way.
And so it’s a really important one to consider but sometimes flies under the radar when we look at certain types of representation that tend to be studied. And it’s also one that has a lot of interconnection. So, disability touches race and gender and class and sexual identity and other types of groups as well. And so there’s a lot of potential to really see how all those things come together and understand what it’s looked like in terms of journalistic coverage.
Ken Ward: So, you mentioned that other research that has been done – at least some work has been done on a representation of people with disabilities in the news media. What are some of those, paint with a broad brush here, what has the other research found in terms of how this group is represented in the media?
Joy Jenkins: Yeah, absolutely. So you know, one of the important things to recognize and that I’ve seen referenced in several studies looking at disability representation is the fact that media depiction of disability really plays a key role in the social construction of disability, and more importantly how we perceive it and how we perceive disabled people. So, it’s a really important part of culture.
It’s really important to see how disability is represented in different types of media because that’s often how we understand the world is through seeing it represented in media. So, that’s the reason why a lot of scholars have looked at this. I think one of the particular takeaways from research on disability in media is the various stereotypes that have emerged and become really, really common and recognizable.
There are several common ones. There’s – this is something we see in mainstream films in particular that portray characters with disabilities is these savants who are very brave and courageous and special and brilliant. We think about, you know, a character like Forrest Gump or something like that, where their disability is, you know, firmly entrenched with that idea. We also see themes around pathology, so the need to cure the disability or people with disabilities living in isolation or living in institutions or being cared for and becoming kind of a burden to the able-bodied people who are caring for them.
In some cases that goes even further to say that it’s better to be dead than disabled, and we see themes of euthanasia, like in films, like Me Before You and The Sea Inside and others like that. And so, and a lot of those are very firmly connected with this medical model of disability. This idea that it’s this individual issue that needs to be fixed in some way and then that person can somehow be integrated in society.
But there are others, too. There are the idea that somebody that’s disabled is superhuman. There’s actually a stereotype called the super crip where they kind of overcome enormous odds to be successful, which of course that suggests that the only way to be disabled or admired as a disabled person is that you overcome this like massive challenge, which isn’t the day-to-day life, you know, of most disabled people.
We also see those with intellectual disabilities perceived as, as innocents that help us to understand life better or infantilized in media depictions, or even when we look at mental illness as a menace to society – we see villains who have mental illness and that’s something there’s no empathy there. And so a lot of research has really honed in on those stereotypes, where they came from, how they’re perpetuated, the different type of media they’re present in, and then really trying to just raise awareness and break those down so that when we come across them as media consumers, or, you know, as journalists or potential journalists, we can make sure to not contribute to that problem.
Ken Ward: Well, and I’ll be interested to hear how those appeared in your own research and whether you identified those same, those same frames in your own work. Before we turn to your specific case though, there’s one other topic that comes up in your research that there’s some preexisting research on, and that is this idea of how, how protest is covered, this thing you refer to as the protest paradigm. Can you talk a little bit about that and how protest tends to be covered in the news media? I think this is a topic that’s received a little bit more attention in the literature. Is that right?
Joy Jenkins: Absolutely. Yeah. There’s been a lot of research on this over the last many decades, and I thought that was something that was really important to address for this particular chapter in that we’re looking at a group of disabled activists who were engaging in a demonstration that drew a lot of media attention. And so the protest paradigm looks at that idea. It basically considers mainstream media coverage of protests. So, like, we might see newspapers on local TV news or national TV news, or radio.
This idea, as McLeod and Hertog put it, there’s this implicit template for the coverage of social protest. And so there’s been a lot of scholarship looking at this in terms of looking at textual analysis or content analysis of protests coverage in the news to see what are those common characteristics that tend to define it. And so, it’s things like focusing specifically on lawlessness and violence, focusing more on the protesters themselves than on their goals and what they’re trying to achieve.
Looking at internal dissent within the organization or the group that’s protesting, looking at public frustration with the protest or how it’s disrupting life and emphasis on quoting official sources or talking about the negative implications that protests are having, whether that’s, you know, damage to businesses around it or other types of disruptions that might happen in a community.
And so, these have been identified over multiple studies and multiple examples of demonstrations and protests over different types of media and have really become kind of common recognizable facets when we see these protests covered, covered in the news. And so, that was something I wanted to look at. So, how was this demonstration?
Were there elements of it that represented or reinforced the protest paradigm? What kind? When we look at all the different types of protests related to gender and race and sexual identity and class and other types, which one does the disability protest coverage mostly resemble was an important question to look at. And also, what types of framing is there? Was the protest delegitimized trivialized, legitimized? What’s going on there? And so it seemed like a helpful framework for looking at this case in particular.
Ken Ward: Yeah, it’s definitely an interesting constellation of questions that you have there. So, so take us to 1977, right? What is this event that transpired in 1977 that your research focused on?
Joy Jenkins: Yeah, so I looked at a demonstration that occurred, as you said, in spring 1990, spring 1977. Um, and this was a group of around 150 disabled activists, and these activists had various types of disabilities. Some were blind, some were wheelchair users, some were deaf or hard of hearing, muscular dystrophy, mental disabilities. There was really a wide range of people who came together.
And basically, they were protesting and raising awareness about Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which said that federally funded programs could not discriminate against people based on disability. And so, basically for – like Section 504 had gone, you know, into practice, but it hadn’t actually, none of those regulations had actually been enforced.
And so years had gone by. This was there. I mean, this really important aspect of the Rehabilitation Act, but nothing had actually gone into practice. And so these activists were really frustrated and they didn’t want any more time to go by. Also, this worry that if there was more work done on it that the regulations would be watered down to an extent that they wouldn’t be useful or even helpful to the disabled community anymore.
And so basically, protesters in San Francisco, which is the demonstration I particularly focused on, took up residence in the health education and welfare office. And then others were stationed in HEW buildings around the country, and they were calling on lawmakers to finally enforce Section 504, and basically, they set a deadline and said, “We’re going to stay here. We’re going to camp out here. We’re going to make our voices known until you actually put these regulations into practice so that they can benefit us, can actually give us the civil rights that we’re due as American citizens.”
Ken Ward: So, without getting too deep into the details, how did you go about researching this, right? What newspapers did you look at? Or I assume it was newspapers. I guess that’s not – I’m taking that for granted.
Joy Jenkins: Yeah. So yeah, I looked at newspapers. So I did a textual analysis of news articles published in U.S. newspapers specifically on the San Francisco sit-in, but I also looked at coverage of some of the other sit-ins that were going around that were going on around the country that didn’t last as long as the San Francisco one. So I looked at articles published between April 5 and May 1, 1977, which was roughly the months when the sit-in was occurring in San Francisco.
That led me to an initial sample of 42 news articles. I’m going to keep looking and digging in other archives to see if I can find more, but they were published across California news outlets, as well as other national news sources including the Los Angeles Times as well as the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe UPI, Associated Press, kind of a range of outlets.
It was a mix of articles, some kind of small blips, just talking about, you know, the sit-in has ended or, you know, the code was signed and two more longer kind of deep dives into why the demonstrators were there, what their goals were, some of the challenges they faced in even being part of a sit-in, some of the responses they got, so there’s kind of a mix of links and approaches to the coverage of this event.
Ken Ward: So, what did you find when you got in there? Uh, and we can turn and look specifically about those things that we were discussing earlier, but first, just broadly, what did you find? What stood out to you about the coverage?
Joy Jenkins: Yeah, I mean, there were certainly elements and these were our initial findings and we’ll continue to dig in, but certainly elements of the protest paradigm that were evident in this coverage. And so, you look at these articles and you definitely see this emphasis on responses from official sources.
In this case it’s politicians, so it’s Joseph Califano, who was President Carter’s HEW secretary, and was the one that was really being pushed and impressed upon to enact this Section 504. And so, it was a mix of, you know, quotes from him speaking to the demonstrators or kind of official responses or letters that came from his office. Things like that. And there were other politicians involved with this that were quoted pretty regularly across the coverage.
But then there was also many articles that tried to balance those you know, “official” sources with demonstrators’ voices. And so, we saw pretty recognizable people in the disability rights movement, like Judy Heumann and Dr. Frank Bowe and others who – it’s interesting ‘cause when you look into how they talk about and describe their efforts to organize this protest and to organize their response to it –
I found an article from Kitty Cone who was involved with it, who said that the people, the demonstrators identified particular spokespeople. They had a media committee that focused on this that they put forward to speak to journalists, and it was evident because those three in particular were quoted pretty frequently in terms of establishing the aims.
Um, but when we look at the protest paradigm, as I mentioned, it tends to reinforce more dramatic elements of protests, and that was something that was here. So references to science, to chanting, to yelling at officials, to the conditions of sleeping in offices, to the fact that there was a lack of food. And so some of the demonstrators were having to leave because there was fear of starvation. They didn’t have the meals they needed, and so evidence of those kinds of more dramatic spectacle elements were there.
But when we’re looking at disability coverage, it was interesting because that was also conflated with describing the accessibility equipment is something that was kind of a spectacle. So bringing in big vans and people with wheelchairs getting out, ‘cause that was the only way they could travel to the protest site, to sign language interpreters, seeing-eye dogs, and those were framed as additional dramatic elements.
You know, it was kind of interesting. So, very much othering those people. Also saw some cases of patronizing and infantilizing language, which also serves to kind of other the protestors, which is evidence in the protest paradigm as well as in disability representation. So, talking about people as handicapped, maimed, somebody having a white cane in hand, a man who had never heard his own voice ‘cause he was a deaf person. Um, but he was more fortunate than other people at the table who were less able bodied than he was.
Describing all the different disabilities. In one case, a journalist said that people were speaking with their hands, but they put speaking in quote marks, which was, you know, kind of an interesting approach to framing that. So, so that was very evident as well. And then lastly, many of the articles focused on – they talked about the demonstrators and their goals, but they also leaned heavily on the cost to institutions and actually enacting these regulations.
So university schools and libraries, other public buildings having to become accessible. There’s an emphasis on the cost of that, the problem of that, you know, what a burden that’s going to put on those institutions. And so, that’s something that can contribute to delegitimizing what the activists are trying to do.
Ken Ward: Interesting. So, do you think these representations have changed at all since this era? Was this, the things you’re finding, do you think they’re unique to this event or are they still present in our media today?
Joy Jenkins: I would say it’s kind of a mix. So definitely the language of it has advanced. You’re not going to see the word “maimed” in a headline, hopefully. And also just more of a recognition of how important language is with disability representation. This is something that AP style has continued to develop their guidelines for. There’s other, you know, various guides to disability reporting that talk about, you know, don’t say crippled, handicapped, you know?
Those are words that are out of favor, confined to a wheelchair, those types of things, and in particular, just the value of talking to the disabled person and asking them, you know, what they want to be referred to as. And so, there’s a lot more conversation about that now, and you see that generally reflected in news coverage and also yeah, not talking about the various accessibility aids is something that’s kind of a spectacle or dramatic or something like, “People are talking with their hands. Wow. Like we’ve never seen anything like that before.”
I think there’s been more of a normalization of that, but there are still issues. Stereotypes are still present for disabled folks. Coverage of disabled people does often fall into certain categories when we see them represented in news coverage. So, those things are still there, and we still see this emphasis when we have demonstrations on official sources, the dramatic elements focusing more on the demonstrators than on the cause and giving them space to articulate what they need and what they’re asking for and what it’ll look like if it’s achieved.
And so, some of those aspects of protest coverage, I think we still see fairly regularly and there is a need to continue talking about how disabled people are represented and how can we as journalists and journalism students do a better job.
Ken Ward: Well, so you just addressed one of my big questions. And so, I’d invite you if there’s anything that you haven’t already said on this to add it here. I wondered what advice you might have to today’s journalists, and, but, but I also want to know, is there anything that historians can learn from, from what you’ve been talking about here in your research, right? Those are two groups that, you know, most of our, most of our audience can find themselves in one of those two groups, either as a student or professional. What would you advise those two groups to do based on all of this?
Joy Jenkins: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think the big thing, as I’ve mentioned is avoid stereotypes. Recognize what they are, recognize what they look like, recognize how prevalent they tend to be in news coverage and avoid and push back on those.
Just, you know, that’s just a matter of students and professors. We can all educate ourselves better on that. Talking to disabled people, talking to disabled people for a range of types of stories, a range of types of topics and focusing on the full person, recognizing that a person is not their, just their disability. There’s various other identity factors that, that shape who that person is, and that are important to reference and to take into consideration.
Also thinking about wording. We talked about language, ensuring when we’re talking to disabled people that we’re giving them space, we’re hearing them out, we’re asking them how they want to be referred to and what it is that’s important to them to represent in that coverage and representing that as accurately and fully as we possible possibly can. All that’s really important. Also thinking about headlines, thinking about photo choices, thinking about how all that contributes to how people are perceiving the disabled population in the event that we’re covering them for.
So, all of that goes hand in hand, and it’s really important that we avoid stereotypes, you know, across the board. Um, and so for historians, I think it’s really important to recognize that the, there, this is one of many really important kind of defining moments in the disability rights movement. There, there are several. There’s news coverage attached to all of them up through the ADA and even more recently.
And so taking time to really dig into these cases, to dig into these events, to look at coverage, how coverage of disabled people has evolved over, over many, many decades, looking where stories are missing and perspectives are missing, and how has that shaped how we view history and how we view this group? Um, and so this is just tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more that we can dig into and really use that to help us understand how we perceive the disabled community now as a result.
Ken Ward: Sure. Well, Joy, I have one last question for you. It’s one we pose to all of our guests and that is why does journalism history matter?
Joy Jenkins: Journalism history matters because everything that we see and do in terms of the journalism industry in terms of producing journalism, understanding as consumers, training future journalists, all of that is shaped by history. There is a context and there is a past for everything that we do and experience now, and understanding that past is vital to knowing where we are and where we’re going.
And really recognizing the value of journalism in society, how it affects people, how representations in journalism matter. Um, there is a long past history there and understanding that is so important so that we can do good work as journalists and as professors and as people who are studying it.
Ken Ward: Absolutely. Well, Joy that’s all the time that we have, but I want to thank you one more time for being on the show. I enjoyed our conversation.
Joy Jenkins: Thank you. I enjoyed it very much, too. I appreciate it.
Ken Ward: Well, that’s it for this episode. Thanks for tuning in and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter @Jhistoryjournal. That’s all one word. Until next time, I’m your host Ken Ward signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. Good night and good luck.