Editorial: What news is news?

Disabilities, special ed, and related terms appear often in the news. I wonder what counts as "news."

Recently, a post by Laura McKenna about her sons attending a prom made a splash on the Internet. It’s wonderful that her kids did what they did. Dang nice work, y’all. You both took a high road…and you look great in the photos!

If one reads her local newspaper or listens to his local TV or radio station, one can find many similar stories. Seach the Internet about “special education” and “disabilities” and you’ll find lots of “news” reports.

What is the “news” about individuals with disabilities? The focus of the “news” intrigues me. What stories are news readers and hearers getting? Are there patterns to the coverage? Are the stories sympathetic? Excessivly sympathetic? Fawning? Pandering? Researchers have actully studied what’s published about individuals with disabilites, and the findings are instructive…more later.

Here are a few (quasi-randomly selected) examples of recent posts:

Each of these examples, and I know there are many others (please refer to them in the comments), have positive features. Plain news, human interest, and so forth. Yay! But the point is, what do these media representations “say” about individuals with disabilities?

What I’d like to see is a dispassiontate examination about how individuals with disabilities are portrayed in the popular press, in the media. This is a meta-analysis waiting to be conducted; to be sure, it’s not a “literature review.” It should be a systematically coded examination of popular media. Who is represented how and what happens to them…for starters.

Some folks (see references for a couple of examples; there are others) have examined how people with disabilities are represented in the media. I think we all should think long and hard about this topic.

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Keller, C. E., Hallahan, D. P., McShane, E. A., Crowley, E. P., & Blandford, B. J. (1990). The coverage of persons with disabilities in American newspapers. The Journal of Special Education24(3), 271-282. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/002246699002400302

Safran, S. P. (1998). The first century of disability portrayal in film: An analysis of the literature. The Journal of Special Education31(4), 467-479.

Samsel, M., & Perepa, P. (2013). The impact of media representation of disabilities on teachers' perceptions. Support for Learning28(4), 138-145.

Zhang, L., & Haller, B. (2013). Consuming image: How mass media impact the identity of people with disabilities. Communication Quarterly61(3), 319-334.