Image: (from left to right) Griffith University Deputy Vice Chancellor (Engagement) Professor Martin Betts, Queensland Anti-Discrimination Commissioner Kevin Cocks AM, Professor Lesley Chenoweth, Pro Vice Chancellor and Head Logan Campus, Assistant Minister for Disability Services Jane Prentice MP, Griffith University journalist-in-residence Nance Haxton, Disability Discrimination Commissioner Alastair McEwin and journalism lecturer Faith Valencia-Forrester.
Journalists sometimes bring unrealised bias to the way that they report, usually formed by their experience, worldview and upbringing. This problem has been recognised by Queensland’s Griffith University which has commenced a ground breaking research and teaching project to change the way that people living with disability, their families, carers and supporters are represented in the media.
The project is known as Open Doors, and is an initiative of the university’s Journalism Program. The Attitude Foundation talked to project convenor Faith Valencia-Forrester about the project:
What drove the creation of Project Open Doors?
It started with ABC and Griffith journalist-in-residence Nance Haxton offering our students the opportunity to do some interviews with people with disabilities.
When I received Nance's email I thought 'I know exactly what to do here!'
Rather than just have some students do some interviews, here was an opportunity to actually make a difference. Based on an advocacy journalism project, Project Safe Space that I ran in 2015 piloting wise practice in journalism education, where graduate journalism students addressed media reporting of domestic violence. I thought we could adopt the same model and make a difference in the way media approached reporting of issues affecting people with lived experience of disability.
What does Project Open Doors do?
In the short term Project Open Doors is a form of practice based- research, (an original investigation undertaken to gain new knowledge) and the outcome is a purpose built news site featuring a body of strength based reporting. Students will source a story, investigate that story and produce a body of reporting around disability and through their practice gain a deeper level of understanding and insight into the way the issues are reported, and the role they play as journalists in reporting these issues.
They will hopefully critically engage with these issues and go a little deeper than they might in a normal university assignment. The outcome is their by-line is featured next to that story, so they have more responsibility around the quality of their work. Even if they have a shift in their approach and understanding around disability, then I will consider the project a success.
In the long term, by utilising a wise practice approach to reporting disability, these future journalists and media communicators will bring their deeper level of insight and understanding into their professional practice that will hopefully contribute to the change we are seeking.
What are the problems with the current reporting of disability by journalists?
For me, it is the invisibleness of disability. Until I actively engaged in this reporting project, I just didn't really notice how disability was separate and not included. It was only by actually looking at how to address it, did I become aware that it just wasn't part of mainstream reporting.
Other people at the launch had other interesting perspectives. For example, Federal Disability Discrimination Commissioner Alastair McEwin said, "For the most part, the mainstream media reflects the perspective of non disabled people about what it is like to have a disability.”
“What we rarely see is… the authentic portrayal of people with disability and how they interact with the world around them."
Professor Lesley Chenoweth AO expanded on Alastair's comments and referred to, "Tom Shakespeare another disability scholar and indeed a person with lived experience of lived disability says the dominant… one dimensional and simplistic that we simply don’t get the complexities, the nuances, the variations of being human. We just get the person and the impairment."
Chairperson of Queensland Disability Network Nigel Webb called out the media on their approach and says that rather than "sensationalise a fact or bias about an issue" that, "Media must dispel the myth of other, being seen as pity or charity, I am a contributor."
Queensland Anti-Discrimination Commissioner Kevin Cocks made another important point, "we do not get to tell our story. It is someone else who has a vested interest to tell a story to promote their vested interest."
How is Project Open Doors integrated into the journalism studies program at Griffith?
We place a lot of emphasis on work-integrated learning in our journalism faculty and authenticity is integral to the specialised, on-campus courses we teach. We are in a unique position that we can, and do, ensure our students engage in journalism beyond the mere practice of journalism. If we can afford a rich learning experience that has meaning and impact beyond the class room, that has our students out in the field engaging with the community and doing good work well then we will do what we can to facilitate that as best we can. I am very lucky to have a supportive leadership that gets behind these ideas.
Where do you source your expertise to cover issues around disability portrayal?
Like with Project Safe Space, for Project Open Doors we go to the people who work on the front line in this space and ask for guidance. Endeavour Foundation, Queensland Disability Network, Sporting Wheelies, Deaf Services Queensland, Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland, Advocacy Incorporated, Inclusion Moves, Speaking Up For You, and even our own Griffith Student Support Services have all been incredibly supportive and generous with their wisdom.
Federal Disability Discrimination Commissioner Alastair McEwin getting involved was important. I always try to ensure government agencies are engaged because these initiatives don't happen in a vacuum and policy is where real change is implemented, and Federal Assistant Minister Disability and Social Services Jane Prentice was an important supporter.
What do you ultimately hope to achieve through Project Open Doors?
If we see a change in the way disability is reported in the media to an inclusive, strength-based model then that is the ultimate goal but it goes beyond just that. I have learned so much through this exercise and my perspective has definitely changed. If these journalism students have a perception shift to be more aware and inclusive, and take that into their professional practice and guide those work places, then that is what I ultimately hope will happen.
A transcription of the launch is available on the Project Open Doors website.