Research into media portrayal of disability murders reveal stereotypes

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Image: A television reporter interviews an American police office at a crime scene

A major American research study lead by David Perry, disability rights journalist and history professor, reviewed media coverage of murders of people with disabilities and found that the reporting of these usually fall quickly into the use of disability stereotypes. They often justify murders as “justified” or “mercy killings” and ignore the humanity of the disabled victims.

Report contributor Zoe Gross said that “those kind of murders (of disabled people) are more justified than others… as a common-sense belief. And this is reflected in media coverage without any challenge…”

Commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation, Murder coverage of people with disabilities by their caregivers is an analysis of the media reporting of over 200 murder cases involving people with disabilities in North America between 2011-2015. 66 different deaths were analysed in more detail through 101 media reports.

How the murders were reported

The general results show that 57 of the reports presented neutral, “facts-only” reporting with little speculation as to the experience of the victims or motivations of the killers. 29 showed the motivations of the killers and 15 provided information on the lives of the victims.

The reporting of motivations overwhelmingly portrayed the stereotype of “disability as a burden”. 16 stories clearly suggested that the murder was to end the victim’s suffering, with no evidence of a request to die from the victim. 14 of the stories said that difficulty providing care was a justification for murder.  A suggestion that the killer was disabled was suggested in 10 of the stories, usually a cognitive disability, as a way of explaining the murder.

For the authors of the report, the most confounding issue was the lack of interest in seeking information about disability. None of the stories quoted anybody with a disability as part of the reporting and none reviewed violence against people with disabilities in a broader context.

The problems with portrayal

Quoted in a Rewire interview on the study, the authors said that the “mercy killings” narrative was routinely used. “I was very shocked by how the media portrayed the mothers and caregivers as heroes… did not go to the disability community to get their take.”

The authors said that journalists often don’t start with the idea that the disabled person who was murdered was a person. There is a move to quickly look at justifications: a lack of support or services, or the disabled person being “difficult” and the carers were “nice neighbours”.

“There are families… that don’t have enough access to services. But the vast majority of them don’t murder or abuse their children,” said Zoe Gross.

Findings point to broader issues in media portrayal

The authors said that the reporting shows larger failings in coverage of people with disability:

  • Dehumanisation where everyone but disabled people are asked about what happened and their opinions. This includes focussing on the perpetrators and humanising them, rather than the victims.
  • Moving to sensationalism, rather than looking at broader context. For an individual reporter that may rarely deal with a story about disability they don’t seek more information from expert professionals or disability advocacy organisations about the broader patterns, but tend to assume that it is a one-off or sensationalist pattern.
  • Seeking out causes rather than focussing on the murder victims. This is where the disabled person’s life is devalued and the conclusion of the reporting is that lack of services, support or funding inevitably “caused” the murder.

The study provides four recommendations of best practice for reporters to follow:

1.       Tell victim-centred stories where the focus is not on the killer’s view of the victim, but through investigating the victim’s life, interests, situation.

2.       Talk to experts in disability to get proper context and to see a bigger picture.

3.       Challenge the claims of the defence to see if they are accurate and whether prosecutors are treating the cases in the same way as non-disabled victims.

4.       Provide context, especially that killing of disabled children is rare and disabled people are not a burden.

Related content

The Australian industry association Free TV created an Advisory note on the portrayal of people with disabilities.

An opinion piece by Attitude Foundation CEO Alex Varley outlines why the Foundation is going to make a TV series allowing people with disabilities to tell their own stories.


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