Where is that reporter with disability?

August 28, 2017

In the last few decades, there has been considerable progress in the diversity of news reporters on our TV screens. First, it was the inclusion of more women and then people from diverse cultural backgrounds. The missing group has been people with disability. Will we experience a change with the expansion of reporters with disability? And if we do, how far will it go?

Few reporters with disability

A quick search across the world shows that reporters with disability are thin on the ground. As usual, the main drivers of change and inclusion have been British channels.

Two standouts are Nikki Fox and Sophie Morgan.

Fox is the more established, with a coveted BBC news reporting role, although she is the disability news reporter, so still pushed into a role that reflects disability, rather than a mainstream reporting job. 

Similarly, Morgan has had reporting roles on current affairs program The One Show and science show Horizon, but her Channel 4 News reporting role is for the No Go Britain series which examines accessibility and transport issues for the disabled. She also became a key presenter of the Paralympics coverage.

The closest thing we have to a real mainstream role is in weather reporting with the BBC’s Lucy Martin appearing on the screens presenting regional weather.

What about Australia?

Although Australian television networks have embraced female and culturally diverse news reporters (with SBS an overwhelming torch bearer), the only identified reporter with disability is ABC radio JJJ’s Nas Campanella.

Why does it matter?

Aside from basic arguments around our reporters reflecting the make-up of society, when it comes to disability, two things stand out:

  1. Showing reporters with disability as active people engaging in mainstream jobs, with skills, opinions and creativity that is not focused on disability. This impacts on both their work colleagues and the audiences who watch the programs.
  2. Bringing a different perspective to disability reporting through their lived experience and a broader understanding of disability issues.

Is it just about disability reporting?

Having reporters with disability can bring a different perspective and a lack of bias towards disability issues because of their lived experience of disability. This can be a significant issue in news reporting. An in-depth American study that looked at media reporting of murders of people with disability showed an obvious drift towards disability stereotypes, particularly around people with disability being a burden on others and objects of pity.

However, that issue can also be addressed through better education and training of journalists. The new project at Queensland’s Griffith University Open Doors is aiming to do just that by exposing journalism students to disability issues and bias in the portrayal of people with disability.

What steps are being taken?

The real opportunities are created when television networks and production companies actively recruit people with disability into production, reporting and editorial roles. The effect is twofold:

  1. The inclusion of people with disability in the production team brings different perspectives and ideas to all reporting, not just those items about disability issues.
  2. Having people with disability training as on-camera presenters increase the likelihood of them presenting and reporting on general news, not just disability issues. This reflects the expected outcomes of having greater diversity in the production and presentation teams at television networks.

The UK (once again) has the most comprehensive approach through the Creative Diversity Network (CDN) and its Diamond program. CDN was started 5 years ago as a broader diversity strategy (including disability) aimed at improving representation and inclusion of diversity in production, editorial and management. The Diamond program started this year.

Australia is making significant progress with an essential first step of the very recent announcement of the creation of the Screen Diversity and Inclusion Network, modelling itself on CDN. It is very early days, but the wide range of producers and networks that have signed up gives hope that more disability inclusion can be achieved.

What is the ultimate goal?

Just like having women news reporters or reporters with non-Anglo names is no big shock to most people these days, can the same happen with reporters with disability? The diversity initiatives outlined above, if properly funded and followed through, should play a major role in helping this transition.

We would really like to get them away from just reporting on disability issues and into mainstream reporting. The same could be said for the people who are interviewed too. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for a (say) blind reporter interviewing a wheelchair user about Australia’s push to be a republic or seeking their thoughts on renewal energy targets?

Alex Varley, CEO

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