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We Need Ethical Standards for Journalists Writing About Autism and Disability

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Sponsor: The Autism Site

As those who help shape public mindset about disabilities, journalists must do better to represent and respect this population.

Tell the Society of Professional Journalism (SPJ) to create a guide for journalists writing about disability.

The way the media portrays disabilities can have a profound effect on the way the rest of the world views them, as many people do not have firsthand experience with them — after all, only about 12.6 percent of the U.S. population has some sort of disability [1] — so the general public must derive their opinions from what they read or hear. That is why journalists need to write about disabled people in the way they want to be portrayed.

Oftentimes, however, the worldwide media is not terribly good at this. Though journalists have certainly improved at covering stories about disability, [2] they sometimes still fall short of writing about it in a way that is respectful, neutral (rather than negative), and humanizing.

For example, people with disabilities who are able to speak for themselves deserve to have their voices heard, but oftentimes their words are treated as an afterthought, if even included at all. News stories often focus on how the parents or caregivers, rather than the individuals themselves, are affected by the disability.

People with disabilities also deserve to be treated like human beings, but the media often treats them more like pets or objects — things that should be treated with love and care but don't really have their own thoughts, feelings, or autonomy. They are infantilized, treated like burdens on families and societies, [3] and portrayed as pitiable creatures that deserve praise for doing average, everyday things (such as graduating from school or holding down a job). They are often characterized by their deficits, which sometimes can be very personal and private (i.e. inability to use the toilet).

Even in cases of filicide, journalists often get things backwards and sympathize with the parents "who killed their child out of 'mercy'" or "snapped under the immense burden of caregiving." [4]

When people read these stories, they may begin to internalize these negative messages and form the subconscious opinion that those with disabilities are sub-human and less worthy of life than "normal" people.

We simply cannot let this happen.

The Society of Professional Journalism (SPJ) is an organization that, in part, strives "to stimulate high standards and ethical behavior in the practice of journalism." [5] As part of that, they have a Code of Ethics that gives guidance to journalists. We believe that this organization should include guidelines on writing ethically about disability. Doing this may lead more journalists to cover it the way they should: with respect.


[1] Lu, W. (2017, September 5). What journalists can do better to cover the disability beat. Retrieved January 12, 2018, from https://www.cjr.org/the\_feature/journalism-disability-beat.php

[2] Rosa, S. D. (2013). Autism in the Media: Stop with the Awful Stories! Retrieved January 12, 2018, from http://www.sheknows.com/community/parenting/autism-media-stop-awful-autism-stories

[3] Lohr, D. (2017, March 15). How Murder Victims With Disabilities Get Blamed For Their Own Deaths. Retrieved January 12, 2018, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/murder-victims-disabilities-mercy-killings\_us\_58bd5abfe4b05cf0f401b603

[4] SPJ Missions - Society of Professional Journalists. (n.d.). Retrieved January 12, 2018, from https://www.spj.org/mission.asp

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The Petition:

Dear Society of Professional Journalism,

We believe that the press has immense power in our society. The simple act of stringing together words to form a story can do an incredible amount of good in our world...but it also has the potential to do just the opposite.

For too long now, journalism has been unintentionally harming some of the most overlooked individuals in our society: those with disabilities. Through subtle word choices and overarching tone, people with disabilities have been portrayed as burdens, sets of deficits, and objects of pity or inspiration for doing nothing out of the ordinary (called "inspiration porn").

Private details about their lives such as bathroom habits get published, especially when the individuals in question are children or intellectually disabled. Even when these individuals can speak for themselves, journalists often ignore their voices, opting to interview and quote parents and caregivers, instead.

Even worse, rather than expressing outrage when these individuals are killed by their caregivers, journalists often express sympathy toward the murderers who "snapped under the unbearable burden of caregiving."

In short, journalists have not been treating individuals with disabilities as fully human. They have been ignoring the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

As a prominent organization that guides journalists on doing their job ethically, we believe that you are in a prime position to help us change this.

According to your website, you are currently in the process of writing a guide on how to cover suicide. We applaud this effort and ask that you would consider creating a similar guide on how to cover disability.

Guidelines could include use of neutral rather than negative language (e.g. "has disability" instead of "suffers from disability"), guidance on when to use person-first ("with disability") versus identity-first ("disabled") language, and encouragement to implement the Golden Rule when writing about people with disabilities. For further guidance, we recommend turning to resources like the National Center on Disability and Journalism, as well as people with disabilities themselves, such as organizations like the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network.

With these guidelines in place, we believe that journalists across the nation will be empowered to cover disability issues ethically, respectfully, and confidently. As a result, they will help mold the public opinion about disability, changing the narrative from negative, fear-based, and patronizing to one that highlights the humanity, dignity, and individuality of disabled people.

Thank you for your consideration.


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