Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Increase in negative press coverage of disability

The amount of negative reporting of disability issues and people with disabilities in print media has increased significantly in the past 6 years, a study has found.

The report, ‘Bad News for Disabled People: how newspapers are reporting disability’, commissioned by disability equality organisation Inclusion London, compared print media articles from 2004/5 and 2010/11 and found a reduction in the proportion of articles that describe disabled people in sympathetic and deserving terms. Additionally, researchers found that stories that document ‘real life’ experiences of living as a disabled person also decreased. People with mental health issues and other ‘hidden’ impairments are more likely to be presented as ‘undeserving’, they found. Meanwhile, the number of articles focusing on disability benefit fraud increased from 2.8% in 2004/5 to 6.1% in 2010/11. Allied to this, a significant increase in the use of pejorative language to describe disabled people was found. The use of terms such as ‘scrounger’, ‘cheat’ and ‘skiver’ was found in 18% of articles in 2010/11 compared to 12% in 2004/5.

Professor Nick Watson of Strathclyde Centre for Disability at the University of Glasgow, which conducted the study alongside the University’s Glasgow Media Group, said: “This report provides a strong body of evidence to suggest there has been a significant change in the way that disability is being reported in much of the press in the UK today. “Much of the coverage in the tabloid press is at best questionable and some of it is deeply offensive. The increased focus on benefit fraud, with outlandish claims that over 70% of people on disability benefits are frauds, is an example of this type of reporting. “The increased pejorative coverage of disability may have a long-term effect and further work will be need to monitor this. “In addition to the content analysis we also ran some focus groups to see what people thought about the way that the media is covering disability. When the focus groups were asked to describe a typical story in the newspapers disability benefit fraud was the most popular theme mentioned. Participants in the focus groups all claimed that levels of fraud were very much higher than they are in reality, with some suggesting that up to 70% of claimants were fraudulent. They justified these claims by reference to articles they had read in newspapers.”

Anne Kane, policy manager at Inclusion London, said: “The findings of this research will strike a deep chord with disabled people who have to live with the daily reality of offensive, hate-filled and false media coverage – coverage that is becoming more offensive in rhythm with the savage impact of government spending cuts on disabled people. “The disabled people questioned in the study said they felt threatened by the changes in the way disability is being (mis)reported and by the planned cuts to benefits – with these two assaults combining and reinforcing each other. This points to the action that needs to be taken: a stop to cuts that threaten more isolation and poverty and a stop to media coverage that stigmatises and breeds fear.”

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