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How well are journalists covering poverty and disability? 

EDITOR”S NOTE: This story is the first of a two part series regarding the coverage of poverty and disability. Keep an eye out for the other installment which includes work from five more students.

The AP Stylebook is an authoritative reference book for journalists, but over the years, journalists have provided additional resources in topical issues to augment its guidance. Two recent additions are Covering Poverty: What to avoid and how to get it right, published in The Journalist’s Resource, and  the Disability Language Style Guide, published by the National center on Disability and Journalism.  

Students in Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin’s Intro to Journalism class studied these guides and then reached out to people with on-the-ground experiences with poverty and/or disability to gain their insights into how accurately and sensitively the news media covers people in those groups, and what they can do better. Here’s what they learned. 

Former OG/GYN nurse Jeanne McCormick experienced homelessness after a workplace injury. |Courtesy of Jeanne McCormick

Address Root Causes 

By Andrea Bates 

Jeanne McCormick, 68, a former OB/GYN nurse in Minneapolis, experienced being homeless after a workplace knee injury caused her to lose her job. She is sensitive about the way homeless people are sometimes portrayed in news stories. “Journalists can most certainly change the way the public views them,” McCormick said. “Journalists should avoid highlighting the begging behaviors and drug addiction stereotype on our homeless population because in reality, not all homeless people fall into those categories.”  

McCormick is especially bothered by stories that don’t address the ways people become homeless, which include injuries and job loss as well as complications in family life. “If they would start to share more homeless people’s stories, and how they got there, I think the public will start to see them in a different light,” she said.  

Gabi Pelayo is the co-president of Varying Visions, an organization created to help students with disabilities at Columbia College Chicago. |Courtesy of Gabi Pelayo

Don’t Lump Everyone Together 

By Cassidy Casanova 

Gabi Pelayo, 20, of Hoffman Estates is the co-president of Varying Visions, an organization that supports students with disabilities at Columbia College Chicago. She’s sensitive to how the language journalists use can lead to stereotypes about people with disabilities.  

“It causes others to categorize people with disabilities and just lump them together without second thoughts,” Pelayo said. “While I don’t feel as affected by this, someone close to me has fallen victim to this stereotyping and as a result felt outcast and avoided.” 

Pelayo agrees with the National Center on Disability and Journalism style guide advice to ask sources how they prefer to be described. “The terms ‘abled’ and ‘disabled’ are kind of up in the air depending on who you’re speaking to,” she said. “But do not call an abled person ‘normal’ and a disabled person ‘abnormal.’”  

Pelayo urges journalists to learn more about disabilities to deepen their understanding. “Just speaking with someone with a disability can be a great help, since disabilities don’t affect people the exact same way,” she said. “Journalism can probably find more ways to be inclusive by continuing to highlight this marginalized community and recognizing that many individuals with disabilities, visible and invisible, are capable of being independent and successful.”  

Krisin Ginger is the manager of communications and development at Housing Action Illinois, a nonprofit coalition that expands affordable housing. |Courtesy of Kristin Ginger

Portray the Whole Person 

By Maizie Hummel-Logee 

“None of us probably wants a spotlight on the very worst day of our lives or us at our worst moment, or only showing the hardest thing we’ve faced, right?” said Kristin Ginger, manager of communications and development at Housing Action Illinois, a nonprofit coalition that expands affordable housing. 

That’s why Heather Bryant, co-author of the Poverty Style Guide, urges journalists to ask themselves “Who we are speaking to when we are reporting out a story and reflect on whether our approach or presentation exploits, dehumanizes or disempowers them as active agents of their own stories.” That means reporting on the whole person and all the factors surrounding their situation, not just how they ended up in poverty. 

Ginger says the language journalists use also matters, but the choices are complicated because different organizations offer different guidelines. “[We would say] a person experiencing 

homelessness, a person facing housing instability, rather than the homeless or a homeless person, and that’s to show it’s not their only identity,” she said. But, she noted, that’s not the language used in everyday conversation. “When I’ve spoken to people experiencing homelessness, they do not say, ‘I am a person experiencing homelessness.’”  

Nor does a phrase like that fit in a headline. In both cases, people are often referred to as “homeless” as a shorthand. “We don’t, I think, always have good options. And I think being more specific when you can is helpful,” Ginger said. 

Ginger also encourages journalists to explain the role of the way social services and safety nets are set in causing people to live in poverty. “It’s the fault of this whole broader system. And an individual story holds someone up to be pulled apart, or for someone to point and say, ‘Well, I blame them for making these choices.’” 

Instead, journalists need to portray poverty and homelessness in all their complexity. “It’s a mess. It’s hard, and it matters,” Ginger said. 

Melody, 20, of Shelton, Wash. |Courtesy of Melody

Acknowledge Invisible Disabilities 

By Daniel Jimenez 

Melody, 20, of Shelton, Wash. (who asked that their last name not be used) believes that most news media depict disabled people as lacking independence and being unable to take care of themselves. “While that may be true, there are those who don’t ‘look’ disabled but are,” they said. 

This is addressed in the Disability Style Guide, written by the National Center on Disability and Journalism, when it cautions that the terms “homebound” and “housebound” are “sometimes applied incorrectly to people with disabilities who require some mobility assistance but who are relatively independent.” 

Melody is diagnosed with psychogenic non-epileptic seizures (P.N.E.S) and requires a wheelchair because of chronic pain, but they are mostly able to take care of themself. “I’m just as independent as the next person,” they said. “My independence just looks a little different from someone who might not have the same issues and/or might not know what’s going on inside my body.” 

Consider the Impact 

By Mina Jue 

Tonya Trice, executive director of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce, feels that low-income neighborhoods aren’t reported on accurately in some news media, and that can damage those communities. “If all you see is violence and shootings in predominantly African American communities, it’s going to make people that live there want to move away,” she said.  

The Poverty Style Guide warns journalists to avoid “only depicting poverty as despair” and instead urges them to “help audiences understand that people living in poverty are multidimensional, as are their experiences.”   

Trice says that when positive stories about South Shore are shown on the news, “they may be reported on when the viewership may be down a little bit, and it’s things like that that I feel are unfair and causes our communities to be covered in a different light.”   

She suggests that journalists connect more with community organizations that are making positive changes but says it’s also their duty to reach out to the press. “It’s our responsibility to make sure that the media is aware [of those stories] and not just do press releases when there is a big event happening, or something that we are trying to get people to participate in.”  

She believes an ongoing collaboration between journalists and these organizations would lead to not only more accurate coverage in the news, but more engagement in the neighborhood. “It’s good for the people that do live here to know there are some positive things that are being covered that are happening that they can be a part of,” she said. 

Take me seriously

By Allison Shelton

Many people with disabilities believe they are not accurately represented in the media. Jacob Shelton, 26, Lee’s Summit, Missouri, shares how he was diagnosed with ADD in the fourth grade and how the media does not understand what having ADHD entails. 

“They think it’s a joke. A lot of people will say, “Oh it’s ADD or ADHD, it’s not real.” They don’t take it seriously,” said Shelton. 

Even at work, Shelton was not taken seriously. Coworkers and bosses would not accommodate to his disability. 

“When I used to work at Price Chopper, I kept getting yelled at because I couldn’t concentrate. I finally told my boss that I have ADD, so it takes me a little bit longer to comprehend things. I got told that it shouldn’t matter since I take medication, that I should be a normal person,” said Shelton. 

Demaray Amaro, 19, Lee’s Summit, Missouri, has a great understanding of disability because her roommate has autism. 

“When it comes to disability, I believe the media covers only one side of it,” said Amaro. “They only cover the constant freak-outs and low functioning autistic people, never the ones that are very high functioning.” 

Whether it comes to first-hand experience or seeing this happen to someone else, both Shelton and Amaro share similar feelings. 

“No one takes it seriously enough. I don’t think anyone does,” said Shelton.

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