By Stefanie Phillips, RSJ ’18


A reporter’s commitment to responsible journalism isn’t complete after a style-guide consultation.

That isn’t enough, according to David Perry, Pacific Standard columnist and father of a boy with Down Syndrome while addressing a full room at the Rogers Communications Centre on Feb. 5. Perry said consulting a style guide is only the first step for journalists wanting to accurately represent disability communities in their reporting.

“The issues of agency and representation are deeper than which specific word you use, so I think a lot of people…call up the style guide and think that the work is done,” he said.

Perry was one of a three-member panel discussing, “Disability Coverage in the Media,” which was jointly hosted by the ReelAbilities Toronto Film Festival, Access Ryerson and Ryerson School of Journalism (RSJ). Chris O’Brien of Accessible Media Inc. moderated the discussion between Perry and the other panelists, associate director, Centre for Independent Living and former CBC producer, Ing Wong-Ward and journalism professor, Dr. Keren Henderson from Syracuse University. The panel explored how people with disabilities are represented in the media and offered suggestions for improved coverage.

Perry told the audience journalists need to always consult a member of the disability community or an expert in the field to get context for the story.

“That is such a baseline and it doesn’t happen,” he said. “I read 107 stories about the murder of people with disabilities by their family or caregiver in 2015 and the total number of people quoted with disabilities in those 107 stories was zero.”

The audience, which included members of the disability community and RSJ students, also heard from Wong-Ward who said journalists should make themselves aware of existing tropes and ask themselves or their editors, “Why is this news?”

She said a common trope is “inspiration porn,” a narrative that labels people with a disability as inspirational solely on the basis of their disability.

Wong-Ward recommends watching Stella Young’s Ted Talk on inspiration porn to better understand the negative effects of tropes.

Credit: Youtube

“Find a way, if you feel safe enough and if you are able, to say, ‘why do you think people really like [inspiration porn stories]?’…I think it is worth asking those questions of your superiors…because at least you’re showing that you’re thinking about it in a critical way,” she said.

Wong-Ward said a good way to move away from reporting the same narratives is to look for ways to shine a light on how the state abuses people in marginalized groups, like the disability community, without objectifying the person with a disability.

“That’s the sweet-spot in journalism,” she said.

Henderson, said part of the problem is the “McDonaldization” of the industry.

She said a journalist’s job has always been to become a mini expert on the topic they cover, but recent industry cutbacks have largely dissolved those beats, making it easier for journalists to fallback on tropes. 

“We rely on shortcuts and that can lead trouble,” she said.