Physical and mental illness discrimination is deeply rooted in our language, necessitating constant focus to minimize hurt. One of the recent themes in Australian Network on Disability is how to tackle stigma and discrimination, particularly when handling news; hence, journalists have a crucial role to play (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2014). For so many decades, editorial codes have been put in place to address anti-discrimination in journalism. For example, "The media must shun away from prejudicial or pejorative reference to ... any physical or mental illness, disability or sexuality. Details of an individual's ...physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story" (Chadwick, 2018). Therefore, the rule of thumb about writing and referring to people with disabilities, mental illnesses, and sexuality in journalism are to avoid as much as possible mentioning them unless it is necessary for understanding the full story. Additionally, the journalist should always find out from the individual if he or she is willing to disclose their disability, mental illness, or sexuality.
In cases where it is crucial to mention the disability, the language used is very essential. How the stories are selected and framed for people with disabilities by the journalist, greatly determine how the public perceive disable people. Media should always aim to use positive language about disability while shunning away from stigmatizing and outdated terms as much as possible (Chadwick, 2018). Some of the terms to avoid while writing and reporting disability news includes deaf and dumb, disabled, handicapped, mentally retarded, wheelchair-bound, afflicted by, suffering from, victims of, and crippled by. On the contrary, positive terms such as a person with, a person who has, uses a wheelchair, a person with learning difficulties, speech or hearing impaired and blind people should be applied.
Furthermore, it is crucial to be always cautious while mentioning mental health issues in news. Journalists should avoid stigmatizing and clearly offensive terms such as schizo, psycho, nutter, maniac, and loony. Rather, positive terms like suffering from, a victim of, and afflicted by should be used. Terms like psychotic and schizophrenic are only recommended to be used in a medical context, nothing more. The same applies to sexuality; journalist should avoid offensive languages such as homosexuals, heterosexuals, and bisexuals.
Most journalists face the challenge of maintaining concentration on the subject matter while trying as much as possible to avoid discrimination and stigmatization while writing and reporting the news. The Australian Network on disability observes how negative attitudes towards disabled individuals are clearly rooted in the language (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2014). This consequently results in unintended offense and hurt when applied thoughtlessly or without much concern. For example, a journalist writing news headlines like "how the mentally retarded individual was mistreated by the police" may have a good intention of defending the mentally impaired fellow, but in the process hurt other people. A reader with the same condition reading that news headline will find the remark discriminating, insensitive, and pejorative.
Words are powerful, and therefore the way they are used to refer to people with disabilities matters. Various media in Australia write and report about people with disabilities (Knaus, 2017). In general, how the people with disabilities are represented do not reflect their lives in a favorable light. The majority of articles or news report the individuals with disabilities as those that need help, either political or social, rather than portraying them as capable and self-determined individuals. For example, one of the news headlines in Australia stated; I needed help, Instead, I was punished, Abuse and Neglect of prisoners with disabilities in Australia" (Disability rights, 2018). Worth noting is that although some media recognize the civil rights of people with disabilities, and write and report news for the information to reach the relevant authorities, majority of articles focus on how people with disabilities struggle to adapt to the societal structure to live a "normal" life, rather than showing the negative attitudes put in their way to live in a such society. Many of the articles cover topics that do not represent the concerns and interests of people with disabilities, instead, the journalists select what they feel are newsworthy.
While writing and reporting disability news, it is essential to refer to the person first, followed by the disability (Reach, 2017). Using person-first language acknowledges that above everything else, the individuals with the disabilities are people. Media representatives should avoid by all means the tendency of putting a condition or label to a person's title or name. For instance, as Guardian reports on Australian news; "people with severe mental health problems being denied access on a daily basis" (Knaus, 2017). The news article recognizes that the individuals having the mental health issues are first and foremost people. The use of the person-first language help in avoiding labeling an individual using his her current physical or mental impairment. In the process, the person feels valued and will not be hurt.
Moreover, another way or writing and reporting people with disabilities, mental impairments, and sexuality are to focus on their abilities, rather than limitation (Reach, 2017). Media representatives should choose a language that emphasizes what people with disabilities can do rather than what they are incapable of doing. For example, it is preferable to describe an individual as a person who uses a wheelchair, rather than referring to him or her as wheelchair-bound. Also, instead of focusing on the disability of an individual, media representatives should instead be concerned with issues affecting their quality of life like discrimination, access to employment opportunities, affordable health care, housing, and transportation.
When writing or reporting news, it is journalists should avoid implying a disease, particularly when discussing a previous disease that left the individual the way he or she is now (Power, 2007). For example, people who have been affected with polio disease often experience post-polio syndrome and it is not appropriate for media representative to refer to it as such. Referencing to a disease that has resulted into a disability is only acceptable in cases where chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, and arthritis are involved. Noteworthy is that while reporting disability news, a journalist should not refer to the person with a disability as a patient, not unless the relationship with their doctor is being discussed.
Media representatives should also be cautious while reporting mental health-related issues as it affects readers' attitudes as well as how people with mental impairment feel about their condition. Mental health and mental illness are concepts that are often not as well understood as they should be. Society still struggles to comfortably deal with and effectively rehabilitate mentally ill individuals in the society. Furthermore, the specific definition and understanding of mental illness are to a large extent subjective, allowing the media a large sphere of influence on what can be considered normal or abnormal. Due to the expected standards of living, the media has established for society, through advertising and normal programming, the levels of stress and tension have increased (Jahangir, Nawaz, & Khan, 2014). Most individuals find that they are unable to meet the minimum standard expectations for their age, sex, and education level among other demographics, and this leads to unwarranted tension, stress and even mental illness. In this sense, media leads to a greater pervasiveness of mental illness. In other cases, in conditions such as false memory syndrome, an individual may develop mental illness as a result of exposure to traumatic images or events through the media. In addition, the false beliefs and confusion that result from persistent misinformation of the public often lead to delayed intervention, and consequently a greater pervasion of mental illness in society.
When proper language and attitude is applied appropriately in writing and reporting mental illness, media can play a crucial role in the management and prevention of the mental disorder. One of the most common forms of mental illness is depression, and raising awareness can represent a key prevention measure. Disseminating health education through the media, for instance, messages on the signs and symptoms of mental illness can help ensure early diagnosis, and positive health-seeking behavior, thereby preventing the pervasion of mental illness. Alternatively, by using media for leisure, psychiatrists and psychologists can utilize it in the treatment of mental illness. Therefore, the media can aid in the prevention of mental illness, or result in its pervasion.
Another area that journalists should be careful in when reporting or writing news is when and how to refer to sexuality is a news report. Equality and freedom from discrimination are basic human rights that belong to all people irrespective of sexual orientation or gender. The Sex Discrimination Act of 1984 was amended in Australia to do away with discrimination against sexual orientation, intersex status, and gender identity (Australian Human Rights Commission., 2014). Despite the initiative, the intersex, transgender, bisexual, lesbian, and gay individuals in Australia are still discriminated, harassed, and perceived negatively, not only by the public but some media houses as well.
Australian's codes of ethics in journalism are dedicated to promoting the highest possible ethical standards in media. Just like in cases of mentioning disability of mental illness in news report, reporting about the sexuality of individuals should only be tolerated if it is absolutely necessary for understanding the story (Power, 2007). Moreover, the media representative should consult with the individual first before exposing such matters. Transgender, bisexual, lesbian, and gay people have the right to fair treatment and an inclusive report concerning their life stories, therefore journalists should treat LGBT individuals with respect, integrity, and fairness.
An individual's sexual orientation should only be mentioned if it is relevant to the story. Otherwise, the media representatives would have violated the right to privacy of the person. A journalist is only allowed to intrude into a person's private life due to the public interest, otherwise media representatives should try as much as possible to write or report material that can result to hatred or prejudice on the basis of an individual's sexuality or gender identity (Australian Human Rights Commission., 2014). Also, the use of appropriate terminologies is necessary while reporting the sexuality of people. For example, Australian human rights commission encourages the use of the word "relationship" or "sexual relationship" while referring to the sexual orientation of a person, rather than using a term such as "lesbian couple," "homosexual couple," or "homosexual relationship."
In summary, media representatives should be aware of when and how to include disabilities, mental illness, and sexuality while writing and reporting the news. It is important for the journalists to master the appropriate terminologies to use, how the individuals are represented in the article or news, and why it is necessary to consult with the people involved in writing and reporting about them. There are various resources available for th...
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