21 May, 2015
I’ve just been reading a wonderful piece about the representation by the media of people with a disability. It was written by Toby Jones, who was nominated for a BAFTA for his portrayal of Stoke City kit man, Neil Baldwin, in the BBC drama ‘Marvellous’.
He raises some interesting issues about how those with a learning or physical disability are seen in TV dramas. He says when disability is featured, what’s often emphasised is vulnerability, naivety and tragedy. He suggests that this negative portrayal influences perceptions and contributes to the limitations people place on themselves. He asks whether we should, instead, focus on people’s abilities rather than their disabilities?
This made me think of a recent episode of Radio 4’s ‘All in the Mind’ which discussed the type of image used by the media in pieces about mental health issues: invariably, a picture of someone with their head in their hands, in obvious distress.
Cliches are easy but unhelpful. So how do we as PR professionals change this? It’s a difficult job as journalists’ time is limited and often so is their interest in being representative rather than routine.
The first thing is to have strong images you can offer. As well as being good quality, in the style of the media you’re targeting, and carefully captioned, think about pictures that, yes, are true to the person’s situation, but that also challenge usual perceptions and stereotypes.
It’s a similar issue when it comes to the language journalists use. Everyone, from those with hayfever to cancer, is said to ‘suffer’ from their condition, yet if you speak to ‘sufferers’ it’s a word most of them would never use. Offering different, more thoughtful words and phrases will help reporters talk about your beneficiaries or service users as they would like to be described. Keep a lengthier style guide for your website where those who want more in-depth information can find it.
As PRs, we are always at the mercy of the journalist, programme-maker or broadcaster, as we compete for their attention and their column inches. While our power to change attitudes and tackle unhelpful clichés is limited, it is our responsibility to try. And we have the power of saying no – if you feel the media isn’t listening, hasn’t got it and won’t serve the interests of the case study or cause you’ve offered them, find someone who will.