Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer/Fall 2003, Volume 23, No. 3/4
<www.dsq-sds.org>
Copyright 2003 by the Society
for Disability Studies


An Analysis of the Dissimilar Coverage of the 2002 Olympics and Paralympics:
Frenzied Pack Journalism versus the Empty Press Room

Anne V. Golden
Brigham Young University
E-mail: AnneGolden@byu.edu


The 2002 Winter Olympics and Paralympics (the Olympics for people with disabilities) were two very similar events. Both spectacles were planned by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC), used the same venues, had similar competitions, awarded gold, silver and bronze medals and involved the best athletes in the world in their respective spheres. Both events drew athletes from at least 36 countries and had sell-out crowds for several of the sporting events.

Also, both events faced scandal. The 2002 Winter Olympic organizers had to face scandals involving doping and the possible corruption of a figure skating judge. During the 2002 Winter Paralympics Thomas Oelsner, a German skier, became the first athlete in history to be disqualified from the Winter Paralympics for a doping offense.

However, while the news media extensively covered the 2002 Olympic Games, the 2002 Paralympic Games faced a drought of news coverage. This study explores the different amounts of coverage the two events received and seeks to analyze the differing paradigms of selected Olympic and Paralympic reporters regarding the coverage of the Paralympics. Studies have highlighted the lack of coverage of the Paralympics (Sutton 1998; Hardin, Hardin, Lynn and Walsdorf 2001) but few investigations have been conducted to ascertain the reasoning behind this lack of coverage.

In an attempt to extend the prior research, this study strives to answer the following questions: Why did selected reporters cover the 2002 Winter Olympics and not the 2002 Winter Paralympics? Also, in the face of such widespread lack of coverage of the Paralympics and the compelling reasons the Olympic reporters gave for not covering the event, why did certain reporters and news organizations choose to cover the 2002 Winter Paralympics?

A newspaper content analysis, a month-long field study of the Olympic and Paralympic main media centers, and 20 qualitative interviews were used as tools to analyze the undercoverage of the Paralympics in relation to the Olympics and the differing paradigms of selected Olympic and Paralympic reporters.

A thematic analysis of the interviews revealed that the noncoverage of the Paralympics by the selected Olympic reporters arose from the journalists’ perceptions of lack of audience interest and appeal, logistical problems, or a feeling that the Paralympic Games were not a real competition. Conversely, a thematic analysis of the Paralympic reporter’s interviews revealed that their coverage of the Paralympics emanated from prior exposure to the Paralympics, a desire to raise disability awareness, the feeling that the Paralympic Games were newsworthy, or their exposure to successful National Paralympic Committee public relations campaigns.

The content analysis revealed that during the time period from February 1 to March 18, the duration of the highest concentration of news articles concerning the 2002 Olympics and the Paralympics, the top mainstream American daily newspapers studied in this investigation had an average of 427 articles about the Olympics, while averaging only two articles about the Paralympics (Table 1).

Such instances of near invisibility of people with disabilities in the news media can have implications across society as the ever-growing population of 50 million disabled adults in the United States (Sutton 1998) evolves into a "disability community" (Nelson, 1999; John 1997; Nelson, 1992) and this community continues to struggle, as studies show that Americans feel embarrassed, and almost half are fearful, around people with disabilities (Wolfe 1996). This has ever-widening implications as scholars note that all individuals will become disabled at some point in their lives.

Disability — like sex and aging — is a common experience. Everyone who does not now identify as a person with a disability will, before he or she dies, be disabled. Maybe just minutes before death from a heart attack or in a car accident, but everyone will be disabled. (Pfeiffer, 2001, p. 151)
Olympics and Paralympic News Coverage

While the Paralympics have traditionally been an undercovered event, the Olympic Games have been the target of frenzied pack journalistic practices. As the time for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games approached, the intensity level rose in newsrooms around the world. Thousands of media representatives sent in for accreditation, Olympic reporter teams were put in place and talk of the Olympics filled the sports sections and front pages of newspapers. When the Olympic Games came to Salt Lake City from February 8 to 24, 9,000 accredited reporters had access to the media center at the Salt Palace. The media center became similar to a small town, equipped with a Main Street section, restaurants, a day spa and a bar. Unaccredited journalists also flew into Salt Lake City and roamed the town, looking for stories.

Ten days after the Olympic closing ceremonies, the Paralympic Games took place from March 7 to 16. At that time, almost 1,000 Paralympians, guides and coaches from 36 countries held their international competition in Utah. So few media attended that they were headquartered in a tent outside an ice hockey venue in West Valley City called the E Center. The tent was located in the parking lot between the E Center and the northbound lanes of Highway I-15, where some reporters, when they initially found out the location, expressed a concern that the location would be cold and noisy (Deseret News 2001).

Scholars such as Herbert Gans and Teun van Dijk have isolated the news values that reporters use in newsgathering decisions. These were identified by van Dijk as novelty, recency, presuppostion, consonance, relevance, deviance and negativity and proximity (van Dijk 1988). Gans noted that story selectors gravitated toward a handful of story types: people stories, role reversals, human-interest stories, expose anecdotes, hero stories, and "Gee-whiz" stories (Gans 1979). Typically, reporters tend to seek out, among other values, the news values of conflict, uniqueness and human interest.

The Paralympic games have many of those newsworthy elements, with possible stories of rivalries between competitors from different countries, blow-by-blow coverage of the sports events, reports on disability issues, and the human-interest stories of the lives of the Paralympians. Yet the press has traditionally barely covered the event. Chris Waddell, a Paralympic gold medallist, told the Deseret News that while Paralympians "compete often in complete anonymity," they take their competitions seriously (Thalman 2001).

During the Olympic Games there were 9,000 accredited journalists covering the 2,399 athletes, for a ratio of 3.75 journalists for every athlete. This figure doesn’t take into account the thousands of unaccredited journalists who also came to cover the Olympic competition. During the Paralympic Games, the accreditation list contained 700 names of reporters, photographers, television news staff and technicians in relation to the 421 Paralympic athletes for a ratio of 1.66 journalists to every athlete.

However, while there were 700 media members listed on the accreditation list for the Paralympics, a content analysis of selected top circulation newspapers in America showed that they only minimally covered the competition.

TABLE 1

Comparison of Olympic and Paralympic Articles Published By Selected American High Circulation Newspapers (02/01/02 to 03/18/02)

NewspaperOlympic ArticlesParalympic Articles

USA Today6115
The New York Times3875
The Los Angeles Times5330
The Washington Post3062
The New York Daily News2780
The Houston Chronicle4461

Source: Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe

When looking for explanations in the difference in coverage, it can be noted that there were two main differences in the events: The Olympics involved able-bodied athletes, while the Paralympic Games involved athletes with disabilities, and the Paralympics Games were smaller, involving about a fifth of the number of athletes. However, the news outlets could potentially have simply scaled down their coverage and the number of reporters covering the Paralympics to be commensurate with the smaller competition.

Dennis Romboy, one of the local print reporters with The Deseret News, noted that the only American print reporters covering sledge hockey at the E Center were from his local paper and the other competing local paper, The Salt Lake Tribune. However, Romboy had to join a mid-sized crowd of foreign reporters (either print or broadcast) to talk to the athletes after each competition, which presented the appearance that the foreign press were more interested in the Paralympics than were the American press, with the exceptions being The Salt Lake Tribune and The Deseret News. These two local dailies covered the event well, with an average of more than 100 articles about the Paralympics printed in each newspaper.

Disability and the media

Disability activists have long expressed concerns about the biases and lack of sensitivity on the part of reporters when it comes to covering people with disabilities. When activists were working toward passage of the American Disabilities Act, the advocates for people with disabilities decided not to explain the legislation to the press. The lead lobbyist, Patrisha Wright of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, said, "We would have been forced to spend half our time trying to teach reporters what’s wrong with their stereotypes of people with disabilities" (Shapiro 1994). Activists have also taken issue with coverage they maintained was inaccurate, stereotypical and paternalistic (Biklen 1987; Cooke and Reisner 1991; Elliott 1989; Johnson 1990; Johnson and Elkins 1989; Krossel 1988; Shapiro 1994).

Robert Bogdan and Douglas Biklen have identified the common "handicapist stereotypes" present in the media. These stereotypical depictions of disabled people were delineated as pitiable and pathetic; the superhuman cripple or "supercrip"; sinister, evil and criminal; better-off dead; maladjusted or his own worst enemy; a burden; or unable to live a successful life (Bogdan and Biklen 1987). Over the years, perceptions of people with disabilities haven’t changed and stereotypes haven’t been updated (Day 2000)

The stereotypical coverage of individuals with disabilities also permeates the sports media. When a story of an athlete with disabilities breaks into mainstream sports pages, it is either in a story of the "supercrip" mold or a story involving controversy over the disabled athlete (Hardin, Hardin, Lynn and Walsdorf 2001). When athletes with disabilities are covered, they typically are written as feature stories, not sports articles (Shapiro 1993).

The Invisible Minority

While noting the pervasiveness of stereotypical coverage of people with disabilities, this investigation sought to highlight the invisibility of the athlete with disabilities, and explore the reasoning behind the lack of coverage of people with disabilities in relation to the Paralympics.

This non-coverage of disability sport follows the trend of lack of coverage of people with disabilities generally, which adds to the notion that people with disabilities are not fully a part of society (Nelson 1996). This invisibility of people with disabilities extends to journalism textbooks (Hardin and Preston 2001) and can also be noted in the absence of persons with physical disabilities in television advertising. Ganahl and Arbuckle noted:

Television shapes the perception of reality, which creates a virtual TV culture. As a result, many people are intensely interested in how disability is portrayed in the media. Beyond the ethics of doing good for good’s sake, persons with disabilities

represent a significant percentage of the target market for many products, yet in advertising people with disabilities remain an invisible group. (Ganahl and Arbuckle, 2001)

Mary Douglas has observed (1966) that there are times when something is considered "out of place" and, those who hold negative stereotypes tend to exclude those groups from their attention. Julie Kristeva calls such expelled or excluded groups ‘abjected’ from the Latin meaning ‘thrown out’ (Kristeva 1982; Hall 1997).

In pursuing an explanation for this noncoverage, disability scholars have noted that, when people have unconscious fears about disability, one emotional avenue they pursue is to shun disabled individuals and exclude them from their attention.

Disability happens around us more often than we generally recognize or care to notice, and we harbor unspoken anxieties about the possibilities of disablement, to us or to someone close to us. What we fear, we often stigmatize and shun and sometimes seek to destroy. (Longmore, 1985, p 32)

The phenomenon of the invisible athlete in disability sport may be a reflection of the invisibility of people with disabilities in society generally, and this non-attention could feed into the existing societal apprehension concerning people with disabilities. Thus, there may be merit in investigating the underlying causes of the lack of coverage of the Paralympics and attempt to analyze the differing paradigms of reporters in connection with that international sporting event.

Methodology

This investigation employed the methodologies of field observation, qualitative interviewing and content analysis.

Field Study

As part of this investigation, a field study was conducted at the Main Media Centers of the Olympics and the Paralympics. The participant observation lasted over a month — for the duration of the Olympics and the Paralympics.

Howard Becker and Blanche Geer have noted that there are certain types of data that could be collected through field observation that could not be obtained as well through other methods.

The most complete form of the sociological datum, after all, is the form in which the participant observer gathers it: An observation of some social event, the events which precede and follow it, and explanations of its meaning by participants and spectators, before, during and after its occurrence. Such a datum gives us more information about the event under study than data gathered by any other sociological method. Participant observation can thus provide us with a yardstick against which to measure the completeness of data gathered in other ways, a model which can serve to let us know what orders of information escape us when we use other methods. (Becker and Geer, 1970, p. 133)

The researcher, as a volunteer journalist with the Olympic/Paralympic news services, was able to obtain accreditation for the main media centers of the Olympics and the Paralympics. As part of the field study, she interacted often with the reporters as she rode the media buses, ate in the media center cafeteria, and attended press conferences and other events with the reporters in keeping with the "conscious and systematic sharing, insofar as circumstances permit, in the life-activities and on occasion, in the interests and affects of a group of persons." (Kluckhohn, 1940, p. 331)

Qualitative interviews

In the first round of the study, during the Olympic Games, 10 Olympic reporters participated in semi-structured qualitative interviews with the researcher. The reporters were chosen because they were English speaking, were covering the Olympics but stated that they would not be covering the Paralympics, and were willing to be interviewed in the midst of covering the Olympics.

In the second round of the study, during the Paralympic Games, 10 Paralympic reporters participated in semi-structured qualitative interviews with the researcher. The reporters were chosen because they were English speaking, were covering the Paralympics, and were willing to be interviewed in the midst of covering the Paralympics.

The interviews were challenging to obtain due to the busy lifestyle the reporters were leading while covering the Olympics and Paralympics. Interviews were obtained in media buses, the lunchroom, the bullpen, and the media center or while walking from one event to another. The interviews lasted from 15 minutes to an hour. Member checks (Lincoln and Guba 1985) were conducted with several reporters in April 2002. During the interviews, the researcher strove to become a "conversational partner" (Rubin and Rubin 1995) and establish rapport and obtain "thick description" (Geertz 1973) from the reporters as she sought to have them add depth, detail and richness to their narratives and evaluations of their coverage of the Olympics and the Paralympics.

The researcher reached a state of redundancy and saturation during the two interview periods. The reporters in the later interviews were stating very similar opinions and were reinforcing what the researcher had heard from her earlier interviews. The researcher withdrew when this state of redundancy and saturation manifested itself.

Content Analysis

A single coder did the content analysis following the research principles highlighted in Krippendorff (1980) and Riffe, Lacy and Fico (1998). The coding units were articles from six top circulation newspapers listed on the Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe and two local newspapers. The articles were coded for whether the primary or secondary theme of the article was concerning the Olympic or Paralympic games. An intra-coder reliability test (Riffe, Lacy & Fico 1998) yielded a 99 percent reliability rate for articles coded.

Results

The Olympic Reporters

The reporters interviewed were from the United States (6), Austria (2), New Zealand and the Middle East. They all asked for anonymity in regard to their quotes in this study.

Several themes arose in the conversations with the Olympic reporters. The reporters stated that they wouldn’t be covering the Paralympics due to one or more of the following factors: either they or their news organization’s perception of lack of audience interest and appeal, the logistical challenges in covering the Paralympics or their assessment that the Paralympic Games were not a real competition.

Lack of Audience Interest and Appeal

There were two ways the differing reporters framed their statements concerning lack of audience interest and appeal in relation to the Paralympics. Some validated the Paralympics as a competition, but stated that they would not be covering it due to the economic realities of viewership. However, other reporters stated their perception of an absence of audience interest in the topic but lacked the validating comments. This second group made blanket statements inferring a universal or total lack of interest in the audience concerning news about the Paralympics.

As an Austrian broadcast journalist shared his perception of audience interest, his news judgment projected to his audience a sense of total non-interest in the Paralympic coverage.

No one is interested. No one wants to watch it. It is hard to produce a program that no one wants to watch … Although, it is good for the athletes to cover them. Austrians do well at the Paralympics, but no one knows who they are. They are not celebrities. I don’t know who they are. I couldn’t name one right now. (Anonymous, interview, February 10, 2002)

An American print reporter with a national newspaper echoed her perception of the universality of non-interest in the Paralympics and also placed the responsibility for the lack of audience on the Paralympians.

Lots of people watch the Olympics. Nobody watches the Paralympics. The Olympics have been around for over 100 years and have developed a following. The Paralympics hasn’t developed a following. (Anonymous, interview, February 13, 2002)

A Middle Eastern reporter included comments that validated the Paralympics as a legitimate competition, but noted that there was interest in his country only for the summer Paralympics and not the winter Paralympics.

The Paralympics are very popular in my country and our athletes do very well. We have many Paralympians because of the war. We covered the summer Paralympics but not the winter Paralympics. There is a lack of interest in my country for the winter Paralympics. (Anonymous, interview, February 22, 2002)

Logistical Challenges

Two of the reporters noted the logistical challenges of covering the Paralympics after the exhausting Olympic experience. An American print reporter noted:

My wife would kill me if I stayed past the Olympics. I’ve been away from home too long. Besides, we’re Olympic’d out. We’re tired. Our readers are tired. By the end of the Olympics all the stories sound the same. We don’t want to write another Olympic story and the readers don’t want to read another Olympic story. (Anonymous, interview, February 16, 2002)

The Paralympics Are Not a Real Competition

Two of the reporters stated that they didn’t think the Paralympics deserved coverage. The term "It’s not a real competition" arose in the reporters with this mindset.

As one American broadcast reporter stated:

They [the Paralympians] can’t compete on the same level as the Olympic athletes, so it’s a bone they throw to them to make them feel better. It’s not a real competition, and I, for one, don’t see why I should have to cover it. It’s like the WNBA [Women’s National Basketball Association]. The women can’t compete on the same level as the men, so they gave them their own league, but it hasn’t really caught on. (Anonymous, interview, February 9, 2002)

An American print reporter from a large circulation paper echoed this sentiment when he explained why he wasn’t going to cover the Paralympics.

First of all, we’re exhausted and want to go home. Also, I don’t think the two events [the Olympics and the Paralympics] should be together at all. They have no relation to each other. It [the Paralympics] is not a real competition You wouldn’t hold a high school tournament in Yankee Stadium. You wouldn’t hold an amateur competition at Madison Square Garden. (Anonymous, interview, February 12, 2002)

The phrase "It’s not a real competition" is interesting from an interpretative standpoint. An analyst could ask, "If it’s not a real competition, then what is it?" To change the sentence from a negative to a positive statement, the statement would have to read, "It’s an unreal (or imaginary or nonexistent) competition" or "It’s a phony competition."

Douglas has noted that we tend to exclude certain classes of individuals, objects or ideas that do not fit into the classifications we ascribe to them, noting that "our pollutions behavior is the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications" (Douglas 1966).

Several reporters compared the Paralympics to the WNBA and spoke of both as sports that hadn’t caught on and weren’t that popular. It is interesting to note that both professional women’s basketball players and Paralympians step out of the classifications that society has supplied for them. Women basketball players, instead of exhibiting feminine styles of dress and feminine physiques, are tall, tough and aggressive, while Paralympians are people with disabilities who, instead of acting helpless, exhibit drive and a competitive nature. When interviewed, Paralympic hockey players speak in the same manner as the Olympic hockey players and want to be treated as any other athlete.

One American reporter with a national publication noted that reporters, like wolves, tend to travel in packs.

It's long been my observation that reporters instinctively move in packs, even staying in the same hotels when we're in Pakistan, for instance. There is a lot of camaraderie that we share, and I love the company of other reporters, but this pack-like behavior inevitably means that we're all getting the same story. (Anonymous, interview, February 20, 2002)

The reporters came as a pack to the Olympics and left as a pack. One of the most crowded, congested days for the entire year at the Salt Lake International Airport was February 25, the day after the Olympics ended, as Olympic fans and reporters left town en masse.

The Paralympic Reporters

Ten Paralympic reporters participated in semi-structured qualitative interviews during the Paralympics. They came from Japan (2), Mexico, Slovakia, Pakistan, Germany, Belarus, Norway, and the United States (2). Most of the Paralympic reporters gave permission for their names to be used in this article. Of the ten reporters:

  1. Four stated that they had been assigned by their editors to cover the Paralympics (Japan (2), Mexico, Belarus). They noted that, even though it was an assignment, it was something they were glad they were doing.
  2. Three had been given the opportunity of choosing whether or not they wanted to cover the Paralympics (United States, Norway, Slovakia).
  3. Three reporters had approached their editors and asked if they could cover the Paralympics (Pakistan, United States, Germany).

During most of the Paralympic competition, the tented main media center was almost empty. In one corner, a few photographers would sit and look at their photographs on their laptops. Sprinkled throughout some of the tables, solitary newspaper reporters would sit — perhaps from Norway or Slovakia or elsewhere.

But in one corner, in stark contrast to the rest of the room, there were three tables crowded with Japanese reporters who were writing intensely on their laptops, chatting with each other, or talking on their cell phones.

When asked why the Japanese were covering the Paralympics in such a thorough manner, one of the Japanese reporters answered, "Our newspapers are big and we can cover many things."

It is true that the Japanese culture is one of the most media-saturated in the world. Ellis Krauss observed in "Japan: News and Politics in a Media-Saturated Democracy," that Japan has a highest per capita newspaper distribution rate in the world. He noted:

The national papers include the so-called Big Three: The Yomiuri (1998 morning circulation, 10.2 million per day), the Asahi (8.3 million), and the Mainichi (4 million), each of them being among the largest newspapers in the world. In addition to these morning editions, there is the unique Japanese practice of each major newspaper publishing an afternoon edition with completely different content. (p 268)

However, Koh Tanaka, a reporter with the Asahi, felt that his presence at the Paralympics had more to do with the Japanese news organizations’ prior exposure to the Paralympics in Nagano and his editor’s news agenda that involved raising disability awareness.

When the Paralympic reporters were interviewed, they were asked to comment about the reasons the Olympic reporters had given for not covering the competition and were asked why they were covering the Paralympics. The reporters gave one or more of the following reasons why they were covering the Paralympics: prior exposure to the Paralympics with a positive audience reaction from their past coverage; a desire, either on their part or on their news’ organization’s part, to raise disability awareness; the perception that the Paralympic Games were newsworthy — which included the assessment that there were good stories to be found at the Paralympics; and as a result of successful public relations campaigns that had been run by the National Paralympic Committees in their countries.

The Paralympic reporters who were interviewed all felt that the Paralympics were a real competition and that either there was an audience for their writing (although all admitted it was a smaller audience than for the Olympics), or there wasn’t much of an audience for what they were writing about, but felt it was important to cover it anyway.

Gans (1979) has noted that this type of reporter comprised a minority of the reporters he studied.

However, journalists with conscious values were in the minority, for the news media I studied seemed to attract people who keep their values to themselves….But equally important, the national media, and journalism generally, appear to recruit people who don’t hold strong personal values in the first place… the abstention from values extended to story preferences, for when I asked people about their favorite story all pointed out that they had no favorites.

They were only interested in "getting the story." (p 184-185)

One cautionary note must be added, however. Although the reporters interviewed didn’t mention these factors, there were undoubtedly also some traditional news values at work. The Japanese, German and local Utah reporters were surrounded by other reporters from competing news sources from their areas and must have been faced with the news value of competition in addition to the other reasons for covering the Paralympics. However, this does bring to light an interesting phenomenon - that these pockets of news competition do exist in relation to the Paralympics. In contrast to the lack of involvement of the major newspapers in America in regard to the Paralympics, there are entire media markets located outside of the United States that feel the competitive need to send reporters to cover the Paralympics.

In addition, some reporters from other countries seemed not to be overtly facing the specter of competition, but were sent as part of their news organization’s decision to cover the Paralympics.

Prior Exposure to the Paralympics

When asked about the Olympic reporters perception that no one wanted to hear about the Paralympics and the Paralympics weren’t a real competition, Tanaka, one of the Japanese reporters interviewed, noted that the Japanese media’s interest in the Paralympics started when the Paralympics occurred in Nagano.

Before the Paralympics were held in Nagano, we felt that way too. But Nagano changed all that. The Japanese press could see the Paralympics and could see that it was a worthwhile competition. They could see there were good stories there. So now we cover the Paralympics. (Tanaka, Interview, March 9, 2002)

Luis Alberto Martinez, a TV reporter with Televisa — Mexico, noted that he was covering the Paralympics even though there were no Mexican Paralympic athletes at the 2002 Paralympic Games, partially as the result of the audience reaction to his station’s prior coverage of the Paralympic Games in Sydney.

There was a big reaction in the Mexican public after we had a lot of coverage of the Sydney Paralympics. That’s why we’re here. We’re not really a big crew, because of not having Mexican athletes, but we’re covering the Paralympics.

(Martinez, interview, March 14, 2002)

Raising Disability Awareness

Tanaka went on to note that he felt he was also covering the Paralympics due partially to his editor’s desire to raise disability awareness.

In Japan, the disabled are not seen. They are in their apartments, they are alone. My editor wanted me to cover the Paralympics so that the readers could learn more about them. He [the editor] covered the Paralympics in Nagano, and he feels strongly that it should be covered as a real competition. (Tanaka, interview, March 9, 2002)

Zuzana Wisterova, a Slovakian print reporter with the newspaper Pravda, noted that she was covering the Paralympics partly as a means of raising disability awareness. She felt that this was a reflection of the changes that had happened in her country since the fall of Communism.

It was something different before. Before, the disabled people were hidden by the socialist system … And then the world changed and this country changed … now it’s normal and the [disabled] movement is stronger, much stronger. It’s important to show that this is a part of life … It’s interesting for these people [the Paralympians] and it’s interesting for me. I think this belongs in a newspaper. (Wisterova, interview, March 14, 2002)

A reporter from Belarus said something very similar, while noting that the disabilities movement still had a long way to go in her country. She felt that there was not enough support and not enough care for disabled people in her country, but at least now people with disabilities weren’t invisible as they had been before.

In the time of Communism [they said] there are no disabled people - we have no disabled people. It was the time. In the Communist time it was very unpleasant to show that we have somebody who has one leg or one hand. (Anonymous, interview, March 14, 2002)

Paralympics Are Newsworthy

The Paralympic reporters all stated during their interviews that they felt they were covering a real competition. Ian Furness, an American broadcaster with the A&E Network, noted:

Just because these athletes face some challenges physically doesn’t mean they’re not competitive … For somebody to say that these guys aren’t competitive — that’s wrong, because they are. When they say that, they [the Olympic reporters] have never seen a [Paralympic] event." (Furness, interview, March 9, 2002)

The journalists also stated that they felt there was an audience for their coverage of Paralympic games. They felt that it was smaller, but it existed.

Thomas Hahn, a German print reporter with the Suddeutsche Zeitung, noted that articles, if written well, could fit with a mainstream audience, but also stated that there was a contingent of disabled readers who followed disability issues.

There are disabled people as well which are reading newspapers — that’s my experience when I’m at events in Germany — that disabled people are very well interested in Paralympics for example. It is definitely a small audience but there is an audience. I think you shouldn’t punish them in not reporting anything about this. In my newspaper it’s a tradition that we always cover the Paralympics. (Hahn, interview, March 14, 2002)

Several of the reporters also noted that they had covered past Paralympic Games and had an interest in covering sports involving individuals with disabilities.

In addition, the reporters covering the Paralympics felt that there were good stories there. They noted that they had covered the Paralympics or other sports involving athletes with disabilities and had enjoyed the athletes and the experience.

National Paralympic Committee PR Campaigns

The reporters from Slovakia, Belarus, and Germany noted that the National Paralympic Organizations in their countries had run effective public relations campaigns with the press and that was one of the reasons they were at the Paralympic games. The reporters from Mexico and Germany also noted that they had been through sensitivity training, either with a National or International Paralympic Committee.

Discussion and Conclusion

Traditionally, scholars have noted the type of coverage (i.e. stereotypical) people with disabilities have received. However, the reporters the researcher observed covering the Paralympics were very careful as they covered the Paralympians and were consciously trying to write in an enlightened manner. They noted that they wanted to cover the Paralympics as a sporting event and make the disabilities a secondary issue. This reflected the ideal of disability related coverage espoused by John Clogston (1994) in "Disability Coverage in American Newspapers" when he stated that the progressive model of disability coverage was cultural pluralism.

The person with a disability is considered a multifaceted individual whose disability is just one aspect of many. No undue attention is paid to the disability. The individual is portrayed as are others without disabilities. (p. 47)

In contrast, the Olympic reporters who, in their interviews, expressed the feeling that the Paralympic competitions among disabled athletes didn’t qualify as legitimate sport didn’t cover them at all. Therefore, a different manifestation of bias toward people with disabilities may be seen, in the context of the Paralympics, in a lack of coverage versus biased coverage.

The investigation also revealed the following paradigm differences between the Olympic and Paralympic reporters that were interviewed:

* The Olympic and Paralympic reporters had different views of audience interest and appeal in relation to the Paralympics.

The Paralympic and Olympic reporters had entirely different visions of who their audience was, and what would appeal to their readership. The Paralympic reporters felt that articles about disability sport belonged in their media outlets and would find an audience. Several noted that they took extra care to make their articles interesting to the mass audience because of their desire to raise disability awareness.

* The Olympic and Paralympic reporters had different sense of news values and the salience of sports involving those with disabilities.

The Paralympic reporters felt that sports involving those with disabilities were newsworthy and should be covered for a number of reasons.

* The reporters had different views of the role of a journalist.

The Paralympic reporters wanted to appeal to their audience, but had more of an emphasis on covering societal issues that were meaningful to them, including disability awareness.

* The reporters had different feelings about taking cues from larger newspapers/other news sources.

The Paralympic reporters didn’t care as much if they were alone in their coverage. The reporters, and their management, seemed to be guided by internal cues versus external cues. Also other factors were deemed as more important than whether other newspapers or TV stations were covering the event.

One local Utah reporter initially stated that, "we’re here because of proximity. If it had been held somewhere else, we wouldn’t have covered it." However, a few days later he approached the researcher and said that he had just received a memo his editor had sent to his newspaper staff, that discussed the high value the editor placed on the

Paralympics. The editor also noted in the memo that none of the major newspapers in America had covered the Paralympics.

Jack Nelson (1994) noted in the book, The Disabled, the Media and the Information Age, that reporters can have a great impact on society and on the lives of disabled people through their coverage.

The mass media have an opportunity to build a greater understanding between society and this emerging minority group that is clamoring for its rights. If they are aware of that tremendous power and responsibility they bear, the media can make a difference not only in portrayals and perceptions but eventually in the

quality of life for these millions of Americans. Ultimately, considering the power impact of the American media abroad, that impact may have positive reverberations worldwide. (p. 16)

In regard to the Olympics and the Paralympics, there was some progress during the 2002 Winter Paralympics. The A&E channel ran several hours of Paralympic coverage each day, which was a first-time experience for that channel. This coverage may have raised some national disability awareness.

Also, the economics of the Paralympics followed the trend where advertising acts as a catalyst for better portrayals of disability (Shapiro, 1993). A&E was able to find sponsorship for these hours of coverage. Also, the Newspaper Agency Corporation, the financial management department of the The Deseret News and The Salt Lake Tribune, approached the newspaper editors and stated that they had been able to sell advertising for a Paralympic special section and asked for content to fill the section. Perhaps, in time, the Paralympics will find acceptance among American reporters.

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Copyright (c) 2003 Anne Golden



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