author: Vlado Krstovski, MA, program manager, PORAKA
Several important topics related to the media representation of marginalized groups of citizens, including people with disabilities, were the topic of the online debate of the Council of Media Ethics entitled "The Role of Media and Education in Addressing Discrimination and Hate Speech". The participants referred to the importance and roles of the media and the education in raising public awareness and reducing discrimination in our society.
Media content is an important source of information and an important part of non-formal education on key social issues. Establishing attitudes, which at times might turn into stereotypes and prejudice, is often the result of communicating information and knowledge through the media. Hence, the role of the media is crucial in shaping public perceptions, while at the same time other actors should support the media in reducing, rather than inciting or spurring, discrimination.
Civil society organizations dealing with the human rights of marginalized groups of citizens, including organizations of persons with disabilities, are one of the most important actors in this process. Civil society organizations and the media are important actors in the democratization process and in creating more inclusive societies for people with disabilities. Given their specific roles, it is essential that they join forces and work together to increase the impact of public opinion towards people with disabilities. However, this cooperation is often problematic and it seems as if there is a missing link, which is probably the insufficient understanding and inadequate communication between civil society organizations and the media, and vice versa.
Bridging this gap in understanding and strengthening cooperation between civil society organizations and the media was one of the goals of the project "Disability - a Matter of Perception", which in the past two years was jointly implemented by the Media Diversity Institute, the Macedonian Media Institute and the National Council of People with Disability Organizations. The project confirmed that maintaining an open, inclusive and continuous debate between civil society, media and institutions is crucial for improving mutual communication. This can be achieved by strengthening the capacity of journalists to cover civic topics and by provoking greater initiative on their part to include civil society organization in their information sections on one hand, and on the other, by strengthening the capacities of civil society organizations for communication with the media and encouraging them to be more vocal and proactive in their approach to the media.
- The media should be more open to civil society organizations of persons with disabilities: civil society organizations need to partner with the media to raise public awareness, break down prejudice and address the human rights situation of persons with disabilities.
- The media should be aware that civil society organizations need more representation and better positioning of the "hot topics" of people with disabilities. Journalists need to be trained to cover the area. Moreover, they need to know how to recognize the problem, to recognize a story, but also to get better acquainted with the subject.
- The media should have an inclusive approach to the topic of disability and, instead of specialized shows/sections. They should prepare shows or texts on a certain subject in which they will address issues in the field of disability, as well as personal everyday life stories in all segments of their program/magazine.
- The media in their reporting should accept the human rights based approach for people with disabilities. They should contribute to creating a positive image of these people (by avoiding sensationalist stories, "superficial reporting", and inappropriate terminology) and use the expertise, knowledge and reliable data of the civil society organizations.
- Civil society organizations expect their key messages to be properly shared through the media, and the essence, from a human rights perspective, needs to be clear and precise. Civil society organizations representing persons with disabilities expect continuous cooperation and consultation with the media, instead of being there only to fill an empty slot in the media program.
- The media need to combat public prejudice that people with disabilities are incompetent and helpless. Through an affirmative approach, media products need to be free from sensationalism, dramatization or compassion, and they should present people with disabilities as people who can contribute to change in all spheres of life, thus promoting a more inclusive and tolerant society.
- The media influences public opinion. The way people with disabilities are portrayed, and the frequency in which they appear in the media, has an impact on the image that is created for and about them in society. With that in mind, civil society organizations need to think about the topics they promote and the people they represent, and journalists, through a professional approach, need to find protagonists who can tell the story and send a positive message to people with disabilities.
- In order to promote the positive portrayal of people with disabilities through the media, as well as to ensure the high quality of professional reporting, journalists need the support of civil society organizations that can point out topics that are important to them, but also provide training to improve skills for communication of their members, so that journalists could follow the guidelines for reporting on disability:
- Journalists should allow people with disabilities to speak on their own behalf.
- Journalists should focus on the potential of the individual, not their limitations.
- It is better to emphasize the ability, and not the disability, whenever possible.
- Journalists should avoid sad background music on a TV or radio program when talking about a disability.
- Journalists should try to portray people with disabilities as active member of society.
- Journalists should also interview people with disabilities on topics not related to their disability.
- In order for the media to counter prejudice, civil society organizations should enable journalists to make contact with people with disabilities who are the "image" of ability, strength and potential, rather than telling sad or passive stories; with people who are willing to speak publicly about their lives and their everyday needs.
- Civil society organizations should actively provide ideas for presenting the opportunities and needs of people with disabilities, they should regularly contact the media with which they cooperate, and they should cooperate with journalists by submitting proposals for activities or topics that they would like the media to cover.
- Civil society organizations should nurture the established cooperation with journalists who produce certain media content related to areas of interest to persons with disabilities, in order for this content to be represented in regular programs.
- Civil society organizations should also strengthen their communication capacities with the media, in terms of training their staff who would be in regular communication with journalists, by offering them attractive topics, by professionally "wrapping" content that could attract media attention, and by speaking on behalf of persons with disabilities, instead of focusing on the technical communication with the media (sending press releases, invitations and information on/about events and activities of the civil society organizations):
- Civil society organizations need training to improve their media communication skills and the manner in which they should present information to the media.
- Civil society organizations should have trained people who will represent them in the media through statements, interviews and expert opinions.
- Civil society organizations should have a more proactive approach and impose their own themes to the media and the public, which they consider current and relevant, or for which they need "allies" from the media in order to put pressure on the institutions.
Civil society organizations need to strengthen their skills in using the new digital media, in order to establish a two-way communication with their target groups, and at the same time gain access to a wider audience, including the younger generations that increasingly use online media.