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Disability Center Comes to Cronkite School

October 3, 2009

The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University is the new home for the National Center on Disability & Journalism.

The NCDJ provides resources, including a style guide and reporter tip sheet and source list, for journalists covering people with disabilities. The center’s Web site, hosted at the Cronkite School, also provides a forum for journalists and people with disabilities to share and comment on news coverage.

The center was launched in 1998 in San Francisco as the Disability Media Project to raise awareness of how the news media cover people with disabilities. In 2000, the center’s name was changed to the National Center on Disability & Journalism, and it operated for a time out of Boston. In 2008, the center’s board decided to seek an affiliation with a university journalism program.

The center has an office in the new Cronkite building in downtown Phoenix and is staffed by Cronkite graduate student Jake Geller, who himself has a disability. Cronkite Assistant Dean Kristin Gilger oversees the center.

Gilger said the news media have lagged behind in coverage of disabilities.

At least 19 percent of the U.S. population has some kind of disability, defined by the American with Disabilities Act as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities.”

“The mainstream press frequently under-covers this segment of the population or the coverage is inaccurate or incomplete,” Gilger said. “We hope to help reporters do a better job, not because we advocate a particular point of view but because we are concerned about the journalistic principles of accuracy, fairness and diversity in news coverage.”

For example, the center offers advice to reporters on how to approach an interview with a person who has a disability and suggests when it’s appropriate to use the terms “handicapped” or “disabled.”

Geller, who also is the lead writer for an NCDJ blog on disability issues, said he hopes the center will become “the starting point for journalists working on stories about people with disabilities and a place where journalists will share what they do and how they can improve their storytelling abilities.”

A national advisory board of journalists and disability experts help lead the center. The newly named board members are:

  • Jennifer LaFleur, director of computer-assisted reporting for ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization that produces journalism in the public interest;
  • Steve Doig, Knight Chair in Journalism at the Cronkite School and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter;
  • Suzanne Robitaille, founder and editor-in-chief of Abledbody.com, a consumer Web site that covers disability news and assistive technology;
  • Nan Connolly, former business editor with Knight Ridder who teaches news reporting at the Nicholson School of Communication, University of Central Florida;
  • Beth Haller, professor of journalism/new media at Towson University in Maryland and former co-editor of the Society for Disability Studies’ scholarly journal “Disability Studies;”
  • Greg Smith, book author and host and producer of the nationally syndicated radio program “On A Roll – Talk Radio on Life & Disability.”

LaFleur, who has written extensively about disabilities, said she’s excited to see the NCDJ up and running. “I’m honored to be a part of it,” she said. “My hope is that the NCDJ will be a resource for reporters in covering the real issues that affect people with disabilities.”

For more information, visit www.ncdj.org.