Viewer advocacy is not only a great community service, but this kind of reporting is very good for ratings. However, it can be a double-edged sword, because while some viewer advocacy reporters care about the people they cover, the main things they all care about are getting results, getting ratings … and getting credit for results and ratings.
With this in mind, the secret ingredient in the recipe for viewer advocacy success involves sensationalizing the victimhood status of the viewer being helped. This kind of attention can be very humbling to the person in need of assistance, but often as not, the individual in a bind is willing to make the trade-off to have a TV reporter help resolve a specific problem.
I happened to see one of these viewer advocacy reports recently. It was about a woman who uses a wheelchair who was getting nowhere with government bureaucracy. It was one of those no-win situations where everything she had tried wasn’t working, so her last resort was to call a local TV consumer advocate.
To be sure, the TV bulldog came in and he did get resolution.
Case closed? Not quite.
The More Pitiful the “Victim” the Better
In the course of the reporter’s story, he referred to the woman as “wheelchair-bound.” Most people wouldn’t pick up on this as an issue. But most people don’t find themselves using wheelchairs. I would bet that a large number of people who use wheelchairs picked up on the unfortunate word choice.
The woman described herself as a “wheelchair user.” She did not characterize herself as “wheelchair-bound” for good reason.
The woman’s use of the term “wheelchair user” is a sign that she subscribes to a mindset that is known as "people-first" language. It’s not political correctness run amok. It’s not a new set of disability-centered euphemisms that will quickly go out of style once a stigma attaches itself to trending terminology.
Rather, people-first language is a simple mindset that puts the person before the condition. Structurally, it seeks consistency by placing the emphasis on all persons with disabilities as people first. Then the necessary descriptor language follows.
Additional examples of people-first language would involve describing a woman with epilepsy as such, instead of labeling her an epileptic; or referring to a man with diabetes as such, rather than labeling him a diabetic. People-first isn’t about finding the right labels, but rather it’s to eliminate labels.
Why is this important?
The old school style of describing this woman in the story I mentioned as “wheelchair-bound” portrays her as a prisoner of her chair. In the reporter’s mind as reflected by his word choice, she was a victim long before the government penalized her. When terms like this are commonly accepted and used, then the broad (even politically correct) assumption is that people in wheelchairs are victims each morning simply by taking their first breath of the day. They are people to be pitied. Victims 24/7.
For some, the loss of dignity in this way is the higher cost of having a disability than having the disability itself. People-first language seeks to avoid trapping people with words.
The Reporter’s Take
I had the chance to interact with the reporter after his story aired and asked him why he chose to describe her as “wheelchair-bound,” as opposed to following her lead by using people-first language.
As I expected, not only was he unaware of the people-first philosophy, but he rejected it outright on the basis that anyone who would take issue with his word choice isn’t seeing the big picture. That he’s a champion for the little guy so to speak (and the “wheelchair-bound” I presume).
His point was well made. Still, helping those in need is not license to minimize those in need. And that’s what people-first is all about.
There’s no harm in describing someone as a wheelchair user instead of “wheelchair-bound.” It certainly doesn’t take any more time to say. The problem for my reporter friend however is that “wheelchair user” may normalize perceptions of someone with a disability to the point where the news story itself may sound less dramatic, harder to hype, harder to sensationalize.
In the end, the reporter in this case indicated he had no intention of changing his ways, and he didn’t have to tell me why. To draw viewers, he must be a hero. To be a hero, he needs a victim. The more he can paint the viewers he aids as helpless, the better he looks. And that’s what matters.
My guess is this kind of thing will evolve, but probably only when more news directors, producers and anchors rely on wheelchairs or have some other form of disability. It will take that kind of change, I believe, before we see a noticeable shift in the normalization of the way people with disabilities are described in TV news reporting.
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