Autism, Bias, and the Media

The media has been taking a lot of criticism these days.  While some see the media as an ally of the American people, many others are more prone to see it as the enemy.  According to surveys, trust in the media is at an all-time low.

Back in the 1970s, trust in the media was much, much higher, especially the printed word.  Each night, my dad, a professor at New York University, would come home with at least four or five newspapers.  It seemed like he was always reading and looking for articles that related in some way to his teaching and writing in the fields of health, physical education, and recreation.  Among the papers in his briefcase were The Herald Tribune, The New York Post, The Daily News, and The New York Times.  In his eyes, the NYT was the least sensational and the most dependable.  Its slogan “all the news that’s fit to print” reinforced his thinking that this was a serious, just the facts kind of newspaper.  Since that time, a half-century ago, the NYT portrays itself in much the same way.  A recent ad for the NYT described it as “Just facts, no alternatives.”

For over a year, I have been writing a book about autism and my family.  As part of this process, I have buried myself in the literature on autism.  Not too long ago, I came across a study conducted by a professor and an undergraduate student at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.  The study analyzed the NYT’s coverage of autism from 1973 (the first mention of autism) to 2012.  Specifically, the study’s authors looked for underlying themes in all of the NYT articles on autism during this span of almost four decades.  What they found is cause for concern:

  • Significantly more articles focused on the abilities autistic individuals lacked, rather than positive abilities they possessed.
  • Only 15% discussed how autism impacted others.
  • Two of the least discussed themes were discrimination against those with autism (6%) and their rights (2%).
  • Most of the themes revolved around a medical narrative, meaning a description of the individual, the ‘condition,’ and problems and solutions related to his or her autism.
  • Many articles addressed the prevalence of autism and “curing” autism.

How many of us depend on the media as a primary source of information about autism?  If we do, we are apt to develop a pretty distorted and biased view of people on the autism spectrum, their impact on others, and the worlds in which they live.

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