Newspaper Coverage of Learning Disabilities

Article excerpt

The term learning disabilities is misunderstood by the general public and many educators. (Gearheart & Gearheart, 1989). Perhaps lack of knowledge and experiences with learning disabilities causes the public to stereotype persons with learning disabilities. Often these stereotypes negatively affect programs and the way in which persons with learning disabilities are treated. Unfortunately, some of the negative stereotypes, attitudes, and opinions about learning disabilities may be based on scanty misinformation found in newspapers.

Research indicates that the press shapes public impressions, perceptions, attitudes, and ideas towards persons with learning disabilities and that newspapers are a powerful medium for developing the public's opinion about issues (Yoshida, Wasilewski, & Friedman, 1990). In fact, the newspaper has an important role to play in promoting and portraying images of persons with disabilities.

The recent focus on educational budget cuts and the rights of persons with disabilities has produced changes in emphasis and an increase in the amount of coverage of disability issues in newspapers (Clogston, 1993). The present study sought to determine, with newspaper articles from December 1994 through December 1995, the percentage of news releases covering specific issues about learning disabilities and the geographic origination of the articles. This study was conducted to provide knowledge of the information about learning disabilities readily available to the public through local newspapers.

Method

Newspaper articles included in the study were obtained from NewsBank Comprehensive Electronic Index, a CD-rom device with full text articles of current issues and events selected from over 100 newspapers across the US and Canada. All articles listed in this index come from local news and feature articles containing information suitable for research. The representation appeared adequate for a nonbiased sample because the NewsBank selects articles from newspapers originating in all major cities in the United States, 48 state capitals, and Canada.

The term "learning disabilities" was encoded into the computer and every current article written between December 1994 and December 1995 containing the term "learning disabilities" was identified and classified according to seven major topics and eight general geographic locations.

Criteria for classification by geographic areas were selected from the 1986 edition of The New Encyclopedia Britannica:

* New England states: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont;

* Middle Atlantic region: Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania;

* The South: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia;

* Middle West: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin;

* The Southwest: Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas;

* Mountain region: Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming;

* Pacific Coast: Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington;

* Canada

The following seven categories were used for analysis:

* Costs/Funding of special education

* Curriculum

* Legal issues

* School disruption/Prison enrollment

* Truancy/Unemployment

* Identification

* Causes

Results

A total of 73 news releases containing the words `learning' and `disabilities' appeared in the NewsBank Comprehensive Electronic Index between December 1994 and December 1995. After the elimination of 11 news releases which did not pertain to the term `learning disabilities', the final number was 62. The data were set up on rank-ordered tables based n geographic areas and number of news releases, categories and number of news releases, and categories of news releases and geographic areas. …