A place for disability sport in mainstream media by: Matthew Hepworth
Everyday hundreds of men and women are breaking sporting records in stadiums, on fields and in the pool, but these achievements are largely going unreported. Why? These men and women have a disability. For most of them it doesn’t define who they are, their sporting achievements do, but in a world of commercial journalism where only elite sport sells, how do we share their stories of sporting success?
An analysis of sporting news from Queensland’s Courier Mail across 5 days is dominated by Rugby League, AFL, cricket, horse racing and tennis, but no mention of those sports within the disability sector.
However it’s not all doom and gloom.
Geoff Trappett is a former Paralympic athlete who competed in the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games and believes the Games generated new media coverage of disabled sports not previously seen in Australia.
“Sydney was a really big turning point for the Paralympic movement to get a good foothold in Australia,” Mr Trappett said.
However he also believes a lack of resources hinders mainstream media’s ability cover disabled sports.
“We certainly need more journos to have a good understanding of the disability sector and to be pushing those stories that aren’t inspiration porn,” he said.
Mr Trappett said “old school thinking” still proved problematic in getting disability stories published.
“The issue that the disability sector still has is that we can get young journos to write as a good story as we want, but that helps us absolutely none if it gets cut off by the subeditor and editor that sits above them who are very much old school thinking in terms of disability,” he said.
Andrew McGarry, an online sports reporter for the ABC, said while media organisations ramp up coverage for major events such as the Paralympics, it is more difficult at other times of the sports news cycle.
“At a time when it’s been made publicly clear that resources are very limited and very tight, that means you have to make sometimes tough decisions on what you cover,” Mr McGarry said.
“There are certain non-negotiable things for any sports desk – in our case as a national newsroom, the 3 big ones would be AFL, Rugby League and Cricket. After that there are a whole heap of sports and issues and areas that are all clamouring for coverage and we can’t get to all of them.”
Although media are more receptive to covering large scale disabled sporting events such as the Paralympics, many smaller sporting organisations still struggle to receive the coverage they deserve.
Special Olympics Australia is one of those organisations – a sporting body that facilitates both participation and competition-based sporting events for people with an intellectual disability.
Marketing and Communications Executive at Special Olympics Australia, Paul Wiggins, said recognition of the organisation often creates barriers in pitching stories to media.
“Certainly one of the challenges we have is just recognition of exactly who we are and what we do before you even get in the door to talk about what your particular story is, so we spend a lot of our time trying to explain to people what differentiates us and exactly what makes us unique and what we do and that’s always a challenge,” he said.
Mr Wiggins said success for the organisation comes in utilising smaller regional publications rather than state or national ones.
“We recognise the challenges that you get for coverage in metro newspapers so we sort of approach it from a grassroots up element,” he said. “We have a relationship with News Limited where we use their local newspaper network, so their community news around the country to connect athletes with the local newspaper.”
Mr Wiggins said he was aware of the limitations in pitching on a state-wide level.
“I mean in Adelaide if I pitch a story to The Advertiser do I expect to get it over an Adelaide Crows story? No I don’t. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a place for it.”
Andrew McGarry agrees.
“If you get the start at the local level – they may be small stories but it has the potential to reach the masses,” Mr McGarry said.
“For example at an ABC level if a local reporter in a regional or a state based newsroom does something online, if we then search for Paralympics the next time someone is doing a story that’ll come up. It’s just building up that database so there’s more out there and that profile can build.”
Mr McGarry said a better relationship is also needed between journalists and disabled sporting bodies to provide greater coverage of their sports.
“Everyone has an amazing story to tell,” he said. “You can’t tell them all but giving journalists help in identifying a story – it can open people’s eyes about disability sport – and we need more of it.”
Andrew cites his time as a reporter for the 2000 Paralympic Games as the highlight of his career.
“I don’t think you can cover a Paralympics and not end up more passionate about it afterwards,” he said.
“That is probably the single greatest highlight – and I’ve done some interesting things in my career.”
For Geoff Trappett he believes human interest is the key to the disability sector gaining greater media coverage.
“The thing that really engrains a particular sport or particular person into media longer-term is an outside of sport story, that’s where the Paralympic movement and Paralympic athletes need to start doing better, in pitching those kind of stories,” he said. “You pitch those stories you’ll actually be involved in the media for a hell of a lot longer.”
Geoff now runs a disability advocacy company – Inclusion Moves – and continues to find unique ways to pitch disability stories to the media.
“One of the campaigns I’ve been involved in lately has been around the same sex marriage debate,” he said. “The mechanics of how that vote happens was looking as though it could’ve been discriminatory towards people with vision impairment.
“Pitching those kinds of stories is about pitching human rights, it’s about pitching a person with a disability should have absolutely the same rights to all the citizenship mechanisms that you do as an able-bodied person.”