Media should not exploit people's disabilities

I sometimes wonder about the press.

That may sound ironic, but it is a valid question. I know what details I would include in a story, but I can't read another person's mind.

For instance, why would the Associated Press use "The City Council is set to vote on a set of police reform proposals growing out of the controversy over the death of a legless black man who struggled with officers" as the lead on a story about a Phoenix man who died after police officers used a choke hold on him?

Is someone more susceptible to choke holds if both of their legs are amputated at the knee? If a victim's physicality is relevant to the story, that should be illustrated for the reader. Mention of a person's race or ethnicity should serve a purpose. In this case, some say the police only hassled this man because he was black, and driving a nice car.

The man who died, Edward Mallet, was placed in the hold after he struggled with officers who tried to question him. The neck hold the officer used puts pressure on the arteries that supply blood to the brain.

Mallet's August death sparked controversy in Phoenix and now the City Council will consider proposals to give officers more training with the neck hold, and place more citizens on a review board that examines police misconduct complaints.

It is a tragedy that Mallet, an anti-gang crusader, died at the hands of police. It was not justified, and any potentially fatal hold must be used sparingly, and only with intense scrutiny. Citizens must keep close tabs on their police departments, as they should with any governing institution.

But why label him legless? First of all, very few people are actually legless. Even if your legs are amputated above the knee, you still have legs. For instance, my left leg is amputated above the knee, but that doesn't make me "the white, partially legless editor in chief."

A person is not the sum of his body parts, or lack thereof. The press wouldn't identify George Bush as "the former president with that thyroid problem" because it isn't relevant to his policy decisions. Bob Dole's clenched hand isn't featured in stories about him, because it doesn't matter.

And it shouldn't matter.

A few months ago, the Arizona Daily Star ran a front page photo of a high school wrestler whose legs were amputated. The "kicker" above the photo, which is supposed to be a feature-y, catchy phrase to call attention to the photo, simply said "Legless Wrestler." Pretty catchy.

I have a fundamental problem with stories about disabled people doing regular things like wrestling, getting around or succeeding in the business world. These are supposed to be human interest stories, inspirational tales of people overcoming huge obstacles to achieve their goals.

This type of story is fine in theory, but are rarely executed gracefully. I've seen stories that stoop to the lowest level, and are patronizing and insulting. Instead of telling a story of personal courage, sometimes combined with society's negligence and cruelty, the piece ends up saying "Look at those crippled folks. Isn't that sweet. They're kind of like us."

One of my journalism classes discussed this topic, arguing about what makes a story, what makes something unusual and newsworthy. We debated the weightier issue of media stereotypes, using this scenario: if we decide a success story about a minority person is newsworthy because of the minority factor, is that perpetuating the stereotype that certain people are incapable of success because of who they are, or is it promoting a positive role model? Or is that thinking flawed, because who is the press to say which groups need role models?

It boils down to a question of ability. This topic is incredibly subjective, undermining the myth that journalists should be objective. The process of assigning stories is an exercise in subjectivity, as is where the story appears in the newspaper. Writing stories is subjective, and while it is possible to be fair and balanced, objectivity does not exist. It can't, because we are human.

That is why details like "legless" have no relevance in most stories, yet they are included because they are supposedly "unusual" and "out of the ordinary." Maybe the reporter, even subconsciously, thought the tragedy was worse because the victim was "disabled," as if his life is more valuable or precious than a "regular" person. Child victims deserve this sentiment, because they are the innocents, but disabled people are not children.

Mallet's death is a tragedy, not because he was a "legless black man," but because he was a human being.

Sarah Garrecht is Wildcat editor in chief and a journalism senior.

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