Influencing Media through Advocacy Groups: The Media Watch Campaign


Popular culture’s depiction of disability influences society's perceptions. Media can perpetuate or abolish disability perceptions through its word choices and story focuses.

Purpose and Anticipated Benefits

By establishing a set of procedures to influence the media, local advocacy groups can work with the media in their community to promote acceptable media coverage of disabilities and related issues.


Research and Training Center on Independent Living at the University of Kansas researchers worked with two advocacy groups (The WHOLE PERSON Center for Independent Living in Kansas City and Resources for Living Independently in Philadelphia) to develop and evaluate methods to promote adherence to accepted media guidelines.




The project began by working with consumers who regularly monitored two daily local newspapers and television news shows to identify disability-related features. This ongoing monitoring provided a baseline for comparing effects of Center efforts to promote acceptable media coverage. First, media professionals were invited to a press conference to learn about proposed activities. Only four media people came, even though a free breakfast was included. No effect on the appropriateness of disability-related features was observed.

Next, “media kits” were mailed to all media professionals. The kit included a copy of the Guidelines for Reporting and Writing About People With Disabilities, related promotional materials (for example, poster and bookmark encouraging use of correct terminology), and examples of appropriate media features. No effect on the acceptability of media features was observed.

Finally, researchers looked at the effects of providing reporters, newscasters, editors, and producers with feedback on media features reported by the monitors. This feedback, in the form of a personalized letter, commended appropriate terminology and portrayals and suggested positive alternatives when problems were noted. The two daily newspapers and a third daily for comparison were monitored with 350 separate reporters and editors over a 12-month period during the letter writing campaign that pointed out positive and negative aspects of the disability reporting on local articles.

The trained monitors typically reviewed the newspaper on designated days, and often two monitors were assigned the same newspaper. After the 12 months, monitoring was done for 30 days at four, 10, and 16 months after the study ended to determine where the letter writing had been effective.


A total of 237 local disability-related articles by 148 reporters were identified during the 12 months. In response to these articles, 110 letters were sent.This strategy of individualized feedback proved to be quite effective in improving acceptability of media features. For example, prior to the feedback procedure, only about 40% of disability-related terminology used had been correct according to the Guidelines. Since the feedback letters began, more than 65% of disability-related terminology had been correct. This was an impressive gain, considering that only 30% of reporters who reported disability-related features had received at least one feedback letter.

Further, as more letters were sent, the trend was toward more frequent use of appropriate terminology. An interesting side effect of the feedback letters was the gradual increase in the frequency of disability-related features reported. Another desirable effect was an increase in the number of times the independent living center (in this case, The WHOLE PERSON) was cited as an information source for a feature. Reporters began contacting The WHOLE PERSON for information about disability issues they were covering. In fact, one newspaper columnist devoted an entire feature to The WHOLE PERSON after receiving several feedback letters.


Jones, M. L., & Ulicny, G. R. (1986). The media project. Disability Studies Quarterly, 6(3), 12.

Jones, M. L., & Ulicny, G. (n.d.). Evaluation of a consumer-directed effort to promote acceptable coverage of disability-related issues in local newspapers. Lawrence, KS: Research and Training Center on Independent Living, University of Kansas.

Jones, M. L. (1987). Project works toward better media portrayals. Independent Living Forum 5(1), 17.

Jones, M. L., & Graham, C. (1988). Establishing a media watch committee. Second Annual Meeting of the Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities in Illinois, Springfield, IL.

Jones, M. L., Johnson, M., & Elkins, S. (1988). Media Watch Program. National Easter Seal Society, Chicago, IL.

Jones, M. L., Johnson, M., Elkins, S. & Clouston, J. (1988). The Media Watch Campaign: Improving media portrayals of people with disabilities. National Conference on Independent Living, Washington, DC.

Jones, M. L., Elkins, S., Leach, T., Rosenblum, K., & Johnson, M. (1987). Getting the media on your side: Strategies for promoting positive portrayals of disability issues. National Conference on Independent Living, Washington, DC.