“Us” and “Them”: The media treat Paralympians differently depending on where they are from

By Toni Bruce

Are you planning to read about or watch the 2012 Paralympics?  Do you care about media coverage?  If so, read on.

My sample was all 39 Paralympics photos published in three New Zealand newspapers. And yes I know this is a very low number; Olympians got 47 times more photos, despite sending only 6 times as many athletes, and winning fewer medals overall.

To be honest, I was quite surprised to see that New Zealand athletes were treated so differently.  I don’t know of any other research that has looked at this aspect of coverage so I thought I’d share it with the AthletesFirst readers. I’d be interested to know if you’ve noticed these differences in your own countries, and what you think about them.

(Andrea: In addition to sharing your examples and stories in the comment section below this post you can also email me examples of media coverage or ad campaigns and I’ll post them on the blog for others to see. Send us the best and the worst media coverage of the 2012 Paralympic Games!)

Photographs of International Athletes: “Them”
In simple terms, the disability of international athletes was hypervisible (Figure 1); most photos highlighted the absence of multiple limbs and showed athletes performing without prosthetic devices.  There were few stories attached to such images (see the Table); it seems their only purpose was to visually mark difference and to present Paralympians as exotic others.  Their results and events were unimportant.  Karen DePauw calls this the Visibility of Disability, where athletes are presented as disabled and inferior to able-bodied competitors.

Figure 1: Images of international athletes in three newspapers: Image of three photos clipped from newspapers. First photo shows equestrian athlete holding reins in her teeth, second image shows swimmer (double arm and right leg amputee) sitting on pool deck, third image shows swimmer (same ?) diving off the blocks. In all images the 'disability' is very visible.

While some images seemed to indicate universal sporting experiences such as the joy of success, the intense focus of pre-race preparation and the physical effort of competing (see Figure 2), even these reinforced difference. The individual athletes remained anonymous and were presented within traditional discourses of triumph over disadvantage as evident in the one-sentence caption: “Medals make life a lot sweeter for those, like this year’s Paralympians, who overcome physical disadvantage on the road to athletic excellence”.  The placement of “athletic excellence” at the end of the caption and presenting it as a kind of generalized accomplishment of all Paralympians again privileges disability over athleticism.

Figure 2: Visibility of disability for international athletes: Five images from newspapers of non-New Zealand athletes competing. In every image the nature of the athlete's impairment is easily identified.
Photographs of Home Athletes: “Us”
In stark contrast, New Zealand Paralympians appeared in very similar ways to Olympians. Photos focused on success and sporting performance while minimizing or only discreetly highlighting disability. DePauw calls this the Invisibility of Disability and primarily represents Paralympians as athletes (Figure 3).

Figure 3: The invisibility of disability for New Zealand athletes: Seven images of New Zealand Paralympians taken from newspapers - three images show athletes pumping fists in triumph, two show swimmers glancing at the score board and smiling, and two show athletes running on the track. The nature of the athletes' impairments is not immediately identifiable.  New Zealand athletes’ disabilities were visible in only 32% of photos, and even these were almost always tied to nationalism; the photos showed athletes winning, with their medals and/or highlighted the black and white colours of the national uniform with its recognizable silver fern symbols (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Disability articulated to athletic success within a nationalistic frame: Six images of New Zealand Paralympians - this time the athletes' impairments are more visible but they are also shown in poses that demonstrate athletic success - holding  up medals, celebrating after a win, etc.


Nation (# images) Disability Visible Disability Not Visible Photo With Story Celebration/ Medals/ Wins
New Zealand (22) 32% 68% 96% 55%
International (17) 88% 12% 29% 18%
Whole Sample (39) 56% 44% 44% 38%

These competing forms of representation are clearly evident in Figure 5.  The three New Zealanders are presented with no visible disability in images that celebrate national success (two on top row, under the heading Winners are Grinners) or the effects of giving it all (bottom, second from left, under Tough Going).

Figure 5: Contrasting images of national and international athletes. Top left shows New Zealand athlete standing on the podium with her medal. Top right shows New Zealand athlete posing with her three medals. Bottom left is Oscar Pistorius 'Blade Runner' running. Bottom second from the left shows New Zealand athlete collapsed on the track after a race. The remaing three (bottom right) show international athletes - all amputees - with silhouettes that emphasize impairment but give little sporting context.All three international athletes appear with visible disabilities. Two  appear in images that reflect the exoticization of disability (bottom right, under Against the Odds).  The third, Oscar Pistorius (bottom left) who was arguably the international star of the Games, appeared under his nickname, Blade Runner, with an image that highlighted his high-tech lower limb prostheses.  Media coverage of Pistorius, who received 35% of all international images, diverged notably from other international competitors in that his visibility was not obvious in all photographs, and most of his images were accompanied by a story.

I suspect this is because abled-bodied journalists were able to see Pistorius as (almost) able-bodied.  They would have been familiar with his highly publicized but unsuccessful attempt to compete at the 2008 Olympics.  By seeing Pistorius as like “Us”, they represented him more like Olympians, with an added fascination for his high-tech, lower limb prostheses. [Other studies have also found this media fascination with so-called “supercrips” that continues to highlight difference.]

So what do I think is going on?  The results seem to indicate that the more an athlete is seen as being like ‘Us’, the more likely he or she is to receive in-depth coverage marked by nuance and complexity and fitting within journalistic norms.  The further away — the closer to “Them” — the more likely athletes are to be narrowly stereotyped or exoticized in ways that highlight difference.

The photographs of most international athletes highlight the challenges the mainstream media face in reconciling their beliefs about elite sport and about disability.  It seems that nationalism trumps disability — for “our” athletes at least.  On the other hand, even the most visible global disability sport event does not on its own mean that Paralympians will be treated as real athletes.

I’ll be gathering New Zealand images again in 2012.  I’m happy to share them with others, and would love to see what appears in your newspapers as well.

Toni Bruce is an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland.  She is interested in how the sports media represent different groups, particularly those who are not historically seen as part of the elite, male, white, heterosexual, able-bodied ‘norm’.  http://www.education.auckland.ac.nz/uoa/toni-bruce
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One thought on ““Us” and “Them”: The media treat Paralympians differently depending on where they are from

  1. Interesting article. As the friend of an athlete participating in the Paralympics for the first time, I’ve been keenly interested in seeing what type of coverage (and lack of coverage) athletes get. It has been disappointing for me that the “mainstream Canadian” tv stations/newspapers haven’t been really highlighting many athletes. I would have expected the Vancouver Sun or The Province to have a section where all the BC athletes were profiled – or at least names. As I’ve been talking to people about the Paralympics, there seems to still be that old attitude that the paralympians aren’t really elite athletes. Crazy. Although this article certainly caught my attention. What do others think of it?
    London 2012 Paralympics: Jon-Allan Butterworth claims most GB Paralympians are just ‘having a laugh’ via @Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/olympics/paralympic-sport/9500899/London-2012-Paralympics-Jon-Allan-Butterworth-claims-most-GB-Paralympians-are-just-having-a-laugh.html

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