“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.

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.

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.

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).

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).

Nation (# images)Disability VisibleDisability Not VisiblePhoto With StoryCelebration/ 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).

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’.