GOVERNMENT, BUSINESS, AND DISABILITY SOURCES
IN NEWS REPRESENTATIONS OF THE ADA
This paper undertook a content analysis of U.S. elite newspapers and
the three major U.S. news magazines (N=524) to understand how the news media
balanced perspectives from government, business, and the disability community in
sourcing news stories about the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. The Act
embodied a new civil rights issue that sharply contrasted with stereotypes and
myths about people with disabilities, but it was also seen as a costly threat by
the business community.
GOVERNMENT, BUSINESS, AND DISABILITY SOURCES
IN NEWS REPRESENTATIONS OF THE ADA
Beth Haller, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Humanities and Communications
Penn State Harrisburg
777 W. Harrisburg Pike
Middletown, PA 17057
Email: [log in to unmask]
Paper submitted to the Media & Disability Interest Group,
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication,
for 1996 annual meeting, Anaheim, CA.
Government, Business, and Disability Sources in News Representations
of the ADA
This paper undertook a content analysis of U.S. elite newspapers and
the three major U.S. news magazines (N=524) to understand how the news media
balanced perspectives from government, business, and the disability community in
stories about the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. The Act embodied a new
civil rights issue that sharply contrasted with stereotypes and myths about
people with disabilities, but it was also seen as a costly threat by the
Therefore, by analyzing the sources in the ADA stories, as well as
other attributes of representation, this study tries to understand how the news
media frame the Americans with Disabilities Act. It should be understood that
the disability rights perspective in the United States is slowly pushing its way
into the public's consciousness. This perspective contrasts with the reigning
view of people with disabilities, which has adopted a medical or social welfare
perspective in which disability is seen as a physical problem alone residing
within individuals (Scotch, 1988). The disability rights perspective views
disability as a phenomenon created by society, which has yet to modify its
architectural, occupational, educational, communication, and attitudinal
environments to accommodate people who are physically and mentally different
(Bowe, 1978). In the rights perspective, physical difference is acknowledged,
and even celebrated as an ethnicity might be by some, but the focus is away from
the disabled individual as the problem and on society's structures instead.
The 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
embodied the disability rights perspective and made full civil rights for people
with disabilities law. In one sweeping legislative act, the disability rights
perspective was forced onto the public agenda of the United States. The sourcing
of the stories about ADA as it became part of the public agenda is the subject
of this study. The passage of the ADA is analogous to Thomas Kuhn's concept of a
paradigm shift in scientific discovery. The Americans with Disabilities Act
represents a point in U.S. history in which the categorization of people with
disabilities is shifting. The ADA acknowledges the full citizenship rights of
people with disabilities, just as the Civil Rights Bill for people of color did
in the 1960s. Therefore, media coverage is significant because as Higgins
(1992) says we as a society "make disability" through our language, media, and
other public and visible ways. Studying that coverage helps us understand the
media's role in "constructing" people with disabilities as different and their
role in framing many types of people who may not fit with "mainstream"
However, members of the U.S. business community had strong concerns
about the impact of the ADA upon them. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce criticized
provisions of the Act that dealt with the employer relationship. In testimony
before the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources in May 1989, Zachary
Fasman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce asked that all references to employment
be stricken from Title I of the Act, questioning the unclear language there. He
also said the definition of "reasonable accommodation" that employers must
provide for people with disabilities was too broad and unnecessary. And Fasman
questioned the idea of "essential function" in the Act, in which someone is
considered a qualified applicant if he or she can perform the essential function
of a job with or without reasonable accommodation.
Transportation companies and theater owners also lobbied vigorously
against parts of the ADA. In testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on the
Handicapped in May 1989, a spokesperson for the Greyhound Lines Inc. said the
ADA would doom its company (Greyhound, 1989). The spokesperson explained that
making their 4,000 buses wheelchair accessible with lifts could cut the
passenger capacity of the buses by 10 to 35 percent and cut the baggage and
package capacity by up to 32 percent. When the ADA finally passed, it took these
concerns into consideration, and specified that a study of over-the-road bus
accessibility be undertaken by the Office of Technology Assessment by July 26,
1993. Also large over-the-road bus companies must purchase accessible buses by
July 26, 1996 (Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association, 1992).
Theater owners supported the part of the Act that dealt with making
any newly constructed buildings fully accessible to people with disabilities,
but they lobbied for wheelchair accessible seating to be near an exit only. The
theater owners group also wanted existing theaters exempt from the ADA, saying
that inner city theaters with marginal profitability cannot afford to be
renovated. They also argued that some jobs in theaters could not accommodate
people who use wheelchairs (Green, 1989).
The perspective of the U.S. business community that made it into the
ADA stories may have cast a new stereotype of people with disabilities in U.S.
cultural narratives: That people with disabilities cost society money. The
voice of the business community reflects the paradigm of capitalism in the
United States, and journalists must ply their trade in this society. As Gans
(1980) has argued, news media embody a belief in the goodness of a free market
economy. In a more critical approach, Dines (1992) has called the media
"capitalism's pitchmen" because of the conservative nature of the sources they
use. Her content analysis of the "voices" on network news illustrated that
white, male, conservatives speak most often and the perspective of the Left gets
Because ADA was federal civil rights legislation, it also forced the
news media to look at people with disabilities as having minority group status
and deserving full civil rights. The media probably accepted this frame of
representation because the federal government gave it to them. The mainstream
news media serve popular imagination as the "watchdogs" of government through
investigative reporting. But more often than not studies show they are compliant
vehicles for the rhetoric of the federal government. In this case, that tendency
may have served the interests of the disability rights movement. With little
knowledge of the disability rights agenda, the news media had to rely on
governmental rhetoric and disability sources to tell the ADA story. And much of
the governmental rhetoric had been fashioned by activists from the disability
This study looks at how a balance between government. business, and
the disability community was struck in the news coverage of a major piece of
federal legislation. In terms of sourcing, how did the U.S. business community's
fear of the ADA as costly compete with the civil rights perspective of the Act?
Also, how do the news media perform when a new frame for the representation of a
group is handed down from a major institution such as U.S. Congress?
Gusfield (1981) has developed a useful framework for analyzing how a
problem such as discrimination against people with disabilities comes to be seen
as a social problem. In his idea of the ownership of public problem, it is
understood that all groups do not have the same power, influence, and authority
to define social problems. A group must truly own a problem to push it into the
public sphere. For example, disability organizations and disability activists
have tried to "own" the problem of full civil rights for people with
disabilities since the 1960s. In fact, in the mid-1970s, disability activists
held sit-ins across the nation to protest the lack of enforcement guidelines of
the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which made discrimination against people with
disabilities illegal at institutions that received federal money. However, that
activism was just a blip on the consciousness of the American public.
It was not until the late 1980s that the disability community truly
owned the problem of discrimination against people with disabilities. Events
such as the 1988 Deaf President Now student demonstration at Gallaudet
University to protest the appointment of a hearing president at the university
for deaf people and national polls that delineated the problem of unemployment
among people with disabilities gave the disability community more ownership of
the discrimination problem. With that ownership, the disability community was
then able, through better definition of the problem, to transfer the
responsibility for the problem to the U.S. government. Through the Americans
with Disabilities Act, this public problem is now being fixed upon the whole of
U.S. society, especially business concerns. Gusfield (1981) explains how a law
should be considered "as a stylized form of public drama whose impact is not
only in its instrumental consequences as a utilitarian means to an end. As a
cultural performance at levels of both formal and routine activity, law embodies
and reinforces meanings. It creates a day-to-day authority and legitimates
control through building the image of a social and natural order based on moral
consensus" (p. 18).
Gusfield explains that a component of this culture of public problems
is mass media. Media help construct the "reality" of a public problem. In the
case of the Americans with Disabilities Act, news media had only a little
knowledge of the disability rights perspective at the inception of the Act, so
this study can assess how they presented the Act as their knowledge grew and the
voice of the business community became stronger. As Gusfield acknowledges,
"metaphors are important for what they ignore as points of difference as well as
for what they include as marks of similarity" (1981, p. 22).
Research by Tichenor, Donohue, and Olien (1980) illustrates how the
press is part of a reciprocal process in the social system, being affected by it
and affecting it as well. Their research illustrates how the press mediated
community conflict between environmental interests and industrial interests in
Minnesota. The press is forced into reporting on social conflict because of its
place in the system and then its stories become a part of the social process,
affecting future developments. Their study also found that the power elite helps
form the media position, so the news media end up reinforcing the outlook of the
dominant power in the community. In conflict situations, the press contributes
to either a widening or narrowing of differences in knowledge within the system.
Olien, Tichenor, and Donohue (1989) again reinforced this idea that
the media lean in favor of the status quo and the "mainstream" when covering
public protests. That study found the media are watchdogs on behalf of the
mainstream groups. "Media report social movements as a rule in the guise of
watchdogs, while actually performing as 'guard dogs' for the mainstream
interests" (1989, p. 24). In their study of the 1975-78 protest against
establishment of a high voltage powerline in a rural area, Olien, Tichenor and
Donohue found the media playing the role of delegitimitizing the protestors,
referring to their actions as "vandalism." "It is also clear that in becoming
part of a social controversy, the media respond as principal agents of
legitimacy within the system, not as independent fourth estate watchdogs" (1989,
Their research has interesting implications for the news sourcing of
the ADA stories because it was a government story but it dealt with a group that
had been traditionally marginalized. The ADA also dealt with a social issue that
had not received much press attention in the past. It should be noted that
social issues typically take up less space in newspapers than other types of
news. Ryan and Owen (1976) undertook a content analysis of the coverage of eight
metropolitan daily newspapers of social issues, finding 8.8 percent of their
newshole devoted to health, housing, education, crime-law, poverty-welfare,
ecology, mass transit, racism-sexism and drug abuse. In a 1977 follow-up study,
Ryan and Owen found, however, that coverage of social issues contained more
errors than general coverage. The accuracy data indicated that the most common
errors were subjective, those in which the news source and the reporter may
differ on how the information should have been treated.
This has implications for the news coverage of the Americans with
Disabilities Act because disability rights activists have long faulted the media
for reporting on disability as a medical or welfare problem. In fact, Shapiro
(1993) reports that disability lobbyists for the ADA made little use of the
media to push their ideas because they thought the media stories would
perpetuate stereotypes and hinder the public's understanding of disability
But once the ADA passed, the press saw the story on its own. The news
media also quickly picked up on the conflict between business interests and the
In terms of ADA coverage, it is crucial to consider how marginalized
groups have been covered by the news media. Fedler (1973), in a study of
Minneapolis media, found that minority groups received more, rather than less,
attention than equivalent established groups. However, the media stories on
these non-mainstream groups may contain negative presentations, according to
Shoemaker (1984). She found that deviant political groups -- ranging from the
Sierra Club and NAACP to the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis -- receive less favorable
presentation in major newspapers. In surveys with news and political editors,
she discovered that if editors perceive a group as more deviant, it is covered
less favorably in newspaper articles. Hertog and McLeod (1988) confirmed
Shoemaker's findings in their study of anarchist marches in Minneapolis. They
found that newspapers and television covered the marches from a
pro-establishment bent and focused on the group's appearance and violence rather
than the issues the group presented.
Shoemaker (1987) maintains that it is socially functional that
deviance and deviant groups be deemed newsworthy. In that way, the agents of the
status quo can readily see any threats to their social control. The mass media
act as instruments in the social control of deviance. In labeling deviance, for
example, "mass media labeling is nothing more than journalists' normative
judgments, and these judgments will draw and define the attention of those who
control social change. The journalist acts as a surrogate judge of deviance for
his or her audience members" (Shoemaker, 1987, p. 172).
In a similar way, Visualizing Deviance by Ericson, Baranek, and Chan
(1987) looks at how journalists help define and shape what is social deviance.
The authors argue that journalistic methodology is one of visualization -- that
is making something visible to the mind even when it is not visible to the eyes.
At the level of their organization, journalists must assimilate the internal
myths such as investigative reporting consisting of the use of many methods and
sources and in-depth investigation. Even when reporting does not fit that
method, it is still transmitted to the public as if it does. This allows for
legitimation of the reporting process to the public and sources. Therefore,
Ericson et al. explain, "news organizations often respond more to the myths of
their institutional environment than to their actual work situation" (p. 358).
Also, by relying on authoritative sources, news organization legitimate their
own claims to authority.
Because most journalists do not actually see the original event of a
story, they are left to construct it from the accounts of authorized sources.
They also learn from the precedents of the journalistic culture on what stories
get play, what sources get used, and what representations get chosen. "One
reporter described the process as analogous to the Eskimo carver who eventually
learns the standards and taste of the urban marketplace and shapes his products
accordingly" (Ericson et al., 1987, p. 348).
The organizational and cultural practice of journalists influences
the sources used for stories. Roshco (1975) points to the institutional
constraint of timeliness as giving already newsworthy sources greater saliency
for reporters. Therefore, sources who have established their newsworthiness,
because of their high rank in the social structure most likely, will dominate
the news even if they are involved in less newsworthy events. In line with this,
he argues that sources with little newsworthy status must act deviantly to gain
the attention of the press. However, in these circumstances, reporters tend to
focus on the deviant event rather than the issue. Roshco calls these symbolic
protests "news management by the socially invisible" (p. 101).
Roshco, however, relies on a more pluralistic argument that the
institutional constraints on journalists may actually allow for fresh viewpoints
to enter the news. For example, he believes that a journalist who must
constantly update a daily news story looks to the novel and unexpected to add to
a story. He does admit, however, that although new viewpoints may enter the
news, it usually leads to oversimplification or distortion. He concludes that
the institutional bias toward the "new" can therefore expand as well as restrict
access to the press. Although news tends to follow "establishment" U.S. values,
the quest to constantly freshen the news allows some alternative viewpoints to
mainstream U.S. values to enter the news.
If Roshco is correct, it seems there would be more evidence of
non-mainstream points of view and more expression from marginalized groups in
the media. He seems to rest on the same assumption that many reporters do --
that getting "both sides of the story" means there are only two perspectives on
news events. This allows for narrow definitions of who makes and comments on
newsworthy occurrences, as well as what groups should be interviewed during
newsworthy events. Also, just because an alternative perspective does make it
into news stories, that does not mean it will be presented as a legitimate
perspective. The dominant perspective still may tend to win out.
A number of studies of news sources have confirmed that sources from
the government tend to dominate. Brown (1982) found that most news sources in
both local and national newspapers were typically government sources who were
men in executive-level positions. Barker-Plummer (1989) found that the number of
government-related sources used in two major national newspapers increased over
the years. She found a great increase in the use of executive-level government
officials and anonymous sources. Lasorsa and Reese (1990) illustrated that the
news media favored "high prestige" sources in covering the 1987 stock market
crash and that use of different sources affected the slant of news stories. In
studying the coverage of a riot, Sylvie (1989) found that a larger national
newspaper used more diversity of sources than did a smaller local newspaper.
Bennett (1990) theorizes that the level of conflict between the Congress and the
President influences the use of government sources in news stories. In an
analysis of news stories about Reagan-era Nicaragua policies, he found that news
content changes depending in the level of conflict between the Congress and the
Seo (1990) showed that sources from government organizations are
given more TV and newspaper coverage than those from other organizations, and
the sources highest in the hierarchy are deemed most credible by journalists, as
well as being covered most often. Stories on cancer clusters cited an average of
three sources, with two of these usually being government sources (Greenberg and
Wartenberg, 1991). Stories on AIDS also used primarily government officials and
high-ranking doctors as news sources (Colby and Cook, 1991). Whitney et al
(1985) also revealed that most TV news sources were from government, the
political arena, the military, or business. Martin (1988) discovered that
geographical proximity contributes to the number and type of news sources used.
Berkowitz (1986) found only a small number of women identified as news sources
in local and network TV news.
This study assessed the sourcing within the news media coverage of
the Americans with Disabilities Act. The sample consisted of all news and
feature articles written about the ADA from 1988 through 1993 in the New York
Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Los
Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News and World Report (N=524).
These publications were chosen because they all are indexed and represent the
major newspapers and news magazines of this country. They also represent four
geographic regions in the country, the Northeast, the Midwest, the South, and
the West, in addition to including a major business publication and the largest
circulation daily, The Wall Street Journal. It should be noted that the
Philadelphia Inquirer represents a major portion of the sample because the full
Inquirer library of stories from 1987 to present was available in database form.
Within the newspapers and news magazines, one story on the ADA was the unit of
analysis for coding purposes.
To assess the reliability of the coding scheme, 50 stories (about 10
percent) were coded by another coder. The findings on the majority of the
variables within the code sheet were compared between the author of this study
and the coder. Most of the code sheet questions were involved in the intercoder
reliability test. The answers to these questions were then collapsed into one
mean for the author's answers to these questions and one mean for the coder's
answers to these questions. A t-test was run, and it illustrates the
similarities between the author's findings and those of the coder. The author's
mean was 4.50, standard deviation = 13.45, and standard error = .28. The coder's
mean was 4.56, standard deviation = 13.32, and standard error = .28. The F value
from this t-test was 1.02 and the two-tailed probability was .619.
The placement of the ADA stories in different sections of the
newspapers indicates the how important the article is or the potential slant of
the article. The ADA stories were most often in the Neighbors section at 25%, in
the Front section 21% of the time and the Metro section 21% of the time. The ADA
stories appeared in the business section of a newspaper 15% of the time.
One way to assess how media assimilate new perspectives is to look
for the reasons for change cited in the stories. Table 1 illustrates that the
news media represented architectural access as the most important reason for the
ADA, followed by the issue of discrimination. Most stories (67.2%) did not cite
a secondary reason for the ADA, but those that did came up with the same top
four: general inaccessibility of society (10.1%), access to jobs (8.8%), general
discrimination against people with disabilities (5.7%), and architectural access
This study tried to assess how the news media perform when a new
frame for the representation of a group is handed down from a major institution
such as U.S. Congress. In one sense, the federal government controlled the
timing of the ADA moving into public discourse, but the news media went along
with it. In the newspaper stories, 15.5% appeared in the month of July -- the
month the ADA was signed and the month that some of its major provisions took
Another good way to understand how an institutions are reflected in
news stories is to look at what sources are cited in the stories. Table 2
indicates the sourcing of the ADA stories. It should be remembered that an
individual story may contain a number of sources. So it is significant that
people with disabilities (30.2%) or representatives of disability groups (35.3%)
were allowed to represent themselves as sources as much as they were. The
sourcing illustrates that government interests and business interests are in a
three-way competition with disability interests to represent the Americans with
Disabilities Act. But in this case, I would argue that the federal government's
role in defining the ADA is more positive because disability activists helped
write the law. Also, it is federal legislation that is overwhelmingly passed in
both the Senate and the House. State and local governments, however, may have a
more negative relationship to the law, calling it an "unfunded mandate" that
will cause them economic hardship.
However, based on being mentioned in the story, government groups
were connected to the ADA story more than disability groups were. Some type of
government group was represented in 80.5% of the stories, compared to disability
groups being represented in the stories 47.3% of the time. Reporters on the ADA
print stories did seem to find their local disability organizations for comment,
however, because local disability groups most often appeared in the stories at
19.3%of the time. Tables 3 and 4 illustrate mentions of disability groups and
government groups. It is significant to note that local government had strong
representation in the ADA stories at 16.4%. As expected the EEOC and the Justice
Department were two of the most often mentioned federal government groups
because they are the two agencies charged with enforcing most of the ADA
provisions in employment and accessibility. The ADA story was given cultural
power through its linkage to the White House and President. Although the
President pushing for it was rarely used as a reason for the ADA (Table 1) and
he was not a top source (Table 2), many of the stories connected the White
House to the Act just through frequent mention.
And a number of connections were made between government officials
and disability. In asking about a nondisabled source's family relationship to
disability, about 5% of the stories showed the connection. Many of these sources
were government officials who helped push for the ADA. Richard Thornburgh,
Attorney General at the time, has a son who was brain injured in a car accident.
President George Bush has one son with a learning disability and another with a
colostomy. Sen. Lowell Weiker's son has Down Syndrome. Sen. Tom Harkin's brother
is deaf. So government officials sometimes were used to validate the
universality of the disability experience.
However, the reporters failed to put the ADA in
historical-governmental context. Only 5.7% of the articles mentioned the Rehab
Act of 1973, which mandated that any entity that receives federal funds not be
allowed to discriminate against people with disabilities. However, the Rehab Act
had been primarily ignored for decades so most government-related sources were
not likely to mention it. Only 1.3% of the stories mentioned the other federal
laws dealing with disability, of which there are a number such as the Fair
Housing Standards Act. Only 6.5% of the articles mentioned local laws related to
The most prevalent complaint about the ADA from its critics is that
it will cost too much for business and other sectors of society to implement. In
terms of percentages, this notion of costliness associated with the ADA was
found more often in stories with sources from business or mentions of some
government groups. Table 5 illustrates the trend toward implication of
costliness in selected sources and government and disability groups. Most of the
crosstabulations for this table were not significant, but it does show a crucial
trend in the coverage of the ADA stories.
This is a unique study in that it illustrates that the news media's
reliance on government sources can work in the favor of a marginalized group
that had a hand in creating federal legislation. It was fortunate for the
disability rights movement that Congress did not dilute that perspective in the
ADA because that allowed for the media to latch onto something validated by a
major government institution. The nature of the ADA story, also, did not allow
the media to use the traditional stereotypes, which present people with
disabilities as medical problems in need of a cure or as superhuman (Clogston,
1990). This story forced the news media to acknowledge people with disabilities
as having minority group status and deserving full civil rights. It seems clear
that journalists can assimilate new frames, especially when they are handed down
from Congress. This is significant when that new frame tries to shake loose old
stereotypes. The mainstream news media serve popular imagination as the
"watchdogs" of government through investigative reporting. But more often than
not studies show they are compliant vehicles for the rhetoric of the federal
Watson (1993) says the greatest accomplishment of the disability
community in getting the bill passed was maintaining the narrative of civil
rights and minority group politics in the law. The disability community
established the bipartisan nature of the Act and then established the reason for
the ADA -- "that its protections were an issue of civil rights rather than a
charitable obligation or some other rationale" (Watson, p.29). The narrative
they hung onto most strongly, therefore, was "civil rights regardless of cost,"
Watson said (p. 30). With that narrative secure in the legislative language,
government sources and disability related sources gave the news media the same
As noted, the ADA represents a point at which both the government and
the disability rights movement can "own," in Gusfield's term (1981), the problem
of discrimination against people with disabilities. For decades, disability has
been defined and framed by government only through legislation on war veterans,
rehabilitation, education, and social security. According to Gusfield, a group
must "own" a problem to have the power to frame it in the public sphere. In the
late 1980s, the disability rights movement began gaining this power. Members of
movement worked from inside and outside the government to craft the ADA. The
movement had learned how significant it was to "own" its problems. As Scotch
(1988, p. 168) explains: "The disability rights movement is one in which the way
an issue was framed had serious effects on both movement participation and the
ability of the movement to influence public policies (as was also the case with
the problem of drunk driving -- Gusfield, 1981)." The federal government finally
accepted the disability rights frame. The news media became the only other
stumbling blocks to societal framing of this issue.
In their adversarial role, journalists did challenge government's
actions by going to business and local government sources in the news stories.
The business community, fearing the financial ramifications of the ADA, supplied
information to the media for a new frame for the Act to emerge -- that the ADA
would be costly to business. It is not surprising that the news media also would
embrace business sources, considering media are businesses that also have to
comply with the ADA. But more importantly, these journalists ply their trade in
the capitalistic society of the United States. As Gans (1980) has argued, news
media reflect a belief in the goodness of a free market economy. Shoemaker and
Reese (1991) say this fits with the basic ideology for the United States:
Fundamental is a belief in the value of
the capitalistic economic system, private ownership,
profit by self-interested entrepreneurs, and free
system is intertwined with the Protestant ethic and the
individual achievement (Shoemaker and Reese, 1991, p.
This ideology was perpetuated and embodied by the business sources
found in the ADA stories. Even the reasons cited for the creation of the
Americans with Disabilities Act illustrate the credence given to the "business"
side of the ADA story. Although the ADA is a civil rights bill dealing with a
myriad issues, especially employment discrimination against people with
disabilities, the issue of architectural access was cited most often as the
reason the ADA. In addition to being the visible result of the Act,
architectural access also has the potential to be most costly to business and
government. It should be noted also that 15% of the ADA stories appeared in the
business section of a newspaper, reinforcing that the business angle was often a
The media's reliance on government, disability, and business sources
may have shut out other kinds of information that were significant to the ADA
story or stories about disability issues. One frame that should have arisen in
1992-93 was whether the ADA was being effective in its purpose. But the media
followed its norm of event-driven journalism, and only rarely stepped into its
watchdog role to scrutinize the impact and enforcement of the ADA. That scrutiny
usually came from a lawsuit-related story on someone suing for access or
workplace accommodation under the ADA. Mostly, news media shirked its
investigative role to assess the ADA. There were a few exceptions, however. The
Wall Street Journal, for example, wrote a 1993 story headlined: "Disabilities
act helps -- but not much. Disabled people aren't getting more job offers"
(Quintanilla, 1993, p. B1). The story explained that more people with
disabilities had yet to move into the workplace because of the ADA. And a
Washington Post story explained how a school guidance counselor with multiple
sclerosis in New York had been trying to use the ADA to receive workplace
accommodation with no success (Mathews, 1993,). But these types of scrutinizing
stories were few and far between. Once again, as Olien, Tichenor and Donohue
(1989) have said, the news media became "lap dogs" for mainstream interests, in
this case the government that was not quickly and effectively administering the
ADA, rather than "watchdogs" for the interests of all people affected by the
Table 1. Most Important Reason for the ADA as Cited in News Stories
Architectural access 139 26.5%
against disabled people 116 22.1
Access to jobs 96 18.3
of society 84 16
Health insurance discrimination 14 2.7
Health care concerns 10 1.9
New technology 6 1.1
Educational discrimination 4 .8
Disability activism 2 .4
Job loss 2 .4
President pushed for it 2 .4
No reason cited 49 9.4
Table 2. Sources Cited in the ADA Stories*
Representative of disability group 35.3%
Government agency spokesperson 31.3
Person with disability (no affiliation) 30.2
Business person 25
Representative of business group 20
Attorney for disabled person/disability group 15.3
Americans with Disabilities Act/its provisions 12.4
Elected official -- Local level 12.2
Attorney - General 11.6
Lawsuit/Legal document 10.9
Attorney for business/business group 8.4
Government document/report 8.4
Elected official -- Federal level 7.8
Attorney for government 6.3
Transportation official 6.1
Academic/university researcher 5.9
Independent research report 5.9
Family of person with disability 5.2
Elected official spokesperson 5
Average person (no affiliation) 3.6
Medical official/Hospital 3.4
President of the U.S. 2.3
Independent researcher 2.1
Media report 2.1
ADA resource center 1.9
Activist organization - general 1.9
Civil rights group - general 1.9
Elected official -- State level 1.9
Job coach/coordinator 1.9
Legislation - Federal 1.5
Legislation - Local 1.5
Rehabilitation specialist 1.5
Gay rights group 1.5
Legislation - State 1.3
Union official 1.3
White House official 1.3
Table 2. (continued)
Author of book 1
Non-profit organization .8
Academic/university research report .6
Religious group/person .4
University official .2
Personal attendant 0
No sources 0
Other types of sources 6.3
* A number of different sources may have appeared in one story.
Table 3. Specific Disability Groups Mentioned*
None 276 52.7%
General -- Disability activists 8 1.5
Local group 101 19.3
Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund 30 5.7
President's Committee on People w/ Disabilities 19 3.6
Disabled in Action 17 3.2
Paralyzed Veterans of America 16 3.1
Independent Living Center 14 2.7
United Cerebral Palsy Association 13 2.5
ADAPT 9 1.7
National Organization on Disability 7 1.3
Easter Seals 6 1.1
ARC (Association for Retarded Citizens) 4 .8
World Institute on Disability 4 .8
Children's Defense Fund 3 .6
National Right to Life Committee 3 .6
National Federation of the Blind 2 .4
Variety Club 2 .4
Muscular Dystrophy Association 0
Gay group 7 1.3
AIDS group 13 2.5
Other 37 7.1
* Individual stories may mention more than one disability group.
Table 4. Government Groups Mentioned*
None 102 19.5%
City Council/ city government 86 16.4
Mayor of city 28 5.3
School district 16 3.1
County government 9 1.7
State legislature/ state government 22 4.2
Governor of state 13 2.5
Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) 90 17.2
White House/President 68 13
Justice Department 64 12.2
U.S. Senate 49 9.4
U.S. House of Representatives 44 8.4
U.S. Congress 43 8.2
U.S. District Court 29 5.5
Department of Transportation 18 3.4
Health and Human Services 17 3.2
Medicaid 16 3.1
Supreme Court 15 2.9
Department of Public Welfare 10 1.9
FCC 8 1.5
Labor Department 8 1.5
Medicare 7 1.3
Census Bureau 7 1.3
Department of Education 5 1
Social Security Administration 5 1
Occupational Safety and Health Administration 3 .6
Public Utility Commission 3 .6
Office of Technology Assessment 2 .4
Table 4. (continued)
Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) 2 .4
FBI 2 .4
Treasury Dept. 1 .2
National Institute on Disability Research and Rehab. 1 .2
Other 89 17
*A number of government groups may be contained in one story.
Table 5. Mention of Costliness of ADA by Selected Sources and Groups
Mentioning/implying cost of ADA is high
Frequency Percentage N
Representative of business 33 31.4% 105
Business person 38 29 131
Gov. agency spokesperson 38 23.2 164
Rep. of disability group 39 21.1 185
Person with disability 21 13.3 158
By mention of group
City government 34 39.5% 86
EEOC 23 25.6 90
White House/President 17 25 68
Local disability group 14 13.9 101
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