November 25, 2011 • 5:01 pm

Last month the University of Glasgow’s Strathclyde Centre of Disability Research published the results of an investigation into changes in the way the news media are reporting disability, and how it has affected public attitudes towards disabled people. The article can be found here.

As our readers will know, disability, and particularity disability benefit, is a subject that is often inaccurately reported in the media. Full Fact has looked at this subject a number of times.

We were therefore intrigued to have a look at an academic take on the subject. Although we would recommend reading the article yourself, at 87 pages, it’s no quick read.

The study compared two periods during the second term of Tony Blair’s Government (2004/5) when welfare reform was also a live policy area, and the past year of this Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition Government (2010/11).

It looked at the output of five newspapers: The Sun, The Mirror, The Express, The Mail and The Guardian.

There has been not only an overall increase in the number of articles on disability, with over 30 per cent more articles on the subject, but also a shift in the way in which it is portrayed.

There has been a significant increase in polemic on the subject, and a large drop in the number of articles on ‘real life’ experiences. In 2004‐5, for example, life experience stories made up over 15 per cent of the Daily Mail’s coverage of disability compared to only 7.7 per cent of coverage in 2010‐11. In the tabloid press in general such stories fell from 29 per cent to 22 per cent.

There has been an increase in both the total and proportion of articles that discuss benefit fraud and the ‘undeserving’ poor. The article attributes this to greater support for the current Coalition government among the tabloid press than was felt for the previous government.

It argues that: ”In October‐January 2010 the Coalition Government was both attacked less frequently and defended more overall by the tabloids than New Labour had been during the same period of 2004‐5 (4.1 per cent of tabloid articles were found to contain criticism of the Coalition and 4.8 per cent contained arguments in defence of the Coalition).”

Articles looking at fraud by benefit recipients have also shot up. Fraud articles increased from 2.8 per cent of tabloid coverage in October–January 2004‐5 to 6.1 per cent in the same period in 2010‐11.

The article suggests that there is a link between reporting and public perception of benefit fraud. Members of focus groups tended to assume that disability benefit fraud was significantly higher than it actually was, citing newspapers as the source of these judgements.

More worryingly, there has been an increase in the use of pejorative language in the press, from 12 per cent in 2004/5 to 18 per cent in the same period 2010/11.

The most commonly recorded pejorative words in October‐January 2004‐5 were as follows:

• Handout – 18 occurrences

• Scrounger – 15 occurrences

• Sicknote Culture/Society – 13 occurrences

• Cripple – 8 occurrences

 

Whereas the most commonly recorded pejorative words in October‐ January 2010‐11 were:

• Scrounger – 34 occurrences

• Handout – 58 occurrences

• Workshy – 25 occurrences

• Cheats – 25 occurrences

 

Finally the most commonly recorded pejorative words in April‐March 2011 were:

• Scrounger – 21 occurrences

• Cheats – 23 occurrences

• Dependency – 17 occurrences

• Handout – 15 occurrences

• Sponger – 15 occurrences

 

The article concludes by saying:

“Much of the coverage in the tabloid press is at best questionable and some of it is deeply offensive. … These [disability fraud] claims are made overwhelmingly without evidence and at no point are the media reporting the very low levels of fraud that occurs overall in relation to these benefits. We would further cite the use of pejorative language, the failure to explore the impact of the proposed cuts on disabled people’s quality of life, the reluctance to criticise government policy on these issues and the frequent representation of some disabled people as undeserving of benefits as potentially contributing to what could become a highly inflammatory situation.”

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