by Catherine Burgess
This month, we interviewed Dr. Elia Powers and Dr. Beth Haller of Towson University, whose paper on disability representation in higher education textbooks was recently published in JMLE 9.2, a special issue on media literacy and disabilities. You can find their complete paper, “Journalism and Mass Communication Textbook Representations of Verbal Media Skills: Implications for Students with Speech Disabilities, here.
NAMLE: How did you decide to partner together for this research?
Dr. Elia Powers: Beth has devoted her career to researching disability and media. I came to this topic more recently, and when I saw the JMLE call for papers I thought this would be a great opportunity to collaborate. We both were interested in tackling representations of disability in textbooks, which are influential in higher education and under-studied in the research literature.
Dr. Beth Haller: It was an excellent combining of both our research interests.
NAMLE: How did the idea for this research study come about?
EP: Reading mass communication textbooks as a student — and now as a professor — I’ve always noticed that authors tend to have a very narrow definition of what it means to have an ideal broadcast voice or how journalists should conduct themselves in interview or press conference settings. It struck me that there was little effort to present journalism as open to people who aren’t naturally fluent speakers, and there was certainly no effort to acknowledge that students with speech disorders had a place in the field. I saw this study as an opportunity to challenge textbook authors to use more inclusive language
when giving professional advice to students looking to enter mass communication fields.
BH: I believe any student who wants to pursue journalism should do so, but for that to happen, textbooks need to move away from narrow definitions of the skills needed to do journalism. There are so many platforms today that can accommodate most speech differences or disabilities. I can point to several people who use assistive communication devices but are interviewing people and telling stories as any journalist would.
NAMLE: What do you hope to do with this research in the future?
EP: I have already conducted interviews for a follow-up study that examines the workplace experiences of journalists who stutter or have stuttered at some point during their career.
BH: I think highlighting the experiences of disabled journalists and those with communication differences is important for the future of journalism. We need to be strengthening journalism, not using narrow definitions that potentially exclude people.
NAMLE: How do you hope this research will contribute to media literacy education?
EP: Media literacy is not just about examining what messages are included in texts, but also what messages are left out. In this study, much of the focus is on what’s not said in textbooks—missed opportunities to acknowledge that students who have speech disorders can thrive in journalism and other mass communication fields. I hope that this study prompts authors—and faculty who adopt such textbooks for classes—to think critically about the messages we are sending students who aren’t fluent speakers.
BH: I, too, hope faculty will think more critically about what is and is not in their textbooks. There is much online information to draw from that faculty should be supplementing any textbook anyway, especially in the area of disability, which is often left out of textbooks and courses.
NAMLE: Why is media literacy research important to you?
EP: For me, it’s largely about informing teaching practices. I teach a media literacy course to college students and I also incorporate media literacy units into almost every course I teach. I find that conducting media literacy research gives me an important insight into how media messages are constructed and how students analyze media messages. For instance, this latest study has informed my thinking about how to teach a unit on representation of people with disabilities in media.
BH: I see a need for media literacy throughout society. I do trainings with disability
organizations and see that they cannot do effective advocacy if they don’t understand how the media work. Also, I teach non-journalism students in my disability studies courses, and many students in other majors know little about how mass media do their jobs.