Media urged to take care with language, tone and imagery when covering disfigurement
A new International Media Standard on Disfigurement has been launched today [5th February 2020] by Face Equality International, the global alliance representing people with facial disfigurements. Formed 12 months ago, Face Equality International’s first major priority as defined by its 33 NGO members was to produce internationally-applicable standards for the media and broadcasters.
The new Standard is designed both to guide best practice in reporting on the lives and issues experienced by people with facial differences and to prevent misrepresentation, stereotyping and prejudice.
The unanimous view of the alliance’s member organisations is that people with facial differences and disfigurements whom they represent in their countries are far too often described in the written and broadcast media in negative, overstated or out-dated terms such as ‘horribly disfigured’ or ‘scarred for life’. A recent example from the UK’s Daily Mirror in a world news story was headlined ‘Disabled girl banned from nursery as her ‘deformed skull will scare other kids’.
People with disfigurements are also often portrayed as objects of pity and sympathy. A story in the USA about a woman whose face transplant is liable to fail was entitled: ‘Her body is rejecting a transplanted face — and one solution is unthinkable’ as though having a facial disfigurement is ‘unthinkable’.
Recent examples of broadcast incidents include the US presenter Wendy Williams mocking actor Joaquin Phoenix and his cleft lip by tugging on her own lip and referring to him as ‘oddly attractive’.
Member organisations speak of people experiencing endemic low self-esteem in the global ‘look-perfect’ culture, social isolation, ridicule, staring, bullying and low expectations in school accompanied by discrimination in the workplace and abuse online. In many countries, disfigurement goes hand in hand with poverty, prejudice and exclusion. Much of this can be perpetuated by poor media reporting and uninformed broadcast coverage.
Members also believe that more often than not, media reporting is not intentionally thoughtless nor is it deliberately malicious but just uninformed and reporters are happy to co-operate when offered guidance. This is why the alliance wants to work closely with media professionals to support them in thoughtful reporting.
The International Media Standard on Disfigurement is the result of the alliance working closely with media professionals, journalists and its member networks over the past months to create a benchmark that tackles any uncertainty or awkwardness around how to portray, describe and depict people with facial differences in the public eye.
In an effort to encourage respectful, responsible journalism and broadcasting, the alliance wants to support professionals in getting it right, without having to publicly denounce them. The Standard has been thoroughly user-tested by member NGO staff, volunteers and users with the intention of counteracting stigma, whilst giving a voice to those who often get overlooked, and showing what it’s really like to look different in a globalised media culture.
“The media is frequently fascinated by stories about children and adults who, like me, have distinctive faces but the way we are described — in headlines, pictures, films and words — needs to be thought about much more carefully than at present. Too often stories that could usefully inform the public are distorted by words like ‘deformed’ or by implications that the person concerned dislikes their face. Many media organisations do get it right, but not as often as they could. We want to work with media professionals, agencies and organisations to support them in getting it right every time.” – James Partridge, founder and Director of Face Equality International
“Having worked with media organisations in many countries, I know that journalists often find reporting about people with facial disfigurements very difficult — what language to use, how to describe the conditions, what photos to use and how to headline articles. They don’t like unwittingly getting things wrong or not quite getting it right despite wanting to do so. I am delighted to see the publication of International Media Standard on Disfigurement — it is concise and pragmatic and I hope it will be widely used.” – Geoff Adams-Spink, former BBC journalist and disability consultant
“It is so important that media reports on people with facial differences in a positive, non-sensationalist way. This is both for the benefit of the person with the facial difference, and also for wider society. Dehumanising headlines do very little to increase our self-esteem and reduce fear and stigma about us. I want to see better reporting — I joke that I don’t want to see another article about ichthyosis (the skin condition I have) unless I’ve written it. Only, it’s not a joke. I also believe that people with facial differences and parents of children with facial differences need to become more media savvy — to make better choices about which media they say yes to, or they’re just contributing to the problem. These standards by Face Equality International will help everyone.” – Carly Findlay OAM, writer, speaker, appearance activist in Australia
Contact Phyllida Swift on firstname.lastname@example.org or +44 (0) 7841 908852
Interviews can be arranged with Dr Partridge and other spokespeople from studios in London and Guernsey.
Case studies and interviews available upon request (as above). Face Equality International was created by James Partridge, founder of Changing Faces, with the support of nine founding members. The alliance was launched in November 2018 and now has 33 world-wide members.
For more detail on Face Equality International, please see https://faceequalityinternational.org
Charities, associations and companies of all kinds are encouraged to get involved by contacting email@example.com
Support the campaign across social media by following @FaceEqualityInt