Disability in America – Second Article in Series Continues Biased, Flawed Reporting

by T.J. Sutcliffe, Director, Income & Housing Policy

In March, The Washington Post launched a new series, “Disabled, America,” to look at how disability “…is shaping the culture, economy and politics…” of rural communities. The first article in the series met with widespread criticism for multiple errors in its data and facts, and for leaving the public with negative, false impressions about Social Security’s disability programs and rural beneficiaries.

Unfortunately, the second article in the Post’s series only went further down the path of reporting by stereotype and anecdote. The article profiles a family in Pemiscot County, Missouri with several members who have disabilities, including a mother and her adult daughter who receive Social Security disability benefits.

Media Matters summed up the outrage at the article’s portrayal of the family as “…a ‘mean-spirited’ and ‘cartoonish’ illustration of the struggles of those living with poverty in rural America.” In Poynter, S.I. Rosenbaum noted that the article failed to provide even basic facts about Social Security’s disability programs, writing that “…without them, in my opinion, the story is incomplete and even misleading.” The Urban Institute pointed out many of those missing facts.

Notably, the second article failed to provide important context, such as the fact that Missouri has a relatively high statewide rate of residents with disabilities, particularly in many rural Missouri counties. In addition, record numbers of Americans today live in multigenerational households, and disability often runs in families for reasons that include genetics, common exposure to environmental hazards, and similar past and ongoing access to (or lack of) health care.

With President Trump having recently proposed over $72 billion in cuts over 10 years to Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability benefits, reporting that focuses on anecdote, with little to no context, runs the risk of leading policymakers down a dangerous and harmful path. In letters responding the Post’s first article and second article, over 50 national organizations urged Congress to “…ensure that any discussions about how to strengthen the nation’s Social Security system are informed by facts—not well-debunked myths and offensive stereotypes.”

Here’s a round-up of analyses and responses to the second Post article – and if you missed it, be sure to read our round-up of responses to the first Post article, as well.

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