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Nov. 10, 2020, 10:15 a.m.
Audience & Social

ProPublica experiments with ultra-accessible plain language in stories about people with disabilities

ProPublica’s plain language experiment is a first for a mainstream news organization. Disability experts say it shouldn’t be the last.

For an investigation into denied disability benefits in Arizona and an accompanying editor’s note, ProPublica is experimenting with plain language — a type of text that uses common words, short sentences, and clear structure to make information more accessible to those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

ProPublica sponsored Amy Silverman‘s “State of Denial” series with The Arizona Daily Star through their Local Reporting Network. The plain language translation appears alongside versions you’ve likely seen before: a Spanish translation and audio.

This is the first time ProPublica has produced a translation into plain language. We’ve increasingly seen newsrooms experiment with accessibility, including The New York Times’ Braille and audio versions of their special section on disability, but ProPublica’s translation appears to be the first time a plain language version has been produced by a news organization that isn’t specifically produced by and/or for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

To get a sense of the difference, here’s part of the editor’s note written by T. Christian Miller, a senior editor at ProPublica, and Arizona Daily Star editor Jill Jorden Spitz that follows a disclosure that Silverman has a daughter, Sophie, with Down syndrome and that her family receives assistance through the state agency centered in her investigation, Arizona’s Division of Developmental Disabilities.

The original editor’s note:

There’s a lot of talk in journalism today about bias, with the assumption being that reporters who believe something can’t write about it fairly.

Of course, there is some truth to that idea — we would not let our education reporter advocate for school choice, for example. But it’s not realistic to believe that journalists are robots without opinions. We have lives and experiences that make our reporting richer, provided we remain vigilant about keeping our opinions out of the stories we publish.

The project happened because of Amy’s quest to provide a bigger and broader life for her daughter than society told her was possible. Did she come to this project with preconceived notions? Probably, just like the ones we all hold. Did it damage the integrity of her reporting? Just the opposite.

And the plain language version:

Some people worry that reporters have bias. They think reporters shouldn’t write about things they care about. They worry the reporters won’t be fair.

We think writing fairly is important. But reporters are people. We all have things we care about. We think knowing a lot about the things we care about makes our writing better. We make sure not to write our opinions though.

We started writing this story because Amy cares about it. She cares because it affects her family. We don’t think caring makes the story less fair. We think caring makes it better.

Both the editor’s note and investigative series were translated into plain language by Becca Monteleone, a professor of disability studies at the University of Toledo. Monteleone says, historically, when people have written about individuals with intellectual and development disabilities, they’ve been “writing about rather than for or with.”

“When you do that, there are some real and oppressive consequences,” she said. “You can then tell a person with an intellectual disability, ‘Oh, you don’t understand, so I’ll make decisions on your behalf.’ I think that’s a really dangerous paradigm to set up. When you write things down in plain language, more people have access to the same information.”

Monteleone regularly uses the accessibility tool for consent forms and research summaries within her own practice and research. Her process begins with a close read of the original text — in this case, Silverman’s original investigation, after edits by Miller and Spitz — and ends with a completely rewritten work.

“It’s pretty common in journalism to start with somebody’s personal story and then zoom out and then back in,” she said. “Rather than doing that, in plain language, you would try to keep all of the individual stories in their own chunks and work chronologically through them.” Monteleone works “paragraph by paragraph” and doesn’t aim for a literal word-for-word translation.

She simplifies sentences, writes in active voice, changes lists into bullet points, and when new characters are introduced, clearly explains their role. When writing in plain language, Monteleone either removes unfamiliar words, jargon, and idioms or — if they’re central to the story or appearing in a crucial quote — spells them out. Although she runs the text through AI-powered readability checkers, Monteleone said the process winds up being “more art than science.”

Silverman — who was selected as a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow for 2020 — said plain language isn’t without controversy within the disability community. She emphasized that Monteleone was an expert and that though the final product should be effortless to read, a plain language translation isn’t a “try this yourself at home” project.

“If you don’t do it the right way, it can be very infantilizing. Saying ‘Here’s a separate version for you’ can be really tricky. We wanted to present it without judgment and in an inclusive way,” Silverman said. “We don’t want to assume that somebody with IDD [intellectual and developmental disabilities] is going to want to read the plain language version just because they have IDD; they may want to read the original version.”

The plain language version has found an audience outside the disability community, too. T. Christian Miller said that, internally, the plain language description of ProPublica resonated. Some of that spilled over to Twitter:

Miller said he hadn’t heard of plain language translations before working with Silverman and Monteleone but producing one fit with ProPublica’s goal of making its journalism accessible to a broader audience — and especially its subjects. (It got a careful legal read, and Miller’s not convinced plain language translations are a great idea for journalism about say, a highly litigious private individual, rather than a public agency.)

In the coming weeks, ProPublica — including engagement reporters Beena Raghavendran, who read the audio versions, and Maya Miller — will work to share the different versions and sift through additional community responses as they come in.

You can read the original version or the plain language translation at ProPublica.

Illustration by Abbey Lossing used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 10, 2020, 10:15 a.m.
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