Accessibility becomes more than an afterthought

“Better late than never — but wouldn’t it be nice if it didn’t take a global catastrophe for newsrooms to consider the needs of people outside their most profitable markets?”

Click here to listen to an audio version of this prediction.

On the heels of a waning-but-not-really-waning pandemic that forced the entire world to stay inside for months and come up with new ways of interacting with other people, more journalists and newsrooms are realizing that the accessibility of the news they produce can no longer be an afterthought.

Accessibility has long been a third-tier priority (at best) in most traditional newsrooms, when it’s considered at all. The overwhelming majority of the news content that gets published, as well as of the physical spaces where news-related events are held, fail to include even the most basic considerations for people with accessibility needs. The problem isn’t that standards, guidelines, and training courses aimed at addressing these issues don’t exist — they certainly do. The problem is that they are “entirely voluntary for news sites,” as Michael Fitzgerald wrote in 2016 for Nieman Reports.

Over the past two years, though, the pandemic has forced many newsrooms to incorporate various accessibility features into their operations out of necessity — including live ASL interpretation, auto-transcription or closed captioning, asynchronous communication options for those in different time zones, and more.

Better late than never — but wouldn’t it be nice if it didn’t take a global catastrophe for newsrooms to consider the needs of people outside their most profitable markets? Regardless, the focus now should be on making sure that the admittedly modest attention paid to these needs in recent months becomes cemented as part of whatever the “new normal” for news looks like going forward.

There are, of course, people and organizations already doing this work, and they deserve both individual and institutional support.

Take Jason Strother, an independent multimedia journalist in New Jersey who also teaches as an adjunct professor at the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State. Strother is working with other faculty to launch initiatives on and off campus that will study, promote, and create inclusive content for and about people with disabilities. He’s also working to partner with news organizations across New Jersey to train reporters, develop processes, and improve reporting to make sure accessibility needs are baked into the journalism that comes out of those newsrooms.

“Even though roughly one out of four Americans have some type of physical, sensory, or developmental disability,” says Strother, who himself has a low-vision impairment, “news outlets do very little to ensure their websites, videos, or apps are accessible to people in this community.”

Then there’s Michele Spitz, a voiceover artist and educator who also works in and teaches audio description (AD), which to the low vision and blind communities is “the equivalent of closed captions for the hard of hearing and deaf communities,” she writes. AD technology is often “the most misunderstood and underutilized accessibility asset in the broadcast TV, cable, digital media, gaming, and film industries.”

In Newark, Krystle Allen is the founder and president of Eyes Like Mine — a local nonprofit organization and grantee of the Center for Cooperative Media’s Newark Peer Fund — and is working to “empower, enlighten, and innovate communities in New Jersey about vision loss and the available resources for people with vision loss.” Allen recently co-led a session for local journalists and publishers in New Jersey about how to make their online news content more accessible.

“Just from my own lived experience, me being legally blind,” Allen says, “I didn’t know about all the assistive technology that was available to me.”

Two of Nieman’s 2020 fellows have also been working on and studying these issues. Wendy Lu spent her fellowship examining the state of disability reporting and representation in the media in order to create a curriculum for teaching reporters how to cover disability issues and to teach newsrooms how to be more inclusive of disabled journalists during the hiring process. And Amy Silverman dedicated her 2020 fellowship to creating resources for reporters, media outlets, and journalism schools to help improve coverage of people with disabilities.

In 2022, I predict that we’ll start to see more newsrooms experimenting with some of these technologies and practices. But we’re still a long, long way from anything close to ubiquity. For now, the best way to help us get there is to study and support — and fund — the work that’s already happening and the people who are doing it.

Joe Amditis is associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media.

Click here to listen to an audio version of this prediction.

On the heels of a waning-but-not-really-waning pandemic that forced the entire world to stay inside for months and come up with new ways of interacting with other people, more journalists and newsrooms are realizing that the accessibility of the news they produce can no longer be an afterthought.

Accessibility has long been a third-tier priority (at best) in most traditional newsrooms, when it’s considered at all. The overwhelming majority of the news content that gets published, as well as of the physical spaces where news-related events are held, fail to include even the most basic considerations for people with accessibility needs. The problem isn’t that standards, guidelines, and training courses aimed at addressing these issues don’t exist — they certainly do. The problem is that they are “entirely voluntary for news sites,” as Michael Fitzgerald wrote in 2016 for Nieman Reports.

Over the past two years, though, the pandemic has forced many newsrooms to incorporate various accessibility features into their operations out of necessity — including live ASL interpretation, auto-transcription or closed captioning, asynchronous communication options for those in different time zones, and more.

Better late than never — but wouldn’t it be nice if it didn’t take a global catastrophe for newsrooms to consider the needs of people outside their most profitable markets? Regardless, the focus now should be on making sure that the admittedly modest attention paid to these needs in recent months becomes cemented as part of whatever the “new normal” for news looks like going forward.

There are, of course, people and organizations already doing this work, and they deserve both individual and institutional support.

Take Jason Strother, an independent multimedia journalist in New Jersey who also teaches as an adjunct professor at the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State. Strother is working with other faculty to launch initiatives on and off campus that will study, promote, and create inclusive content for and about people with disabilities. He’s also working to partner with news organizations across New Jersey to train reporters, develop processes, and improve reporting to make sure accessibility needs are baked into the journalism that comes out of those newsrooms.

“Even though roughly one out of four Americans have some type of physical, sensory, or developmental disability,” says Strother, who himself has a low-vision impairment, “news outlets do very little to ensure their websites, videos, or apps are accessible to people in this community.”

Then there’s Michele Spitz, a voiceover artist and educator who also works in and teaches audio description (AD), which to the low vision and blind communities is “the equivalent of closed captions for the hard of hearing and deaf communities,” she writes. AD technology is often “the most misunderstood and underutilized accessibility asset in the broadcast TV, cable, digital media, gaming, and film industries.”

In Newark, Krystle Allen is the founder and president of Eyes Like Mine — a local nonprofit organization and grantee of the Center for Cooperative Media’s Newark Peer Fund — and is working to “empower, enlighten, and innovate communities in New Jersey about vision loss and the available resources for people with vision loss.” Allen recently co-led a session for local journalists and publishers in New Jersey about how to make their online news content more accessible.

“Just from my own lived experience, me being legally blind,” Allen says, “I didn’t know about all the assistive technology that was available to me.”

Two of Nieman’s 2020 fellows have also been working on and studying these issues. Wendy Lu spent her fellowship examining the state of disability reporting and representation in the media in order to create a curriculum for teaching reporters how to cover disability issues and to teach newsrooms how to be more inclusive of disabled journalists during the hiring process. And Amy Silverman dedicated her 2020 fellowship to creating resources for reporters, media outlets, and journalism schools to help improve coverage of people with disabilities.

In 2022, I predict that we’ll start to see more newsrooms experimenting with some of these technologies and practices. But we’re still a long, long way from anything close to ubiquity. For now, the best way to help us get there is to study and support — and fund — the work that’s already happening and the people who are doing it.

Joe Amditis is associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media.

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