4 Dec 2020DisruptorsProPublica's plain language makes the news inclusiveDISRUPTORS: the ideas changing industries

ProPublica recognises the fact that, all too often, reporting on the topic of disability is written on behalf of the people affected by these issues rather than for them. By translating articles into plain language, the newsroom intends to make the news landscape more inclusive of people with disabilities.We explore the insights behind this and the steps media organizations are taking to bring greater sense of inclusivity to newsrooms.

Lottie Hanwell

"When you write things down in plain language, more people have access to the same information," says Dr. Becca Monteleone, a professor of disability studies at the University of Toledo. Dr. Monteleone has worked with ProPublica to develop plain-language versions of a series of articles investigating denied disability benefits in Arizona. The translations use common words, short sentences, and clear structure to make the story more accessible to those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Understanding that some people with disabilities may prefer to read the original version, the newsroom was cautious to strike the correct tone with the plain-language version. "If you don’t do it the right way, it can be very infantilizing," says Amy Silverman, ProPublica writer. "We wanted to present it without judgment and in an inclusive way."

The translations use common words and short sentences to make the stories more accessibleAbhijith S Nair (2018)

The following two excerpts from the Editor's Note give a sense of the differences between the plain language and original versions:

Original version: '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.'

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.'

Accessible news coverage is vital for the societal participation of the 7.38 million people living with developmental and intellectual disabilities in the US. While the New York Times released an audio and Braille version of its section on disability in July 2020, ProPublica’s translation appears to be the first time a plain-language version has been produced by a news organization that isn’t specifically aimed at people with disabilities. The initiative represents an important step in bringing disability-inclusive reporting into the mainstream media landscape. So long as care is taken to execute translations correctly, employing plain language could also be beneficial for brands looking to improve their accessibility to customers with disabilities.

Lottie Hanwell is a behavioural analyst at Canvas8. She has a degree in English Literature and Spanish, and spends her time thinking, researching and writing about developments in society and culture. On her weekends, she likes to run, read and make a mess in the kitchen.