Western U prof explores media coverage of Paralympics

Athletes are saluting a new international study looking at how media organizations cover the Paralympics. The Canadian perspective is being gathered by a researcher from Western University in London, Ont.

Laura Misener talks to media organizations and athletes to get Canadian perspective for international study

Todd Nicholson has won three Paralympic medals: Gold (2006), silver (1998) and bronze (1994) (Martin Rose/Getty Images)

Five-time paralympian Todd Nicholson has done his share of interviews with media organizations, answering questions that cover everything from his role on Canada's champion sledge hockey team to questions he considers borderline inappropriate.

"I used to get asked all the time how I put on my pants or who gets me dressed in the morning," Canada's current chef de mission for the 2018 Paralympics said over the phone from Ottawa.

The impact of these experiences on athletes and the public perception of people with disabilities are driving a group of international researchers to embark on a study examining media coverage of the Paralympics. 

"The stories are typically based around a tragic narrative ... the athlete ... had to overcome to make it to the games," said Western University's Laura Misener, who is gathering Canadian material for the team based in England's Dorset region.

Calling it the "super crip" narrative, she points to various stories about prominent Canadian paralympians.

"Take sit-skier Josh Dueck and notice how often the story focuses on how he ended up in a chair and how he's worked hard to overcome mobility issues," Misener said. 

She questions why this type of narrative always overshadows the athletic talent of the athlete.

"These people are elite in their sport and 'overcoming' their disability is not part of how they got there."

Reporters don't do homework 

Nicholson agrees reporters often want to focus on how he became paraplegic, questions he doesn't mind answering for clarity, but he says reporters have consistently lacked basic knowledge about para-sports.

"One of the biggest challenges I faced with the media was always having to explain my sport," explained Nicholso, who was on sledge hockey teams that won gold in Torino, silver in Nagano and bronze in Lillehammer. 

Journalists come to interviews not knowing the game, the athletes or who qualifies to play.- Todd Nicholson, Chef de Mission Paralympics 2018

Nicholson recalls reporters coming to interviews not knowing the players, the rules of play or what type of athletes competed, something he said would never happen in the NHL.

Researchers plan to probe how networks decide who covers the Paralympics, including comparing experience levels to the teams sent to the Olympics.

Canadian athletes say coverage of the Paralympics is improving, with Nicholson and the researchers agreeing that Vancouver was a turning point for more accurate representation of athletes.

The research team is currently working with Channel 4 in the UK and hopes the CBC will agree to participate.