Portrayal of ASD in Canadian Media: A Framing Analysis

Friday, May 12, 2017: 12:00 PM-1:40 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
S. Chiu and S. Hodgetts, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada
Background: How media stories are framed can significantly influence societal perceptions of issues, influence demand for health services, shape decisions related to health care and education, and inform policy. Previous framing analyses of media representations of ASD from the United States (Kang, 2013), the United Kingdom (Huws, 2010), Australia (Jones & Harwood, 2009), and China (Bie & Tang, 2015), were often inaccurate and negative in focus, perpetuating misconceptions and stereotypes of ASD. However, Canada is recognized as being relatively well resourced for health care and other services for people with ASD and their families. Therefore, the Canadian media may portray ASD differently, leading to different perceptions of ASD in Canada than in other countries.

Objectives: We used frame analysis to investigate how newspapers across Canada covered ASD over a 5-year period (2011-2015). Specific research questions related to the coverage of ASD included: (1) What were the main issues? (2) Who were the primary sources cited or quoted? (3) What discourse was used? (4) What tone was used?

Methods: The Canadian Newsstand Complete database was used to collect print news articles from two national and 8 regional Canadian broadsheet newspapers representing all geographic regions. Search terms were autis* OR ASD OR Asperger* in the article headline. Working frames were derived based on an in-depth content analysis of the articles, and a codebook was developed for data extraction. Inter-coder reliability for 10% of articles for each coding category was moderate to very strong (Cohen’s Kappa = 0.60-0.88 across categories).

Results: A total of 397 unique articles were found. The main issues covered were (1) infrastructure (e.g., services, funding; n=128), science (n=80), family story (n=70), victimization of/by the person with ASD (n=35), and advocacy (i.e., awareness/acceptance of ASD; n=33). Primary sources cited were family members (n=128) and academics/scientists (n=106). Persons with ASD were infrequently cited (n=24). Human-interest discourse was most common (n=332), followed by scientific (n=50) and policy (n=15) discourse. All articles coded as scientific discourse focused on research, but 10% of scientific topics (research findings) were framed within human-interest discourse. Most articles presented neutral information, including both positive and negative sides (n=167) or descriptive information (n=110). Eighty articles were exclusively positive in tone, dominated by advocacy, family story, and infrastructure topics; 41 were negative in tone, dominated by victimization and family story topics. The word “suffer” was included 98 times within 70 articles, and the word “burden” was included 42 times in 36 articles.

Conclusions: Increased understanding of media portrayal of ASD can provide context for societal understanding of ASD, and resulting acceptance and inclusion, or stigma and discrimination. Portrayals of ASD in Canadian newspapers were more neutral or positive than previous frame analyses from other countries. However, the words “suffer” and “burden” were frequently used, even in positively framed articles. Infrastructure was a more frequent topic compared to other jurisdictions, perhaps due to the amount and variety of programs in Canada. Similar to previous studies, the voices of people diagnosed with ASD were largely unheard.