Face equality is about being treated fairly and equally irrespective of facial appearance

The Media

In early 2009, Channel 5 television took the bold step to have a newsreader for a week who had a facial disfigurement: it was James Partridge, founder and Chief Executive of Changing Faces. He presented the lunchtime news to no noticeable change in viewing statistics: any concern that having someone with a
disfigurement reading the news might impact on viewing figures appeared unfounded.

But aside from occasional programmes including people such as Katie Piper, more than eight years on little has changed in the media and there has been very little improvement. Whilst there are occasional articles in the media, which often serve to sensationalise or ‘tragedise’ disfigurement, the only sight of people with disfigurements in the mainstream media is often in programmes with offensive titles such as ‘The Undateables’ (Channel 4) and ‘Freak Show’ (BBC Three). Indeed, the BBC’s five year Diversity Strategy, published in late 2016, contained no mention of disfigurement whatsoever.

Disfigurement just doesn’t exist in the media. We’re invisible, and that says to me that the people running media companies don’t care about us. Yes, you see more people in wheelchairs in programmes, but where are people who look different? Where are the birthmarks? Where are the burn scars? It’s pathetic.

It’s unsurprising, then, that respondents to our survey said they felt that the media does not represent
disfigurement well. More than two-fifths (42.2%) of respondents couldn’t remember when they last saw someone with a disfigurement – whether real or fictional – in a newspaper or on television. When asked to rate the frequency of seeing people with disfigurements on television, more than a third (33.5%) said it was ‘not at all representative’, whilst a total of 83.2% said representation was low or very low. Just 0.5% of respondents said television was ‘very representative’ and 1.8% said it was good or very good.

When asked how realistic the depiction of people with disfigurements was on television, a quarter (25.2%) said it was not at all realistic and 62.4% of respondents said it was unrealistic or very unrealistic. Only 2% said they thought depictions were very realistic.

Those completing the survey are highly engaged with the media. 88.1% said they watch at least one hour of television each week, and 72.3% listen to radio at least once each week. Almost half (47.9%) read a national newspaper at least once a week, and a third (33.7%) read a local or regional newspaper at least once each week.

Perhaps reflecting Changing Faces’ modest successes at seeking redress from newspapers via industry regulators, respondents showed moderate faith in those regulators to take action if Changing Faces were to complain again. When asked about the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), 84% said they would expect them to take the complaint ‘moderately’ or ‘very’ seriously. Almost 9 in 10 (87.8%) said they would expect Ofcom to take a similar complaint as seriously.

Recommendations

8a All terrestrial broadcasters should ensure that people with disfigurements feature in their factual, documentary and news outputs but ensure that it is done in a sensitive, accurate way, avoiding sensationalist or offensive titles.

8b Disfigurement must be normalised on television by including characters who have an unusual appearance in soaps, dramas and other programming, with care taken to ensure the disfigurement does not suggest villainy, untrustworthiness or any other negative characteristic. Programme makers should strive to use actors who have disfigurements themselves where possible, rather than using prosthetics or make-up.

8c Media regulators such as IPSO and Ofcom must adopt guidelines on the portrayal of disfigurement in print and broadcast media, and ensure that complaints about the portrayal of 
disfigurement are taken seriously, handled quickly and effectively, and statistics on such complaints and their outcomes are published annually.

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