Fair and accurate television representation of disfigurement is rare

Face equality on television

One in every 111 people in the UK has a significant disfigurement to their face. A public attitude survey found 90% of the general public find it difficult to attach positive qualities to people with disfigurements.

It showed that whilst not believing they do this, they implicitly judge people with disfigurements as being less attractive, less likely to succeed, less socially skilled and less likely to lead happy contented lives.

TV, film and advertising help to frame how society thinks about disfigurement.

People who contact Changing Faces tell us that there are very few positive role models for people with disfigurements on television. Current depictions of disfigurement in the media create a distorted, uninformed and negative view of disfigurement. This can influence how people are perceived and result in prejudice and discrimination.

This anecdotal evidence was backed up by a major research study in 2009 from Cardiff University’s School of Journalism and funded by The Healing Foundation and the Wales Office of Research & Development. It examined 8,650 hours of television footage for its final report: Media coverage and audience reception of disfigurement on television.

The report found that disfigurement is rarely shown on British television with only 293 individual representations. 85% of representations appeared in factual genres such as documentaries and the news. Only 15% of representations were in fictional programmes such as dramas, comedy and soaps.

Key findings

  • Disfigurement is often presented as an ‘individual problem’ that can be solved with biomedical, technological or practical solutions.
  • People with disfigurements are often positioned as the object of a voyeuristic gaze and rarely given a voice.
  • Historical and negative archetypes are repeatedly deployed in the fictional representation of disfigurement e.g. evil, reclusive, bitter.
  • Certain ‘high profile’ programmes focus on unusual, rare or extraordinary disfigurements which are justified by producers because of high viewing figues and an increasingly competitive commercial environment.
  • Ordinary or everyday issues about disfigurement (e.g. prejudice and stigma) are neglected and less ‘visible’.

Seventeen focus groups, including people with and without disfigurements, were interviewed about their views and a number of recurrent themes emerged.

  • Participants believed that television did have an impact on attitudes towards disfigurement
  • Documentaries which feature very rare disfiguring conditions clearly encourage people to talk about disfigurement with others although not in a uniform way
  • There were high levels of discomfort about knowing how to talk about disfigurement (particular discomfort with the term ‘normal’)
  • A belief that disfigurement is the ‘last taboo’ and there were comparisons with representations of other minority groups
  • Participants frequently contextualised the representations within the current obsession with appearance on television
  • There was a shared belief that there should be more incidental, everyday representations of disfigurement.

Sixteen media producers were interviewed:

  • Some media producers believe television has an educational remit and is a potentially positive force for good
  • Others believe its role is purely an entertainment one and has little influence on the audience beyond that
  • The current competitive climate within television production is having a significant impact on output.

A sample of views from television producers included:

Fictional

  • Fear that audiences would switch off as there is a belief that the audience does not want to see disfigurement
  • Fear that representations would look tokenistic
  • Logistical concerns (make-up, casting) about the difficulty of including storylines which feature disfigurement

Factual

  • Upset about the term ‘shock doc’ – they see the programmes as science and health documentaries
  • An awareness that documentaries featuring very rare disfiguring conditions gain high viewing figures
  • Within the documentary genre, there is a race to find the rarest conditions
  • A shared belief that it’s not about disfigurement, it’s about telling the best story

The change we seek

Since 1992, Changing Faces has worked with the media, including broadcasters, to raise awareness of these issues. We believe that the current media landscape could have a detrimental effect on public attitudes and behaviour towards people with disfigurements – particularly those whose main source of information is gleaned from what they see on television. People with disfigurements could also be negatively impacted by what they see on television believing their lives to be hopeless, tragic and abnormal. We believe that it is essential that broadcasters get in touch with us to find a way of changing this. We would like them to commit to:

  • Including more people with disfigurements in every day television coverage (as extras or characters in soaps where their scar, mark or unusual feature is irrelevant to the story-line, as participants on game-shows, comment on current affairs)
  • Examining whether their current representations of disfigurement as based on stereotypes and assumptions about the subject
  • Examining whether the language/tone imagery regarding the portrayal and coverage of disfigurement is offensive/derogatory of prejudicial in any way
  • Redressing issues of imbalance, stereotyping and offensive coverage

How you can help

  • If you’re a broadcaster, read our Media Guidelines
  • If you see a poor representation of disfigurement in the media, contact our Press Office or call 020 7391 9276 so we can investigate