PhD stories: Shawn Burns

Examining the representation of people with disability news media

“The University of Wollongong (UOW) has so many high achieving PhD students, working towards solving real world problems. Each month we will meet one and hear their story.

Former journalist, news director and now journalism lecturer, Shawn Burns wants the news media to think about the way it represents disability and, in so doing, help create a more inclusive society. In between teaching the next generation of journalists, marking papers and living life, Shawn Burns is in the final stages of completing his PhD studies. Shawn’s research examines the representation of people with disability news media, journalism pedagogy, and innovation in newsroom and journalism practice.

When did you commence HDR study and what is the working title of your thesis?

2014 - Did the end justify the means? An exploration of how Australian newspapers portrayed people with disability when reporting on the National Disability Insurance Scheme and what people with disability say about the coverage.

Please give a broad description of the topic or question you investigated as part of your research

I have carried out mixed method research to explore the way people with disability are represented in Australian news media, specifically the coverage of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and, most importantly, what people with disability (PWD) think about their representation in news coverage. The research included a news content analysis, survey material, and interviews with PWD. The research wanted to know if traditional representations of PWD (e.g. tragic or heroic) where present in the coverage of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and, if it was, did PWD care. It wanted to know whether traditional representation of disability was a price PWD were willing to pay to ensure the NDIS was delivered.

Can you provide some background on how you came to HDR research (e.g. undergrad degree & university studied at – honours project – PhD + any breaks in between)?

I completed an undergraduate Professional Writing (Journalism) degree at the University of Canberra University of Canberra (1997), at a time where I had already been working fulltime as a journalist for six years. I worked as a journalist, sub-editor, chief of staff and news director at a variety of regional mastheads, finishing up as the Illawarra newsroom’s chief of staff and state news director at WIN Television in 2004. I worked as a political media adviser for up until 2008, the year I first taught journalism at UOW as a casual tutor. In 2009, I was appointed fulltime journalism lecturer and started my MA (Research), which I completed in 2011. The MA (Research) was, and now my PhD is, focused on the representation of people with disability in Australian news media. I began my PhD (part-time) in 2014, and are now in the final stages, hopefully, ahead of submission in early 2020.

In one sentence, describe the ‘journey’ of your PhD study at UOW?

I’m a former journalist and news director who has a son with severe cerebral palsy, and this combination led me to think how people with disability are depicted in the media and whether an academic exploration could help improve journalism education and the representation of diversity in the media.

How did you and/or your approach change over that time (how you imagined it would be when you began, how it actually was, and how you view it now you’ve finished)?

While I haven’t quite finished, I think I’m within reach. My approach has remained relatively unchanged, as it was informed by experience working on the MA (Research). I designed my data collection methodology to put people with disability at the centre of the conversation. It was an approach that acknowledged people have often been ‘othered’, disregarded, hidden and silenced. I wanted people with disability to be at the heart of the process, not just a point of study. I wanted the research process to be true to the disability civil rights movement’s creed ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’.

What were some highlights of your HDR study?

The study provided insight into what people with disability feel about the way they are presented in news media, particularly in the coverage of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. It was a highlight to have people with lived experience of disability provide insight and information that I hope will inform my journalism teaching and my research.

What were the lowlights?

It’s a hard slog. I do not consider myself a natural academic and, in the MA (Research) and the PhD, I have struggled to balance my news journalist inclination to be concise and accurate against the longer-form and more contemplative academic approach.

Describe the most important things for PhD study.

Have a clear picture of what you are trying to achieve, but be open to and ready for discovery. On the management side - you need to keep across your research material – know where it is, what it is, and what you plan to do with it (and back it up). Finally, once you have all the data you need, start writing – it won’t write itself.

What advice do you (or would you give) to those considering HDR study or currently studying?

Again, knowing I am yet to complete, the most important thing is to make sure you are engaged and committed to the topic. It will be easier if you are genuinely interested in the work and see value in its completion.

What are you doing now and/or how do you plan to utilise your research degree in future? What has it given you that will help in your future career?

I’m in the throes of completing the PhD, but have already built a lot of what I have discovered through my research into my journalism teaching. I have also published journal articles on the subject of news media representation of disability. The findings of my PhD will continue to inform my teaching and, hopefully, provide a foundation upon which more research in the field can be completed.

How do you think your research can change the world?

I was told completing a PhD is like eating an elephant, you do it one bite at a time. That’s how my work can change the world – by encouraging one journalism student and/or one journalist at a time to give more thought to the words and images they use to represent disability and diversity.