A New Series Starts Off by Getting Disability Wrong

Over the years, we’ve seen flawed, misleading reporting on Social Security’s disability programs from National Public Radio, 60 Minutes, and the New York Times. Unfortunately, with the recent launch of a new, widely-criticized series, “Disabled America,” The Washington Post has joined the ranks of news media leaving the public with false impressions about Social Security disability benefits — and even, getting the facts plain wrong.

The Post’s new series will focus on how disability “…is shaping the culture, economy and politics…” of rural communities. The first article featured Desmond Spencer of Beaverton, Alabama as he made the difficult decision to call the Social Security Administration to ask about applying for disability benefits. The article relates that Mr. Spencer acquired painful, ongoing injuries during many years working as a roofer, welder, ranch hand, and garbage collector – including falling off a roof and being unable to get treatment due to his lack of health insurance. Readers do not learn whether Mr. Spencer ever applies for benefits, and do not know if he will qualify.

The Center for American Progress (CAP) summed up the first article’s many flaws:

“…the article cherry-picks one of the counties with the highest rates of disability benefit receipt, to create a dystopian portrait where Social Security disability benefits represent out-of-control government spending riddled with rampant abuse.

Reality looks quite a bit different.”

After digging in, CAP researchers revealed that the Post’s numbers are “flat-out wrong,” including its assertion that up to one-third of working-age adults in many rural counties receive disability benefits. CAP explained in detail the errors in the Post’s analysis and why that conclusion simply cannot be substantiated. The Post issued a correction – and CAP and others quickly pointed out ongoing major problems with the Post’s data, even after the correction.

Thirty-one national disability organizations subsequently called on the Post to correct and clarify the skewed and misleading numbers that remain in the article. Numerous groups have called out a host of additional problems with the story and data. And the Huffington Post and Des Moines Gazette have reported on the article’s flaws.

With the President’s budget director signaling that cuts to Social Security disability benefits may be under consideration, it’s vital that reporters get the facts right. Here’s a round-up of analyses and responses.