August 30, 2021

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At least 2.2 billion people worldwide have some kind of vision loss, according to the World Health Organization. And over 5% of the world’s population is deaf or hard of hearing.

So why don’t media organizations do more to ensure those people can find, access and share their news?

Almost every news organization relies on social media to share information, yet they often overlook accessibility best practices. This leaves out a portion of the population from receiving significant information.

Some, such as The Texas Tribune, have led the way in prioritizing accessibility online. Off-platform editor Regina Mack said that their newsroom uses alternative text and called on other organizations to follow suit.

By changing the way they post to social media and considering how people navigate the digital world differently, news organizations can connect with their audiences in a more compassionate way.

Alternative text

Alternative text is a written description of what is shown in an image. It can also help assistive technology, such as screen reading tools, to interpret images. It’s a useful tool, but many users overlook it and some don’t use it correctly.

All images should include well-written alternative text. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have built-in alternative text features, but the generated text isn’t always reliable.

Digital inclusion specialist Belo Miguel Cipriani navigates social media with the help of assistive technology after becoming blind in 2007. He sometimes finds himself unable to decipher an image due to faulty alternative text.

“When it comes to social media, often what I hear is ‘image, image,’ or ‘image 024’ with a super long number,” Cipriani said.

News organizations should devote resources to manually fill in and edit alternative text for any photos that they share. Although most programs offer automated alt-text, it’s not always accurate, Cipriani said.

“I wouldn’t rely on anything automated.” Cipriani said. “Anything that’s providing important information should be created manually. You don’t want the information to be missing important pieces.”

There are a few best practices for writing alternative text that should sound familiar to journalists. Some of them include: Use correct grammar, be concise and specific, and include all relevant details.

Cipriani said adverbs can cloud the clarity of the alternative text. His advice: Don’t use them at all.

Captioning

Accurate and detailed captions can help deaf individuals and those with hearing loss to access audio or audiovisual content. Captions are also useful for language learners and help increase focus.

Use open captioning on videos shown in public settings to ensure they will show up when the video is viewed. Look over subtitles to confirm their accuracy. Live videos, such as an online event or webinar, should include live captioning.

Make a transcript available to view on video sharing platforms like YouTube. Consider including descriptive audio as well, which describes visual aspects of the video to the viewer.

Cipriani suggested avoiding videos with only sound and text and no voice narration. He said this could restrict many groups of people from understanding the content of the video, especially if the subtitles are inaccurate.

Crowdsource, and talk to the people that would benefit from accessible practices

Above all, ask audiences what would enhance their experience online. Create call-out forms, build an open line of communication and listen to suggestions.

Cipriani recommended including a variety of individuals in user experience testing.

“A lot of companies use a single user when they should be using several users across different disabilities,” Cipriani said. “My suggestion to anyone creating any digital property is to include disabilities in your user groups and case studies.”

News organizations and others can always do more to improve access online — but taking any step shows audiences that you are striving to be more inclusive.

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Katya Bandouil studies international relations at The University of Texas at Austin. She is the director of digital strategy for her school newspaper, The Daily…
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