Accessible journalism: WaPo engineer shares 3 tips for improvement

Holden Foreman is an accessibility engineer at The Washington Post 

Accessible journalism comes with unique challenges and approaches, says Holden Foreman, who joined The Washington Post as its first-ever accessibility engineer earlier this year. 

With many layers and constantly evolving technology, accessibility can feel overwhelming for journalists or newsrooms without funding to support a dedicated engineer.

As part of his role, Foreman educates journalists about accessibility best practices, including a recent session at NICAR 2023 on the importance of an accessibility team in the newsroom. We reached out to Foreman to learn more about how journalists can make their work more accessible.

What are the biggest gaps you see in creating accessible journalism?

Foreman: I think it boils down to assumptions — and we make a lot of them in our day-to-day life. You assume everything from your perspective: If I can read this article and interact with this content, whatever it may be, I don’t think of anything else. But that’s why it’s important to manually include other tests and considerations in your processes. But that’s added work, and good things take work. I’d be lying if I said it was just an easy switch that you do.

Part of the excitement around my role is that the Post has cared about accessibility … but it’s never had an official title and engineering. And the big purpose of that was to give us some dedicated space to think about these things; think about processes; think about how we can take concrete steps, checks, and question ourselves on the tech side.

What advice would you give to newsrooms or freelancers who don’t have a budget to hire staff dedicated to improving accessibility?

Foreman: We had some articles and a blog post when my role started, and one of the things we said was that we totally realize the Post is in a position of resources. And having the money to have someone like me hired is really great, but we want to help and pay it forward.

One thing we did recently was really exciting. I work with a team called the Washington Post Design System, and we published some open source, accessibility guidance. And that includes examples of things we do here. I would say those smaller organizations that are wondering where to start: Make use of these resources. We want to be a leader in the space and help educate folks. And I’m always happy to talk to people if they have questions.

But I would say this: Don’t get scared because it can be overwhelming at first. When you look at the most well respected guidelines for digital accessibility, called Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), it’s a big list of things. I think a lot of people, especially journalists or writers, might be like, “Oh, most of this is not relevant to me. … I’m not a coder.” Don’t be discouraged when you first see this stuff. That’s why we put guidelines out there ourselves to make it accessible to journalists. 

Even if you can’t hire new staff dedicated to improving accessibility, you can define accessibility-related job duties in existing roles so that it is considered part of people’s core work. If accessibility work is always viewed as an add-on, then it won’t be taken as seriously and the people making time for it are more likely to get burned out. 

What are three tips that journalists can use right now to make their work more accessible?

Foreman: An easy thing … is putting alt text on images. I think that’s a great place to start because it is so simple. Platforms like Twitter and a lot of CMS tools have fields for alt text, and you just write it in. There are guides online — we actually have one that is good for beginners. So that’s No. 1: Read some of those alt text resources, especially those that are journalism specific.

No. 2 is that it’s great to start writing this stuff or considering it, but it’s hard to understand unless you actually play around with the tools yourself. Test how does this actually work for someone — what is their experience when they read my article or when they interact with whatever multimedia I put together? 

Most people have iPhones, especially in the journalism world, and they have built-in screen readers on them called VoiceOver — we have another guide on this. It’s not something you just become an expert on immediately. 

There are other tools, too, like for changing text size. What happens when you are zoomed in? Is there overlapping text or other things that you don’t expect when the alt text is expanded? Start playing around with the tools and test things yourself.

Then the third thing is to open up channels for talking and getting feedback. You’re never going to get that full understanding of what accessibility needs there are and what people experience with your content unless you have that channel for feedback. 

That’s something that people can do very easily when they publish something. You can add on to your by line something like: “We care for accessibility and we would like your feedback,” or “Is there anything that tripped you up on this?” It seems so simple, but it is really valuable. 

How can journalists put accessibility issues on the radar of their newsroom leadership?

Foreman: The easy thing that anybody can do is just start with an informal space, like in Slack, or creating optional meetings to talk about accessibility issues, concepts, and news. Just make sure that management understands what you’re doing. 

What I found in my time at the Post is people will gravitate toward that, and you will find quickly that people from across different teams care about this. That’s how you put it on the radar because then you have people from multiple parts of the organization talking about accessibility. 

The other thing is just by asking questions: What are we currently doing about accessibility? Maybe your company already has some sort of job that you’re not aware of, or maybe it’s already in someone’s job duties. There’s no harm in asking these questions. 

A positive framing is a good idea. What I’ve found is it’s really valuable for people to get excited about accessibility and not make it seem like a chore. Identify projects where you can be more intentional about accessibility. Then you have these high-profile projects where people can see the real-life impacts, and that is really good for building excitement and getting recognition from the top.

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