I. A Look at the History of Reporting on the LGBT community
“Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.”- George Santayana
It is important to understand news organizations coverage of the community, because news organizations tend to reflect the changes in our culture. Reporting on the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community has steadily increased since the 1970’s. The HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980’s forced the mainstream media to no longer ignore the gay community, the issues that they face, and their overall visibility as an equal group in society. Mainstream reporting was also predicated by niche journals that reported on LGBT news. The confluence of the HIV/AIDS crisis and the increase in individuals “coming out” raised awareness of the LGBT community in larger society.
In the video below recorded in 1982, Larry Kramer, founder of The Advocate, a journal focusing on the LGBT community founded in the late 1960’s, speaks about the AIDS crisis, and the mainstream media’s lack of coverage of the crisis. (Start video at 12:44 for an indictment of legacy news coverage of the LGBT community at the beginning of the AIDS crisis.)
The transgender community has historically not been as visible in the news. But there have been many important milestones within the community. The Stonewall riots in 1969 (pictured below) were a seminal moment for gay and transgender awareness with the leadership of Sylvia Rivera. Individuals are “coming out”, including celebrities (Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox) and are sharing their stories of being transgender, undertaking the gender re-assignment surgery to become transexual, and the fight for raising awareness about the community, and the struggles faced within the community.
“The changes (in reporting) have come about because of a combination of events. News organizations came under pressure to reflect a more diverse picture of American life. At the same time, AIDS and the gay-rights movement made the “gay story” more complex and left some editors feeling they were out of touch.”- The New York Times archive (1983, Gay Journalists Leading a Revolution, William Glabberson)
II. Coverage of the LGBT Community
Laying out the history of the LGBT community in society, and how the community was reported about in news organizations is important because it shows how niche magazines and awareness led to mainstream acceptance and reporting on issues and victories within the community.
The current news climate is much different today than in the 1970’s-2000. Readership has become increasingly fragmented, and the amount of free information online has put a strain on legacy media’s revenue models. I strove to uncover whether there are differences in how legacy media organizations, and emerging social news sites cover the LGBT community in the Internet Era.
Are there differences in reporting on the LGBT community between legacy news and emerging news organizations?
In focusing my project, I sought to ground my exploration of the two groups of news organizations through the following components:
- Standards for Reporting
- Niche Communities and Specialized Reporting Correspondents
Meet the journalists:
On the Current State of LGBT Reporting
“I think LGBT coverage has increased markedly across many parts of the United States, as gay marriage and other issues have permeated peoples’ consciousness and the media’s awareness. I don’t see how any U.S. news-gathering entity that wants to be relevant in the 21st century could *not* be paying attention.”-Reed Johnson
Q: Have you witnessed a delta in the number of women and men that report on the LGBT community?
Tina Antolini: SOTRU worked as hard as we could to include more diverse voices, both in the folks we were reporting on, and in the reporters, ourselves. Our staff was half women, multi-racial, and with a range of sexual identities.
“But, I do think that we’re lacking diversity among media outlets, especially when it comes to race and class, and, yes, sexuality/gender identity, too. It absolutely shaped the way we told stories, and the way we picked which stories we wanted to tell.”- Tina Antolini
“I worked with a 30 person investigative team at BuzzFeed, which was representative of a diversity of racial backgrounds and sexual orientations which helps bring a diversity of viewpoints to the piece. There was more diversity than legacy organizations I worked at, and it affected stories about the LGBT community.”- Steven Thrasher
On Standards For Reporting
Q: You have written for a multiplicity of news publications. Are there differences in the style of writing and professionalism in terms of reporting on the community?
Steven Thrasher: There are different style guides that each publication has. The BuzzFeed style guide lays out the guidelines off of which I have based my feature. In terms of being objective, if something is obviously, without doubt, wrong then the onus is not on a reporter to be two-sided. The bottom line is that reporting standards are still comprehensive at BuzzFeed.
Reed Johnson: As far as adapting new, more sensitive terminology, I think legacy news organizations (good ones, at least) are constantly examining the terms they use to describe the people they cover, and eventually tend to adopt the terms that those groups themselves prefer. (That’s been true of ethnic groups as well as gender-identity groups.) Not all legacy media use the “LGBT” acronym, but I think it’s pretty much standard practice today to use “gay,” “lesbian,” “bi” and “transgender” instead of “homosexual.”
On Niche Sections and Specialized Reporting Correspondents
“Some would argue that creating niche areas ghettoizes and exoticizes LGBT folks by treating them differently from other people (“separate is inherently unequal”). Others would say that creating “niche” areas can lead to greater context and depth of coverage, and would signal a newspaper or website’s belief that such coverage is important.”
III. The Future of Reporting on the LGBT Community
Q: What do you think will characterize the future of LGBT reporting?
Tina Antolini: I hope that media outlets like NPR will continue to broaden their reporting to include under-served communities, and that they’ll invest the resources required to go out and do those stories justice. As podcasts get more popular, I think NPR will follow suit even more than they already have.
“I do think that audio storytelling (be it radio or podcast) can allow for a greater intimacy than print does. Especially when sharing personal stories of folks whose internal experience has not been given a lot of attention. I do think the growth of podcasting is allowing for more opportunity to tell these sorts of stories.”- Tina Antolini
Steven Thrasher: There is still a long way to go in reflecting the diversity of the world in the newsroom and publications’ editorial boards. The diversity of editors, and writers, shape what stories are investigated and how they are reported. It is important that we continue to be vigilant in promoting a more balanced and less homogeneous newsroom, so that the stories that are told are reflective of all communities.
Are there differences in reporting on the LGBT community between legacy news organizations and emerging news sites?
Yes and no.
Yes in that emerging news sites have the ability to create niche section to create a shared, safe community for individuals who identify in the LGBT community. But we heard from Reed Johnson that it is difficult to know if that is the best approach, in that separate can sometimes implicitly mean unequal.
Yes in that emerging news sites are also a product of the times. These news sites were started after a majority of people in society had embraced the gay community. This is no excuse for the legacy news organizations, but the emerging new sites reflect the world-view of a younger audience, and are able to reach their target audience on social media. This also explains special correspondents that cover the LGBT community exclusively.
No in that both have stringent and comprehensive editorial standards to cover the LGBT community. Both have the goal of providing relevant, and truthful reporting on the community. Both are doing commendable reporting on the community. And both are going to continue to strive to do more.
No in that diversity is still a problem for both sets of news organizations.
V. More On Diversity
BuzzFeed and The New York Times both admit that the lack of diversity in their newsrooms is a problem. See the diversity reports linked below for BuzzFeed’s and The New York Time’s reports, and the organizations’ goals for the future.
Original Infographic on Editorial Diversity in the Newsroom: https://magic.piktochart.com/embed/9973220-diversity
The graphic below demonstrates how the delta in diversity is markedly poignant in reporting on social issues.
The biggest impediment to reporting on the LGBT community introduced in the interviews is diversity. Diversity matters because the purpose of journalism is to inform the community that it serves. The editors and writers choose which stories will be reported on, and how they will be reported. Diversity is more than just having one person reflect an entire community in a news room; diversity is about having a newsroom that has reporting that aligns with a variety of communities, including the LGBT community. Legacy and emerging news organizations are trying to become more inclusive to reflect the communities that they serve. For example, we heard from Steven Thrasher that there have been efforts to increase diversity, as evidenced through the editors he has been working with at BuzzFeed. Combatting unconscious bias is harder than it may seem. The largely homogenous news environment is often not challenged because of malicious reasons, but because it is normative. Diversity is important for faithful and accurate reporting on the LGBT community, and in making sure all voices in society are heard. Additionally, diversity in newsroom is of consequence for the LGBT community, because the identities within the larger umbrella LGBT community encompass many intersecting identities. For example, an individual could identify as not only a lesbian, but also as black and cisgender. What do these intersecting identities mean for an individual, and what are the current events around the globe that relate to this specific identity? Increasing the diversity of the newsroom would be a good first step in working towards a future with more balanced and inclusive reporting on the LGBT community that is imbued throughout the entire news organization.
VI. Revisiting the Past, Preparing for the Future
The past is full of indicators for the future. If we can learn from the past, we can work towards a different future.
The LGBT community was underreported in the past because of unfamiliarity and social stigma. Our society has become much more inclusive, and both legacy and emerging news organizations have accomplished commendable reporting on the community. But more needs to be done. Different stories can be told, and they can be told in different ways that reflect the heterogeneous LGBT community. A continued push for visibility and awareness of not only the marginalization of the community in the press, but also the community’s battles of housing discrimination and employment discrimination are important. Whether the reporting is in the opinion pages or in the “hard news” section, new organizations can work towards a lager goal of a diversity of reporters and editorial board members. There is so much hope for increased and diversified reporting in the LGBT community.
Moving forward, Reed Johnson noted very astutely:
“There will be more (reporting on the LGBT community), everywhere, in every medium.”
I stated that the purpose for journalism is to inform the community that it serves, this truism bares repeating as inroads are made towards a media with more accurate and fair reporting on the LGBT community.