Writing About Gays and Lesbians

One big, divisive issue for American culture is acceptance (or not) of gays and lesbians. It might be the new cultural and political front line; the way abortion became a watershed issue in the '80s and '90s. So, what is your newsroom's strategy for addressing this issue?

The news is full of stories about whether –- and to what degree -- gays and lesbians should be welcomed as they come out of the closet and into the fabric of democratic citizenship. This debate is playing out in questions of marriage or civil unions, domestic partner benefits, and the extent to which housing and human rights ordinances should cover discrimination against gays and lesbians. And it plays out on the personal level, as many gay men and women and their families and even their children continue to suffer injustice and violence, even as much of the straight world gains greater understanding and insight into their lives.

Because there are so many ways in which the media becomes entangled in this topic, I plan to address this issue periodically over the next few months. I welcome your ideas as well as alerts to the good and not-so-good journalism on this topic.

Journalists are part of this fray. We prefer to say we are mere observers and documentarians. Our personal views don't matter as much as our ability to tell the truth. But we know better. As the issue heats up, the media's ability to represent the many voices and viewpoints and to be fair and accurate will become part of the public debate.

As an industry, it makes sense to begin at the place where our journalism and our work life intersect. Every media company and newsroom in America has already made a couple of public statements about how welcome gays and lesbians should be.

First, many media companies have extended employee benefits to domestic partners. We do so here at Poynter and so does the newspaper we own, the St. Petersburg Times. The National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association keeps a list of those newsrooms as a resource for its members and anyone else who might want to know. Most of the big media companies are on the list.

More publicly, every month a few more newspapers join the ranks of those that print civil unions and gay marriages. These announcements are usually preceded by a fair amount of discussion in the newsroom, at least among managers. A letter from the editor explaining the change in policy typically accompanies the first announcement. Usually, this policy change is greeted with a flood of letters to the editor -- some angry, some celebratory. That's exactly what happened two weeks ago when the St. Pete Times updated its policy. The letter ran on a Sunday metro front. The letters to the editor soon followed.

These policies could lead a reader to conclude that the newsroom had already formed an opinion about gays and lesbians. And if that reader disagreed with the perceived view of the newsroom, she might assume the journalists in the newsroom are incapable of overcoming their personal and corporate biases as they cover the issue.

So what to do?

First, do good journalism. The proof is in the product. It will be harder for readers and viewers to question credibility if, when they see stories about this issue, they see their viewpoint among those represented. The danger is assuming there is only one topic on the table and that there are only two viewpoints. Just as abortion policies are about much more than the point at which life is conceived or a woman's right to autonomy, gay inclusion is about much more than the right to marry, adopt children, or hold certain jobs.

And within each slice of the issue are myriad points of view along a continuum. Take the question of gay marriage. There is debate among gays and lesbians about the word "marriage." Some believe that settling for a different category of legal partnership, a civil union, is agreeing to participate in a system designed to be unfair. Others say drawing the line at the word marriage is fighting a civil battle on religious principles. And some say the issue is a non-issue, personally not relevant to their lives.

As the issue heats up, the media's ability to represent the many voices and viewpoints and to be fair and accurate will become part of the public debate.

Likewise, critics of gay marriage range from those who support legal unions as long as they are not called marriages, to those who would prefer the government take a "don't-ask-don't-tell" approach, to those who believe homosexuality should be criminalized. Lumping them all into one category for the sake of simplification is misleading, inaccurate, and a disservice to citizens seeking clarity and understanding from their news providers.

So good journalism is the minimum requirement. The second part of the response kicks in when our critics cry out, which they will. In the newsroom, whenever I knew angry people would be calling, I instinctively took on a defensive posture. It's a natural response, but it makes listening difficult. Some critics will never be placated. But many may find their faith in the media renewed, if a journalist can explain her newsroom's strategy and approach to covering the issue. The defense is bolstered when the newsroom can point to a body of work over the previous months and years as the result of that strategy.

There are many different ways newsrooms can open the channels of communication with readers and viewers. More is better. So is sooner, rather than later.

The media have the power to change the way public arguments are framed, to foster mutual understanding, and to facilitate public dialogue. Likewise the media have the ability to polarize the debate, demonize the players, and contribute to confusion. What's your newsroom's strategy?

General resources for journalists:

Resources from Gay Marriage Opponents

Gay Marriage Proponents

Civil Union Proponents

Disclosure: I presented a workshop at the NLGJA convention last year, they paid for one night in a hotel and gave me a cool bag in exchange for my work.

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    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.


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