December 2, 2004

Sometimes, isolated news events are destined to become part of our national identity. I’m talking about stories so powerful and dramatic that they can be reduced to a word, usually a name, that conjures up an entire narrative.

Kitty Genovese, Susan Smith. The Central Park jogger. Elián González.

And then, something turns up. A new detail. A twist.

And a war erupts over the icon with special interests on either side, tugging and tearing at the facts, spinning them to suit an agenda.

Was Martin Luther King Jr. a great leader in the Civil Rights movement or a womanizer?

Was Jessica Lynch a prisoner of war rescued by heroic forces or a wounded soldier cared for by enemy doctors?

Last week, ABC’s 20/20 told us that Matthew Shepard used drugs and possibly knew the guys who killed him. The news magazine show reported that Shepard’s killers were planning a robbery, not a hate crime, that October night in Laramie in 1996. The killers told 20/20 they made up the part of their confession in which they said they targeted Shepard because of his sexual orientation, thinking they would be judged less harshly by their Wyoming peers if they attributed their behavior to “gay panic.”

With that report, the battle over Matthew Shepard’s legacy began. Read the 20/20 message boards, listen to talk radio, visit the websites of a variety of human rights organizations and you can witness one particular American culture war brought to life.

In these discussions Matthew Shepard is reduced to an artificial martyr created by the gay propaganda machine or a saint who was just trying to find his way in the hard-luck town of Laramie.

As journalists, we discount our role in a story as it grows into a legend. The forces that seize upon our work are beyond our control. It starts with local reporters telling a story. Soon, the national media descend with satellite trucks and live stand-ups. Later, magazines such as Vanity Fair and Harpers take an angle and pick the story apart. The made-for-TV movie comes out. Somewhere along the way political agents take advantage of the story. And the journalists bow out, only to re-emerge on the anniversaries, court appeals, and any other opportunity they might have to retell or reinterpret the story.

The news media might not be able to control what happens to a story in the hands of social forces, but we can do a better job in the telling and the retelling.

The telling

It doesn’t take long to figure out which stories are destined to become icons. They’re the kind of stories that make a reporter salivate at the chance to do them justice. You might say they are too good to be true. Or you might say they have the classic structures of legends, two opposing forces embodied in characters that seem to be created just for this particular role.

The contrasts in the Matthew Shepard story made it ripe. Small, gay man. Tough cowboy town. Brutal beating and horrific abandonment in a desolate field. The story may have been destined to become legend at that point. But the plot was sealed into our national consciousness when the Rev. Fred Phelps and his followers picketed outside the funeral with signs suggesting Shepard went to hell because he was gay.

Shepard’s suffering and death manifested the terror of gays and lesbians everywhere. The cruelty of his killers and the picketers became the shadows of intolerance. Laramie became the stage. All journalists had to do was narrate the story.

At the point a story can be reduced to straightforward tensions, reporters must resist the intuition to simplify and instead act counter intuitively, driving the story toward complexity and nuance. Doing so will insulate the story against manipulation.

  • Ask repeatedly: “Why did this happen?” And answer the question with more rather than less. Even when it seems the answer is clear, keep asking the question. Make room for more than one answer. It’s possible that Shepard’s killers were intolerant and high on meth. It’s possible that one condition informed the other.

  • Allow for ambiguity and a lack of clarity. Heroes can have imperfections. Bad guys can have redemptive qualities. If you don’t force your characters to bear the weight of an entire sub-class of people, you create more space in the story for an accurate representation of the lives you are trying to represent.

  • Be honest with readers and viewers about the conclusions you can’t make as well as the ones you can — or the ones you think you can. It’s impossible to say what was in the hearts of the men who killed Shepard. But you can discuss the outward signs experts use to determine a hate crime.

  • Use language that allows for the possibility that tomorrow’s reporting will put today’s story in a different light. Withstand the temptation to make expansive generalizations.

  • Resist the urge to reduce anything to a single motive or a simple explanation. It’s never that easy.

When it comes time to re-tell the story:

  • Avoid tearing down all that has grown up around a particular story, simply because some of the facts change. Allow incongruous pieces of information to stand side by side if they all appear to be true.

  • Carefully place new and old information in their fullest context. Sometimes new information changes the interpretation of old information. An example: when DNA evidence exonerated the teens accused of attacking the Central Park jogger.

  • Sometimes new information has no bearing on old information. And most of the time it’s not clear right away. Don’t be tricked into thinking that new information necessarily replaces the old. Sometimes it enhances and brings more context. 

  • Be transparent about what’s definitive and what’s possible. Facts are indisputable. Memories and recollections are influenced by experience and motive. Reports and documents capture a particular moment in time.

  • Keep asking “why.” Do this on behalf of your audience.

When an isolated news event becomes a legend, journalists should pay attention — not to feed into that legend, but to gain a better understanding of the world around them.

The gay and lesbian community, along with others who support their inclusion in American life, seized on Shepard’s death for a reason. His fate, along with the stories of intolerance, discrimination and hatred that gay people everywhere had experienced, spiraled into a single thread.

That thread continued to play out, as states and cities added or opted not to add sexual orientation to anti-discrimination laws. Meanwhile, some states created civil unions and some cities allowed same-sex couples to apply for marriage licenses. A movement to amend the U.S. Constitution was born.

The public reaction to the Matthew Shepard story in all its complexity suggested that sexual orientation was more contentious than most journalists realized. Six years later, it has perhaps replaced abortion as the watershed issue that divides the country.

The journalists covering the story tapped into the tension that elevated the name Matthew Shepard to a household word. Those who were paying attention quickly learned there was a lot more reporting to do when it came to gays and lesbians living in communities across this country.

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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…
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