Changing the conversation on gay rights

As someone who consumes news and is studying how best to report news, I have a lot of problems with the way mainstream U.S. media outlets choose to inform the public about gay rights and other issues related to homosexuality.

Among other deficiencies in their reporting on gay issues, TV networks and newspapers routinely give anti-gay extremists the appearance of legitimacy by including their voices in discussions of gay rights. I respect the desire to present stories in a balanced way, but when it comes to other civil rights categories, there’s a line that no major media organizations cross.

Namely, you won’t see Katie Couric interviewing someone from the KKK about how Obama is doing in office. Nor would the Washington Post have sought out an opinion on Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination from a member of the Taliban who believes women shouldn’t work outside the home or go to school.

But spokespeople for groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, among other far-right anti-gay religious organizations, are constantly quoted in stories about gay issues and invited to debate those topics on TV news programs. These are groups that spread blatant falsehoods and myths about homosexuality and that have an agenda to derail any progress on issues like marriage equality or job protections for gay people.

At the recent National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) conference in Montreal, Karl Frisch, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog group, addressed this issue during a panel on Obama’s record on gay rights. Frisch said that the American people are too unaware of all the civil rights protections gay people do not have, partially because the media focuses on the political debates over these issues rather than on how they substantively affect gay people’s lives.

During a conversation after the NLGJA panel discussion, Frisch spoke about the media’s habit of giving deference to anti-gay bigots, and compared it to the continued faulty reporting on global warming.

Karl Frisch of Media MattersKarl Frisch of Media Matters for America

Listen to Frisch’s comments (edited for length).
[audio:http://cdn.journalism.cuny.edu/blogs.dir/55/files/2009/09/Frisch4.mp3]

I’ve confronted members of the media myself about this tendency to give credence to the anti-gay fringe, including in an e-mail exchange earlier this summer with New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney. In this article about the Obama administration’s lack of action on gay rights initiatives, Nagourney quoted Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, writing that Perkins “said Mr. Obama‚Äôs reluctance to push more assertively for gay rights reflected public opinion.”

Perkins’ quote that “the American public isn’t there” in terms of supporting the repeal of the military’s ban on openly gay soldiers could have easily been refuted by citing any number of pieces of evidence. In fact, polls in recent years show that solid majorities of Americans, as many as 75 percent by some measures, support repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and allowing openly gay soldiers to serve in the military.

Yet, the article supplied no direct contradiction to put Perkins’ misguided statement into context. Several paragraphs below — after readers might have moved on to another article — a mention was made that the number of Americans opposing gays serving openly had dropped by several percentage points. Note the continued emphasis on opposition, rather than support.

This article’s biggest problem for me as a journalist and a reader was that Perkins is not a political analyst, but a right-wing activist whose organization is obsessed with denigrating homosexuality and opposing legislation that would grant civil rights protections to gay people. Why have him comment as though he were an expert with a reasoned insight on the matter? This is not an anomaly; examples of reporting that overemphasizes opposition to gay people and gay rights can be found on a regular basis throughout the mainstream media.

One reason blogs have become so popular is because traditional media still stick to this “one side says A, but the other side says B” formula, absent the deeper analysis that often reveals that one of those sides is completely misrepresenting reality.

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