Pgh Media Coverage on LGBT Issues – Words Matter

What’s your overall impression of the effectiveness of Pittsburgh’s media outlets in covering LGBT issues? Overall, I would say B-. In terms of the number of stories they cover, the depth of the stories and the attention to national issues, I would say B.

The difference is the inconsistency in how they cover these stories. Let’s set aside opinions and focus on content. These are my general impressions of the areas that need improvement

First, terminology. Pittsburgh’s media outlets need to be educated on the appropriate terms and language both to describe a complex community, but also avoid some pitfalls of false dichotomies. Here’s how GLAAD puts it in their media guide:

Words And Images Matter

There continues to be a need for journalists to distinguish between opposing viewpoints on LGBT issues and the defamatory rhetoric that fuels prejudice and discrimination. While defamatory comments may be newsworthy, they should no longer be used simply to provide “balance” in a news story.

Unfortunately, anti-gay individuals and organizations continue to see their incendiary rhetoric and inaccurate, sensationalistic distortions of gay and lesbian lives legitimized through stories, features and profiles. Such inclusion, despite the best efforts of reporters striving for fair and accurate coverage, devalues the quality of journalism.

In short, using a word like “homosexual” is not fair or accurate. That term is clinical, describes only part of the community (bisexual men and women are not homosexual, for example.) And it has been co-opted by the extremist right to convey contempt and reduce men and women in the LGBT community to a sexual act that they find distasteful.

Another good example is “homosexual sex.” There is no such thing as a sexual act that is exclusive to homosexuals (even sexual encounters between two men may not be assumed to be homosexual.” Sex is sex. Describe the act. If you need to describe the participants for some reason, use humanizing terms. Like men. Or women.

This can also be damaging. Young people are engaging in unprotected oral and anal sex at higher rates because they have been taught to save their intercourse sex for marriage. Creating this hierarchical structure of sexual acts goes far beyond first, second and third base when you factor in pregnancy, STDs, and the emotional damage of performing blow jobs in the back yard just to feel like someone needs you for a few minutes.  Are these kids using condoms when they perform/receive oral sex? Does anyone even discuss that as an option? (Psss … LGBT people do!)

So let’s have accurate coverage of stories. If you want to discuss health risks comparing same sex couples versus opposite sex couples, fine. That’s fair. But there’s simply no need to describe anal sex as homosexual sex.

My other issue with the media is consistency.  One reporter covering a story will say “homosexual” while another uses the term “gay” and a third says “LGBT” on the same story. The perils of covering stories about transgender men and women as well as those heterosexual men who crossdress and gay men who are female impersonators … it can be tricky.  It is complicated because the nuances of our community have emerged and many of us struggle to find the right terms much less use respectful language.

But you really don’t need to tell ME why you used transsexual instead of transgender. Unless you can clarify that the person self-identified that way, its not accurate. There’s also the issue of relevance. Arresting two women who were born biologically male for prostitution – is that a story simply because they are transgender? Or might be? A straight man crosssdressing in Fayette County was labeled by a media outlet even thought no one actually asked him how he identifies.

Sometimes you don’t have access to as. So use the guide. Don’t sensationalize. When you play up “men in women’s clothing” angles, you feed right into “men in women’s bathrooms” arguments that hurt people, even kill people. And it makes me sad to realize that local journalists – highly educated professionals – are using the same language as morning show “shock jocks” to garner listeners.

Consistency helps reduce misunderstandings, keeps the focus on the humans and the story – not the titillation and allows journalists to do their jobs effectively. The Washington Post, Associated Press and New  York Times all have adopted guidelines and GLAAD has a nicely done Media Guide which provides succinct information. Succinct enough that with some advance knowledge, a producer can consult it even under deadline. Seriously.

A final note that I made in a recent post. Don’t rely on your gay friends to have accurate information for your professional

Not a Professional Resource

life. If you report on a story and use the term “retarded” to describe pretty much anything, I don’t care if your niece has Down’s Syndrome or whatever. Just because it is part of the social lexicon doesn’t make it appropriate or professional. Your gay male friends has prejudices and subjective exposure to the larger LGBT picture, too. And it is quite disrespectful to hide behind “your gay”to defend a mistake. Just admit you didn’t have the right information, made a mistake and won’t do it again. Period. No need to get defensive about it. But if you are going to consult “the gays” I suggest you start with a reputable organization that has invested millions in the issue than the guy who went to high school with your sister.

I’ve discussed these issues repeatedly with various members of the media and I count the fact that two I most respect agreed to review the guide as a significant accomplishment for 2012 on behalf of my community.  To their credit, they explained their word choices and did NOT fall back on … “If you knew me, you would know I’m an ally” because we all knew that wasn’t the point.  Their work speaks for itself and its important that coverage of LGBT issues speak in a fair and balanced manner.

I could pull out dozens of examples of “good” coverage and “poor” coverage and “disastrous coverage.”  I try to confront mistakes when I see them. I confronted a blogger because she didn’t include LGBT blogs in a list. She explained, I offered to help and its good. I had a tweet exchange with a journalist who didn’t agree with me, but acknowledge there was no desire to offend so they would change their use of words. Others listen to me, but have no plans to change. This makes is very hard when I learn that we have allegedly “gay friendly” radio programs making PR points from events named after “Trannies and Grannies.”

Let’s review. Tranny is offensive. Your station management should have some limits. Sponsors should think about LGBT dollars. BUT most importantly – the fact that some LGBT folks come to your event and you cover LGBT topics elsewhere does not make up for the fact that you are engaging in some very dangerous rhetoric. The suicide rate among transgender teens is astronomical. And you play a part in that when you go for the giggle.

Pittsburgh’s LGBT community has consistently dropped the ball. We aren’t holding our media sources to a higher level of accountability. We aren’t diversifying the voices. We don’t have a go to person in the communications world to connect media outlets with LGBT persons. So we need to do our part.

I’ve passed along the media guide. I’ve contacted GLAAD to discuss a more systemic approach. I believe the Post-Gazette, CBS Radio, et al need to follow in the footsteps of the AP and set their own guidelines. Pat Buchanan can still spew his hateful opinions in whatever terms he deems fit to print. That doesn’t mean the reporter covering the 7th grade science fair needs to do the same thing.


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