Covering LGBT Rights Objectively

By Jennifer Lea Reed

Cultural awareness of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights in the United States has been on the rise, amid a continuing debate in our society about sexual minorities.

Journalists need to familiarize themselves with issues such as marriage, nondiscrimination policies and domestic partner benefits. They must be sure they understand what proponents seek and what critics oppose.

Depth and nuance are important aspects of coverage. Reporters tempted to turn to radical activist types on both sides should do the legwork to find credible sources who elevate the discussion, not mire it in name-calling.

In the gay rights debate, journalists shouldn't be afraid to scrutinize inflammatory rhetoric by either side. Is it fair for a gay activist to say that all churchgoers are bigots? The same level of scrutiny should be applied when politicians evoke their personal religious beliefs as a rationale for directing public policy.

"If someone injects himself into a debatable issue, it’s worth covering," says Katia Hetter, staff writer for Newsday in Melville, N.Y. "And that’s true whether it’s charter schools, government funding of abortion, environmental issues or gay rights."

Still, news organizations too often present a general condemnation without really addressing what is said, says Scott Wyman, a reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. "If a politician says there is no proof that sexual orientation is innate, it's not good enough to get a gay activist condemning the politician," he says. "[The reporter] should get information and sources addressing the fact that there is research to the contrary."

In all cases, don’t be afraid to ask specific questions. If, for example, you’re covering an employee call for domestic partner benefits at a local company and the company’s response is that such benefits are too expensive, push for the details. (Advocates for these benefits estimate a 1 percent to 2 percent increase in enrollment in the typical scenario.)

To provide balanced coverage, reporters must talk to opponents as well as proponents. Who you go to, however, makes a world of difference in your audiences’ understanding of the issue.

"We make the mistake of thinking there are just two sides, when in fact there can be three or four sides," Hetter says. Solely presenting the most diametrically opposed positions can be a mistake. For example, the Quakers are a religious group that supports gay rights. But all too often the position of the most conservative religious group gets the most play, she says, effectively hijacking what could be a productive debate.

Journalists must consider when including an opponent of gay rights is necessary. "A feature story on the rise of gay tourism in Fort Lauderdale shouldn’t include ‘the other side’ unless there is some special controversy that elevates it because the newspaper then would be creating controversy where none exists," Wyman says.

"Be just as aggressive in asking sources to talk about common ground as you are in asking sources to talk about differences and conflicts," adds Craig Gemoules, deputy managing editor at The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune. "Rather than writing one story that bounces back and forth between opposing views, consider publishing side-by-side stories that each develop one point of view more fully. Readers can compare and draw their own conclusions."

Sometimes it's helpful to step back and ask yourself what you would do if you were writing the story about a different minority group, Wyman suggests. If you're doing a story about an increase in tourism among African-Americans, would you go out of your way to get an "other side"?