In her column, Minority Reports, Jennifer Vanasco analyzes how the mainstream media covers social minorities.
Every few months, a story breaks about a Boy Scout or troop leader who has been dismissed because he is gay. This is not a coincidence. The Boy Scouts, the largest youth organization in the country, reaffirmed in July that gays are banned from becoming members or leaders.
The latest case hit the news last week: A Scoutmaster in the San Francisco Bay area declined to sign the paperwork awarding the rank of Eagle Scout to teenager Ryan Andresen, because Andresen had recently come out as gay.
Amid all the coverage, the news resulted in at least one excellent story, a couple that could have been better, and one that was really, really bad.
ABC News’s website shows us how to cover a story when seemingly similar ones pop up regularly—report it as if it’s the very first time.
Susan Donaldson James takes about a thousand words and carefully walks us through the story. She introduces us to Andresen and tells us that he had been bullied for being gay even before he came out. At Boy Scout summer camp, she writes, “his nicknames were ‘Tinkerbell’ and ‘faggot.’” Andresen began his involvement as a Cub Scout at the age of 6, but dropped out of Scouts for a while because of the bullying, returning only at the encouragement of his Scoutmaster. For his Eagle Scout project, he helped a local junior high school make a “tolerance wall” about kindness.
James also lays out the history of the conflict between the Scouts and gay members and leaders, reminding readers that the US Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the organization has the right to discriminate, because it is private. James also says that there is vocal opposition to the policy, including within the Scouts. “AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, an executive board member of the Boy Scouts of America, has said he was committed to ending the ban. He takes over as president in 2014,” she writes.
James’s story is compelling, because she helps us both understand who Ryan Andresen is and also, in a clear way, explains why this issue has become such a fraught one in America.
Most reporters though didn’t—or weren’t able to—take the time James did with the piece. The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, kept its story focused on Andresen without providing the context of the broader issue or mentioning that it is one of many such stories around the country. It doesn’t note the Supreme Court case, or that fact that corporations like Intel no longer give money to the Scouts because of their position on gay members and leaders. This might have been done because the writer assumed his readers were familiar with the issue, but If this post was the only piece a reader saw, they’d likely be left wondering what had really happened and why it was important.
However, the Chronicle’s follow-up story by Jill Tucker was wonderful, discussing at length the conflicted feelings parents felt over whether to let their children be part of an organization that discriminates against gay people.
NPR covered the story on its website with only a blog post as well. But they put in the context, using the keywords “as we’ve reported” to signal to readers that they were aware they might be retreading old ground.
There was one egregious story from a Seattle CBS affiliate headlined, “Homosexual Boy Scout Denied Eagle Award,” which goes on to use “homosexuality” twice in the copy.
Though “gay” and “homosexual” may denote the same thing, they don’t have the same connotation. Here’s what the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation says about the subject:
In recent years, the nation’s leading media style books have published guidelines for language and terminology use when reporting on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) lives, issues and stories.
The Associated Press, The New York Times and The Washington Post all restrict usage of the term “homosexual” — a word whose clinical history and pejorative connotations are routinely exploited by anti-gay extremists to suggest that lesbians and gay men are somehow diseased or psychologically/emotionally disordered, and which, as The Washington Post notes, “can be seen as a slur.”
Then, in the penultimate paragraph, the story says this: “While some may disagree with the BSA’s actions, the group maintains a strong allegiance to faith and, thus, opposes gay membership.” This is editorializing—there is no one quoted who says anything like this—and it comes to a conclusion that is not true. There are many faith groups that have gay members and support anti-discrimination laws against gay people. The Boy Scouts requires “Duty to God” and denies membership to gay people, but it doesn’t follow that the first requires the second.
That CBS affiliate story is bad enough that it should remind us all to examine our prejudices as we’re writing and to double check that they’re not seeping into our news stories.