LGBT coverage worth a shout-out

The mainstream media much improved its coverage in recent years

In her column, Minority Reports, Jennifer Vanasco analyzes how the mainstream media covers social minorities.

Every week in Minority Reports, I’ve pointed out coverage of social minorities that was done badly or could have been done better.

But the fact is, a lot of coverage is very, very good. And I thought that deserved a mention.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the coverage of LGBT issues, which was in its infancy when I began my career and has now flowered into full, mature adulthood.

My first journalism job was with a respected gay newspaper in 1994. Back then, I reported in a different social landscape—the gay press covered issues no mainstream media outlet would, including stories about discrimination, police raids, and activism. Most LGBT reporters who did not work for the gay press were still afraid to come out in their newsrooms for fear of being seen as biased.

But now, gay issues are followed in detail not only by the gay press but also by mainstream media sites. And some outlets do a particularly outstanding job.

For example, journalists at the Associated Press consistently cover gay issues in a thoughtful way. A story earlier this week by AP National Writer David Crary* reported that this year’s Democratic National Convention has been especially gay-friendly, particularly in comparison to the Republican National Convention.

Crary traced President Barack Obama’s gay rights history and pointed out that not only is gay marriage embraced in the Democratic Party’s platform for the first time, but the Party also set goals for numbers of gay delegates from each state. He noted that gays at the DNC were not included just for moral reasons; it was because Democrats believe that attracting gay people will bring in both money and younger voters.

Most reporters focused only on the easy news that the DNC included gay marriage in its platform for the first time, so Crary and the Times, which ran a similar piece, should be lauded for expanding the story into a look at a more welcoming DNC. Jim Brunner, political writer at the Seattle Times, had the same idea, though he chose to take a local angle, using the news of the revolutionary DNC platform to talk with Washington state’s gay delegates.

A few other outlets did cover gay people at the convention, albeit in a more cursory way: CNN blogged about the comparison between gay rights at the DNC 40 years ago and now and Time magazine’s Swampland blog took the temperature of the gay activists and politicians mingling in a restaurant before Tuesday’s speeches.

Like the AP, The New York Times has also become a leader of LGBT coverage—which I would never have guessed back in 1994.

Not everyone agrees with me. I know several gay activists and journalists who believe the Times too often keeps public figures closeted, or closets ordinary citizens who haven’t explicitly come out. This feeling may be left over from the 1980s, when the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation had to convince the Times to mention the surviving partners of those who died of AIDS. But the Times has also recently been criticized for making a story about a transgender woman who died in a fire more salacious than necessary. Colorlines took the paper to task with the headline, “Transgender Woman Dies in Fire, So of Course the News is About Wild Sex.”

Others think the Times is too pro-gay. In a goodbye column, outgoing Public Editor Arthur Brisbane accused the “hive” of editors and reporters at the Times as being “powerfully shaped by a culture of like [progressive] minds.” That means, he said, that “developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in the Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.”

Perhaps. But what distinguishes the Times coverage to me is not their reporting about explosive political issues like gay marriage or the abilities of gay parents—most large mainstream outlets cover those stories in similar ways—but its 360-degree look at gay life.

The Times does in-depth stories on everything from gay doctors to gay characters on TV. In the past couple of weeks, they’ve profiled a photographer whose subject is a gay subgroup and have written about a British online guide that ranks schools according to which are best for gay rights. But most importantly, the Times regularly includes gay couples and individuals in “non-gay” stories in places like the real estate, business, and arts sections. They write about the house hunts of lesbian couples, profile gay business leaders, and write about LGBT artists, all without making the subject’s sexuality the central part of the story. Instead, they mention it casually when it’s warranted, which is exactly the way heterosexuals are treated.

In the Times, gay people tend to be present without being constantly presented as “other.”

The gay press and gay news blogs continue to have the most comprehensive coverage of LGBT issues (see especially Towleroad, the Advocate, The Washington Blade, and LA Frontiers), but the mainstream press is quickly catching up. The New York Times and the Associated Press may have occasional flubs but their strong coverage of LGBT issues overall is a shining example of how social minority groups should be covered: with respect and attention, writing both about a group’s unique issues as well as including them in stories that highlight the ordinary, human qualities we all share.

*Correction: David Crary’s last name was misspelled in the original version.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years. Tags: ,