Unfortunately, coverage of reparative therapy was not always as critical as it could have been. In his article for the Prospect, Arana noted that in 1998, the year he started therapy, national newspapers published an ad campaign sponsored by conservative religious organizations asserting that the technique worked. According to Arana:
With few voices to challenge the testimonials, reporters transmitted them as revelation. Newsweek ran a sympathetic cover story on change therapy, and national and regional papers published ex-gays’ accounts.
By the time Spitzer’s paper was published three years later, the coverage had improved, but many problems remained. An article from The Associated Press quoted a variety of critics, for example, but featured a sensational lede that referred to the analysis as “an explosive new study.” It also failed to report that at the same meeting of the American Psychiatric Association where Spitzer was presenting his paper, some his peers were presenting research which found that reparative therapy was ineffective and could even cause “significant harm” to patients.
Articles in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle were more comprehensive and critical, but a news roundup at the time by the group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) concluded that, on balance, journalists played up controversy at the expense of credibility.
Even Spitzer, who had led the charge for removing homosexuality from the list of disorders in psychiatry’s principal diagnostic manual in 1973, complained about the coverage. In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal (unavailable online), he wrote:
My study concluded with an important caveat: that it should not be used to justify a denial of civil rights to homosexuals, or as support for coercive treatment. I did not conclude that all gays should try to change, or even that they would be better off if they did. However, to my horror, some of the media reported the study as an attempt to show that homosexuality is a choice, and that substantial change is possible for any homosexual who decides to make the effort.
Now Spitzer has come to believe that reparative therapy shouldn’t be used at all, but that hasn’t quelled problematic coverage. William Saletan, a science reporter for Slate, argued that Spitzer’s disavowal of his paper doesn’t mean reparative therapy should be “eradicated.” According to his post:
Experience and research suggest it’s extremely unlikely that you can change your sexual orientation, and you’re better off accepting who you are. But what’s true for you may not be true for someone closer to the margins of homosexuality. Tempting as it is to politicize Spitzer’s apology and dismiss the malleability of sexual orientation, resist that urge. Morally and therapeutically, it’s better to treat people as individuals.
Saletan is generally a good reporter, but his logic is hard to accept in light of the World Health Organization’s statement on May 17 that, “Services that purport to ‘cure’ people with non-heterosexual sexual orientation lack medical justification and represent a serious threat to the health and well-being of affected people ”
In his article for the Prospect, Arana wrote that his failed reorientation program almost drove him to suicide, and Spitzer said that while he still thinks people’s sexual orientations can change over time, “there are dangers to reparative therapy that are quite clear and noticeable.”
Moreover, Spitzer added, “There is really no such thing as reparative therapy. Reparative therapy is any therapy that has the goal of making somebody straight, but there are no specific techniques or approach that defines what reparative therapy is.”
Spitzer appreciates the coverage of his conversion, calling the articles by Arana and The New York Times “terrific.” As Arana reported, “Now 80 and retired, he was afraid that the 2001 study would tarnish his legacy and perhaps hurt others.” But he may never have done it without a push, and now Arana, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, has a legacy that he can be proud of, too. Call it reparative journalism.