SALT LAKE CITY — Whenever David Andreason sees coverage of LGBT issues in the Utah media, he cringes. From past experience, he expects news reports to get something wrong, and reporters to take what he considers a hurtful approach.
On Thursday night, Andreason, a gay man who represents the local group OUTreach, had a chance to put those criticisms to some media leaders here—afnd the media folks had a chance to respond—as the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists hosted a discussion on coverage of the LGBT community. Two panels, one of journalists and the other of LGBT advocates, took turns addressing the audience.
While the issues are fraught—OUTreach operates a network of centers for homeless and displaced youth, many of whom were kicked out of or left their families when they came out and are at risk of suicide—the focus of Thursday’s panel was fostering discussion. Sheryl Worsley, news director at KSL Radio and president of the SPJ chapter, acknowledged that some Utah journalists may not be entirely comfortable covering the LGBT community.
“Our goal is to open up the dialogue,” said Worsley at the event held at the Salt Lake Public Library. “If you have an in issue with our coverage, call us and contact us. We want to be part of a change in our community.”
Several factors do seem to be changing a historic pattern of negative coverage, or a simple lack of coverage, about LGBT issues in Utah. First, most newsroom leaders now say LGBT issues are important. The four media leaders at the event—representing Utah’s two major daily newspapers, a public radio station, and a commercial TV news operation—all said they care about LGBT issues and want to portray them accurately.
Another reason: Utah’s dominant Mormon faith, a major force in local media, is voicing a more inclusive tone toward the gay community—a development that’s been noticed by the national political media. Erika Munson, founder of Mormons Building Bridges, said at Thurday’s panel that her group is trying to change attitudes among active Mormons. More than 400 members of the group, including many devout Mormons, participated in Salt Lake’s gay pride parade this year. And The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints itself has launched a website, Mormonsandgays.org, featuring “conversations” on the issue. (Inclusion only goes so far: the site notes up high that the church’s position is still that acting on same-sex attraction is a sin, and church leaders have said they can’t bend in their opposition to same-sex marriage because of immutable doctrinal beliefs.)
But change is coming too slow for some advocates. Thursday night, Munson asked the media leaders on the panel to portray gay men and lesbians as “normal,” saying that will help erase bias among Mormons. “I want [the media] to help my neighbor understand the gay experience,” she said.
And she criticized Utah’s three church-owned media outlets—the Deseret News, KSL-TV and KSL Radio—as either ignoring, downplaying, or negatively portraying the experiences and concerns of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people.
“It’s out of alignment with current church statements,” she said. “You need to be listening to people to tell their stories.”
To its credit, the Deseret News has increased its coverage of gay issues and its portrayals of gay relationships. In July, the paper ran an article about the state of the policy dispute over same-sex marriage. The lead featured a gay Utah couple who are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit, and who say they want to marry but will wait until they can tie the knot in Utah. The photo above the story featured the two men holding hands—something that might not have gotten past editors a few years ago.
A member of the audience echoed the criticism of the church-owned outlets, and asked why the News and KSL Radio recently passed on the first-ever Provo Pride Celebration. (Here’s the coverage from The Salt Lake Tribune.) Worsley said the decision was made not because KSL Radio didn’t care about the Provo celebration, but because reporters had recently done gay pride coverage elsewhere.
Both Worsley and Doug Wilks, managing editor for the Deseret News/KSL news division, said they don’t take instructions from church leaders about what to cover or how to cover it. And Wilks conceded problems with how the paper covered the church’s involvement with California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage, which occurred before he came to Salt Lake. (CJR gave the News a dart “for dereliction of journalistic duty” in its coverage of the story. ).
At the same time, Wilks said, religious people are sometimes shouted down as they advocate for their beliefs. That deserves coverage too, he said.