Covering LGBT issues in a Mormon state

Advocates and media members gather for a discussion in Salt Lake City

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,, 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.

Wilks also explained theNews’ coverage in June, the day after the U.S. Supreme Court decision dismissed an appeal to uphold Prop 8, which had been overturned by a lower court. The paper chose to balance coverage with two front-page stories and photos—one of an LGBT gathering and the other of a pro-traditional marriage conference. Though most media outlets focused only on images from those celebrating the decision, he said that the News’ audience, which hovers around 90 percent Mormon, also cared about the conference.

The discussion wasn’t only about the church-owned media outlets. Lisa Carricaburu, Salt Lake Tribune assistant managing editor, said her newsroom sees LGBT issues as one of the major civil rights stories of contemporary America. Terry Gildea, news director at NPR affiliate KUER, said his reporting staff of six actively pursues LGBT stories for the FM newscast. A recent KUER report was headlined, “LGBT Mormons try to bridge divide through music.”

Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, encouraged journalists to exercise care when describing transgender people. Where possible, she said, let people self-identify their preference of terms such as gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgendered. State Sen. Jim Dabakis, founder of Equality Utah and now the state Democratic Party chairman, urged journalists to get to know members of the transgender community so they can better report on them.

KTVX news director George Severson, who is gay, said the state is changing and becoming more accepting of all people. “We need to reflect what is happening in Utah,” he said. Severson added that he wants KTVX to simply represent all Utahns in the news it covers, though he did speak frankly about the “F” word: fear, of offending some viewers and lowering ratings.

Panelists also discussed specific storylines journalists can follow. Some would apply in many places: educating the public about the lives and work of LGBT people; covering what it’s like for a young person to come out to family and friends; exploring the unique obstacles LGBT people encounter as they go through key life events, such as buying a home, getting health insurance, getting a name change or drivers license.

But a couple ideas were more specific to Utah. They were:

— Write about same-sex attracted students at Brigham Young University who remain celibate so they can attend the university and remain members in good standing of the university’s sponsor, the Mormon church.

— Cover the debate over local anti-discrimination ordinances, as the Tribune did in an article about Provo this week. More than a dozen Utah cities have adopted these ordinances; a statewide bill failed in the 2013 legislative session, but will likely be introduced in 2014.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated Lisa Carricaburu’s title at The Salt Lake Tribune. She has been managing editor since July 2012. CJR regrets the error.

Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team.

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

Joel Campbell is CJR's correspondent for Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. An associate journalism professor at Brigham Young University, he is the past Freedom of Information chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists and was awarded the Honorary Publisher Award by the Utah Press Association for his advocacy work on behalf of journalists in the Utah Legislature. Follow him on Twitter @joelcampbell. Tags: ,