Who gets to tell our stories? Why should newsroom managers care about diversity? Should objectivity be the journalist’s goal? With these questions swirling around the journalism field, Northwestern announced this week a new endowed professorship that will focus on social justice in reporting, with a specific emphasis on LGBTQ issues. Steven Thrasher, a contributor to BuzzFeed News and The Guardian who is also a doctoral candidate in American studies at NYU, will be the inaugural holder of the Daniel H. Renberg Chair at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.
Thrasher, who was named Journalist of the Year in 2012 by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, will being teaching at Medill after defending his thesis in spring 2019. He spoke with CJR about his own career as a queer journalist of color, the value of diversity in reporting, and the lessons he hopes to impart on students at Northwestern. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The position you’re taking on is unique in J-schools in that it focuses specifically on the intersection of LGBTQ issues and journalism. What’s the value of an LGBTQ approach to journalism education?
There are many. Queer history and queer studies are integral to any understanding of the United States. LGBTQ people have made incredible contributions in history and in the contemporary US, and are leaders in a lot of the things I’ve covered as a journalist: same-sex marriage, obviously, but also Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter. It’s important to understand the role of queer people in American history, but also to understand how queer people should always be central to conversations about what’s happening in the country now. I say that because you can often look at what’s happening to queer people as something that other groups are affected by as well; we’re often policed in very specific ways.
I first started thinking about this in terms of media the week Trump was inaugurated. A journalist named Lewis Wallace, who worked on Marketplace and was the only out transgender national radio reporter, wrote this really thoughtful piece about objectivity in the media, and how we all have subjectivities—not just black or queer people—that we need to wrestle with. He was fired almost immediately because American Public Media said, essentially, we are objective and this violates our beliefs. That made me think about how, as journalists, we always have to be wrestling with our subjectivities. Having journalism education oriented around queer studies will really help students understand that, whether they are LGBTQ or not.
Teaching journalism students from the perspective and theory of LGBTQ studies will help them know what to look at and what to question as they’re going into the world as reporters. If you look at the policing of queer people, you understand the policing of gender and how many systems operate. In the past couple of years, we’ve seen that play out. Ronan Farrow just won the journalist of the year award from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association for the reporting he’s done on sexual harassment. If you understand journalism from the perspective of those who have had their sexuality or their gender policed in very specific ways, you will also understand how, for example, sexual harassment is happening out in the open.
With a lack of diversity we miss what I think is a central role of journalism, which is to question the status quo.
You mention Lewis Wallace, and in a piece about his firing last year you took on the lack of diversity in newsrooms. What do we as a profession lose because of the overwhelming whiteness of our offices?
We lose a lot, both in the whiteness of offices and in the straight, cisgenderedness of our newsrooms. I made a video in May of 2016 for The Guardian where I was predicting that Trump would win, and it was taken very seriously by other journalists of color and other queer journalists because those of us who were out in the field—both for our jobs and in our lives— were seeing this is really ugly ramping lots around the support of Trump. We knew, as queer people, that there had been these wins on same-sex marriage, which were great, but we also saw a building backlash around issues like bathroom bills.
A lot of the mainstream press missed the rise of Trump, and missed asking questions and doing important reporting about it because they just didn’t see it. Their experience told them that this isn’t that serious of a threat. When we don’t have diversity in the newsroom, we miss important stories—stories that are important to people we might call marginalized. But those people’s stories deserve to be told, and the stories of people who are marginalized often stand in for for things that are more broadly applicable as well.
With a lack of diversity we miss what I think is a central role of journalism, which is to question the status quo. Particularly in the Washington press corps, we see a lot of upholding of the status quo and the desire to maintain access—to be close to power in a way to further one’s career and create a safe and often predictable exchange between the press and the people that we’re covering. A lack of diversity reinforces that if you have mostly straight, cisgender, white journalists who have gone to particular schools and have not had an education which has questioned these things, then they’re not going to be challenging the status quo.
That lack of diversity in newsrooms has been an acknowledged issue for years, but the overall statistics haven’t moved much. What do you attribute that to? Is it a lack of commitment, or failure to understand the values of diverse staffs, or something else?
It’s a lack of commitment. It is actually not hard to hire diverse staffs; it’s just hard to make the people who have the power to do it do it. BuzzFeed, where I’ve done some of my most important work, has a really good, diverse staff. HuffPost is doing pretty well, too. There’s no lack of talent, it’s just something that journalism management needs to commit to. But power doesn’t like to give itself up.
Given that you’re taking on a new position, what are some examples of journalism you’ll be drawing on to form the curriculum?
I’ll turn a bit more to specific curriculum development in the spring, but I see my job as teaching social theory and American history to journalism students through the craft of writing. So for example, I’ll draw on my own background as a reporter on social movements, and I’ll develop a class around having reported on Occupy Wall Street, the same-sex marriage fights, and Black Lives Matter to walk students through what it means to be a critical reporter, and to understand the difference between being an activist and a reporter.
I’m also going to teach a class about HIV/AIDS. From my American studies background, AIDS is such an important part of American history that was woefully under taught. As journalists, it’s something that we need to understand historically, but also contemporarily. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control predicted that one in every two black men who have sex with men are going to become HIV-positive in their lifetime. That’s staggering—a million people globally still die of AIDS, and half of all people like me become HIV-positive in our lifetime. That’s a really important thing to wrestle with as reporters; if half of white women were going to become HIV-positive, that’s all that would be in the news, every day. So that’s a way to teach students about something that is actually important, that needs to be covered, but also to teach the sort of critical analysis and thinking about what is getting covered.
You can’t just accept the position of power in understanding what’s happening in the country. You have to look around the corner and look in the margins because the people who are most in the margins are often the ones who are often suffering the most.
One of the things I would like to do with my students is to train them to always be looking in the margins and look for the story that’s being missed.
One of the topics that newsrooms have struggled to adapt to is coverage of gender identity and trans issues. I’m thinking specifically about the controversy around the recent Atlantic story, or even language issues that seem to present a challenge for some outlets. When you think about 20 or 30 years from now, what will we look back and ask, ‘How could we have got it so wrong?’
I think we’re going to look back and and say it was wrong that that such a monolithic group of people got to speak for so much of the culture.
We look back now at the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century, and at the time it was super suspect for black reporters to be in news positions in general, and certainly to be covering civil rights matters. Newsrooms now are much better at saying that we need to have black reporters covering these things, but in terms of gender identity and expression, transgender people—especially those of color—have very little say in their own narrative. Often things come back to this concept of objectivity, and so often the person who is imagined to be objective is the straight, white, cisgender man. I’m not saying that we have to be raving polemicists, but any time we write we are bringing our experiences, and the straight, white, cisgender, male journalist has a lot of investment in the existing power structure. So I think we will look back in the future and say, Clearly there is still a subjectivity with the person weighing in on these things and everyone should have the right to tell their story.
A second-tier issue that we have right now is that people from different races and background are getting opinion gigs—I’ve certainly seen in my career a big sea change in who’s writing think pieces. But often those think pieces are getting paid a couple hundred dollars, and the person is being mined for their experience but they’re not being rewarded with a career and a job. If you’re doing those types of pieces, you’re much less likely to get the jobs where one is supposed to be “objective.” That makes a very big difference in who’s making up the media.
What experiences in you own career as a journalist helped form the views that you’re going to take into this role at Medill?
My first job out of college was actually as a researcher for “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live, and then I worked in film production. But a very formative experience was working to the StoryCorps project [ed. note: StoryCorps is a nonprofit that records and shares stories from people around the country]. I facilitated interviews with about 500 people in 22 states, and really got to listen to people. The quote that StoryCorps always uses is that listening is an act of love. It taught me to be with people as interview subjects.
Since then, I’ve been privileged to watch and observe Americans in what I have found to be a really exciting moment of political and cultural change and expression. I’ve gotten to observe activists over the years sharing their lives in open ways that made life dangerous and difficult for them. I feel so privileged that they trust me with their stories, and I’ve felt that it’s been my responsibility as a journalist to be very careful with their stories, and I want to train students to do the same.
As I head into this job, one of the things I would like to do with my students is to train them to always be looking in the margins and look for the story that’s being missed. Same-sex marriage was a big thing to cover, and I’m proud of how I’ve been able to cover it, how my colleagues have been able to cover it. But we can’t let go of the other things; we can’t forget to look at HIV/AIDS, we can’t not look at how sex workers are being policed in terrible ways that particularly harm queer people, we can’t forget about queer youth, and we certainly can’t forget about how these really nasty bills affecting transgender students are being passed at the local level. So I want to train my queer students to not stop thinking queerly [laughs]. As gay life moves towards what straight people would call “normal,” I think we have a real gift being queer. We have a way to look at things slightly off center. And I think that can create a really powerful journalist.