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Covering the LGBTQ community, and its haters

CHICAGO
– Adam Rhodes, the social justice reporter for the Reader, said the importance
of re-examining how we cover anti-LGBTQ groups is matched by a reckoning with
how we cover the gay community.

“The
media industry has just started to give a shit about trans people,” he said.
“We’ve been trained to not care about them.”

The
Southern Poverty Law Center tracked 70 anti-LGBTQ groups in 2019 – a startling
43 percent increase year-over-year. The nonprofit group didn’t shy away from
pointing blame at the Trump administration.

“The
Trump administration has demonstrated a clear willingness to embrace their
leaders and their policy agenda,” the SPLC stated in its 2019 annual report
“The Year in Hate and Extremism”.

Rhodes
said it’s the media’s responsibility to connect the dots that way, and to
plainly describe hate groups as what they are.

“Media,
for whatever reason, has failed to really call a spade a spade, especially when
human rights are being implicated,” he said. “There’s a side where someone has
human rights, and a side where it doesn’t.”

That
said, we need to cover hate groups, Rhodes said. The public needs to know about
them, and the threat they pose.

“We
need to be covering the issue of extremism and hate groups,” he said. “But they
need to be prepared to label things as extremism when it’s extremism. The media
has dropped the ball to say the least.”

Adam Rhodes and Genelle Belmas

‘I’ve been gaslighted my entire
career’

Rhodes,
27, said he’s “spoiled” to work for the Reader, a liberal, alternative weekly
publication that’s noted for its literary style of journalism. Thanks to a
grant from the Field Foundation, Rhodes was brought on for a year as the
Reader’s first social justice reporter.

He
earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s prestigious Medill
School of Journalism, with a focus on social justice and investigative
journalism.

Rhodes
has worked in more traditional newsrooms, where pitching human rights-focused
stories was like pushing sand up a hill.

“Throughout
my career, there have been times I’ve pitched articles that related to a small
population of people being mistreated, or a greatly underreported issue an
editor didn’t know about, and I’d need to convince [the editor] she’s not a
racist before I could even make any headway,” Rhodes said.

He
said when he pitched a story on babies born intersex and receiving cosmetic
genital surgeries that effectively chose which gender they’d be, he was told it
was too niche of an issue.

Then
he told the editor 1.7 percent of American babies are born different from
what’s considered a typical boy or a girl, prompting surgeries to “normalize”
them.

“When [the editor] heard that number, then it was a good enough story – not because we were talking about surgeries being performed on babies,” Rhodes said. “Those surgeries have immense consequences for these people.”

In
July, Chicago’s very own Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital was the
first hospital in the nation to apologize for performing such surgeries,
calling the approach “harmful and wrong.”

“I don’t
have to convince Karen that these issues are issues,” Rhodes said of Karen
Hawkins, the Reader’s co-editor-in-chief. “Karen has that trust in me. It’s a
little maddening to learn I’ve been gaslighted my entire career.”

He
struggled to come up with the best advice for a journalist in a more
traditional newsroom.

“It’s
a mix of needing to hang with it and needing to find the right editor,” he
said. “There are some publications and some editors that, no matter how much
background and digging you give them, it’s going to go over their head.”

He
said it’s bittersweet to see media outlets winning awards when they do elect to
cover those issues.

“Unfortunately,
that’s sometimes how these organizations are convinced to cover marginalized
groups,” Rhodes said.
“If we investigate wrongdoings toward marginalized communities, we’ll get a
prize.”

Yet
despite potential acknowledgment from their peers, leadership is often hesitant
to take on such issues, Rhodes said.

“For
whatever reason, that doesn’t translate to media owners giving more weight to
that coverage,” he said.
“They’re afraid of the white people in their lives not buying newspapers and
ads anymore.”

Check your stylebook

NLGJA: The Association of
LGBTQ Journalists, states in its stylebook that while Journalism 101 teaches us
to report both sides of issues, “there are times when ‘balance’ doesn’t further
understanding of the issues or the story.” The association advises reporters to
get multiple perspectives. It recommends developing and using experts qualified
to speak on subject matter, and then citing their expertise.

It urges that reporters be
wary of sources’ bias and framing, and to apply the principle of First Do No
Harm.

“Someone’s position might
be biased on hatred. …” the stylebook reads. “… Consider any potential harm
your story could have. By including individuals who speak only from opinion,
you can authenticate their narrative or semblance of expertise.”

Genelle Belmas, an associate professor at the University of
Kansas who teaches media law, said we perhaps have to go a step beyond simply
weighing how much coverage to give hate groups.

“We
need to have a moral discussion about journalism,” she said. “Is it time to
shed the objectivity notion? Don’t we have a moral responsibility to call out
hate and lies and all that stuff?”

Further,
she said one of journalists’ chief goals is to give a voice to the voiceless.

“I
often wonder if we’re asking the wrong questions,” she said. “If we’re going to
give a voice to the voiceless, maybe that’s us. What responsibility do we have
to push back? I think we need to be asking that question.

“I
worry about my kids,” she continued, speaking of her students, “but I think I
worry more about the society they’ve inherited.”

Rhodes: Focus on ‘the most vulnerable’

The
Human Rights Campaign recently reported in early October that at least 32
transgender or gender non-conforming people have been killed by violent means
this year, most of them Black and Latinx
transgender women.

“We say ‘at least’ because too often these stories go
unreported, or misreported,” the campaign said in a statement.

Most recently, 20-year-old Brooklyn Deshuna, a Black transgender woman, was killed in
Shreveport, Louisiana, as a result of a gunshot wound. Hers was the fifth
violent death of a transgender or gender non-conforming person in just 3 weeks,
according to the HRC.

Rhodes said hate groups aren’t limited to those holding signs
and organizing in chat rooms. He said police violence against transgender
people is rampant, and that victims fear retaliation – or
biased coverage if they actually open up to a journalist.

“I can’t
tell you how many times as a reporter covering these issues, that somebody has
cited horrible transphobic, homophobic, bigoted media coverage as why they
won’t talk to me,” Rhodes said. “So much of my job is spent convincing people
I’m not the one who’s going to hurt them.”

He
said simply by considering sources – a victim and a police report – a reporter
can glean who’s not sharing the whole story.

“It
comes from an understanding of power, and who benefits from lying in this
situation,” he said. “How would a transgender person stand to benefit from
lying?”

Gay
rights are one of many subjects in the crosshairs as confirmation of Supreme
Court justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett would mean a 6-3 conservative advantage
in the nation’s highest court – which will hear an argument in the case of the
Affordable Care Act just one week after the general election.

Transgender
people’s access to healthcare will hang in the balance. The Trump
administration has already tried to do away with it.

“When
we think of LGBTQ issues, we think of gay marriage and same-sex adoption,”
Rhodes said. “Those issues concern the most affluent people in society. The
people who are going to access those rights have the means to. We need to focus
more on the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ community.

“The
media hasn’t even touched the surface of how queer issues need to be covered.
It doesn’t see significant problems. It sees us as identities, and not people.”

Data loading …

In
1978, the American Society of News Editors began collecting newsroom
demographic data, with the goal of helping U.S. newsrooms align their diversity
with that of the nation’s population. The ASNE and Associated Press Media
Editors merged to form the News Leaders Association last year. The NLA
indicated in June that because only 17 percent of newsrooms solicited submitted
their data in 2018, the initiative was halted so the surveying process can be
re-racked.

Seeing
opportunity in a moment of reckoning, the NLA is updating the survey to collect
data not just on race, ethnicity and gender, but also gender identity and
sexual orientation.

Such
associations can only provide guidance, of course, so it’s up to each
individual newsroom to choose to undergo reform.

Rhodes
is skeptical.

“There’s no reason we should still be saying ‘First Black investigative reporter of this bureau’ ”, he said. “I’m flabbergasted at the refusal by media leadership to see diversifying its ranks as anything more than an imperative. It’s absolute trash.”

Christopher Heimerman is a former editor of the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb, Illinois, and freelance journalist covering media practices in the Midwest. He wrote the memoir “40,000 Steps” which details his war with alcoholism and the marathon he ran after rehab. He lives in DeKalb. Follow him on Twitter @RunTopherRun.




How Cincinnati news media reported a baseball broadcaster’s anti-gay slur

When
Cincinnati Reds broadcaster Thom Brennaman got caught on a hot mic in August using an anti-gay slur, Megan
Mitchell, an openly lesbian reporter and anchor at WLWT in Cincinnati, hoped
her colleagues in the media would realize why it was an important story to cover.

It
wasn’t just about the slur, she told GJR.

“I
think there needs to be more understanding about how words can dehumanize
groups of people.” she said. “The more we dehumanize someone, the more likely
we are to commit acts of violence against them. So while it may only be words,
it contributes to a system that can really hurt people for being who they are.”

Brennaman
apologized in the Aug. 19 broadcast, but the Cincinnati Reds suspended
him anyway. He resigned from the team on Friday. (It’s not
clear who the slur was directed at or what the context was).

Major
outlets in Cincinnati, including the Cincinnati Enquirer, WCPO, WLWT, WKRC
(Local 12), WXIX (Fox 19), and WVXU radio, all covered the Brennaman story in
the weeks after it broke, but Mitchell said her station’s coverage was unique
because she was able to contribute to it as a member of the LGBTQ community.

(Photo by Kaiser DeKam via Flickr)

“I was able to utilize my voice best within my own newsroom,”  Mitchell said. “When reporters or managers
had questions they didn’t hesitate to run then by me, and it was a
collaborative effort to put out something accurate while making sure it was
inclusive.”

Reporters
need to make sure they’re telling these kinds of  stories through the lens of LGBTQ people “who
are actually affected by it,” she said.

Mitchell
said fellow WLWT reporter, Brian Hamrick, 
the lead reporter on the Brennaman incident, reached
out to her to get a positive perspective. She appreciated the opportunity to
weigh in.

“The
last thing you want to do is, just, take some random person off of the street
and say, ‘hey what are your random…thoughts?'”

The
Cincinnati Enquirer led local coverage with more than 20 stories on the
incident. Its opinion section focused on whether Brennman would be fired, said
Kevin Aldridge, Enquirer opinion editor.

The
Enquirer’s opinion writers maintained that he should not keep his job because
of a “zero-tolerance policy” for hate speech, Aldridge said.

Jeff
Blevins, chair of the journalism department at the University of Cincinnati,
said journalists should have gone beyond that.

“By
focusing just on Thom — should he be fired, should [he] be forgiven — treats
the incident like an individual problem and not a more systemic one,” he said

He
contends they should be asking questions like: “How regularly did Thom say
things like that (off air) and is Fox Sports Ohio only dealing with this
because Thom got caught when it inadvertently went out over the air?” Or what
is “the culture at Fox Sports Ohio?”

Cincinnati’s
local coverage also included an apology letter from Brennaman himself,
published by both the Enquirer and WCPO.

“Regardless
of what my future holds in broadcasting,” wrote Brennaman. “My
actions have forced me to reflect on who I am and how I want to be seen and
thought of.”

WCPO
added a column written by their reporter Evan
Millward, who is openly gay.

“I
wrote the column because of the reaction to the reaction to what happened,”
said Millward. He didn’t want to have everyone “fire in,” and then
“just have it go away.”

Millward
believes “cancel culture,” a word he hates using, plays a large role
in stories that “go away,” saying, “it signals we are not ready
to have a difficult dialog with someone.”

Canan
said news media, not just WCPO, should ask the question, “are we still
finding new ways to tell that story?” The answer right now:
“no,” he said.

News
media need “to make sure the issues aren’t swept under the rug until the next
time there’s an incident,” Canan said.

WVXU,
the NPR affiliate of Cincinnati, also included multiple perspectives in their
reporting, including an article written by John Kiesewetter,
reporter, that listed questions that have been left unanswered. Who heard it? Why did the Reds wait so long
to take him off the air? And Who decided Brennaman should make his apology on
air?

Both
Fox 19 and Local 12 also provided extensive coverage in
the days following the incident. Including reporting on their website and
segments on air.

“Overall
[Cincinnati news media] covered the story,” Canan said. “And covered
it with a level of sensitivity throughout the reporting process.”

Gauging
how the community itself felt about the incident was “tough because we all
have our bubbles,” said Mike Canan, senior director of local news at WCPO.

“In
a COVID world where we’re not communicating and talking to as many people, in
real life, as we are used to, the primary place where you see the way people
react to things is social media,” said Canan. “And I don’t know
that’s always 100 percent accurate.”

Zachary Jarrell is an Ohio-based
correspondent who is majoring in journalism at the University of Cincinnati
(UC). Along with his work at Gateway Journalism Review, he is a contributor at
The News Record, an independent student newspaper at UC, the editor and lead
writer of The Blazing Chronicle newsletter and a freelance music writer. He is
originally from western Maryland.