NLGJA, Journalism, and Proposition 8

After our very successful convention in San Francisco that brought together journalists from the traditional, LGBT, and citizen press, some questions continue to linger about NLGJA’s position on not-taking-a-position on Proposition 8 in California.  That discussion really goes to the core of NLGJA’s mission to encourage fair and accurate coverage of LGBT issues.

Veteran LGBT press journalist Karen Ocamb has raised questions on her own website and Huffington Post about NLGJA’s purpose and mission that are worth exploring.  Her concerns underscore the tension that exists in NLGJA between journalists in the traditional press, the LGBT press, and citizen journalists.

To speak broadly, journalism groups (and journalists in the traditional press) are careful about staking out positions on controversial political issues.  Our 501(c)(3) status prevents lobbying and political activity and good journalism ethics discourages it.  While it is true that some journalism organizations have participated in economic boycotts of states because of voter initiatives, that is different from actually taking a position on a voter initiative.

Some minority journalism groups have also taken positions on political issues when there was a concern that a policy would potentially harm journalists’ ability to do their jobs, jeopardize attempts to diversify the newsroom, or harm journalists’ status in the newsroom.  These decisions by other organizations have not come without controversy from the larger journalism community and from their own members.

In the case of Prop 8, there was no overriding journalism issue and no economic boycott of California by LGBT organizations.  If there had been, then it’s possible that NLGJA may have honored such a boycott after weighing the financial costs.  This is consistent with positions the UNITY groups have taken at various times in terms of honoring economic boycotts linked to voter actions or legislation.

Journalism groups usually don’t stake out positions on issues that go beyond journalism itself because such moves raise questions about the objectivity of journalists who work in traditional newsrooms.  One of the reasons NLGJA was created was because there was the perception that openly LGBT journalists were unable to provide objective coverage of LGBT issues and their credibility was often questioned.

While there is a fascinating intellectual argument about objectivity, that argument doesn’t control newsroom policy and ethical standards.  At least two journalists who sat on the panel about covering the federal Proposition 8 trial at our recent conference said they would be required by the employer (or good ethics) to quit NLGJA or quit covering Prop 8 if NLGJA had taken a position on Prop 8.  That’s how important this debate is in some newsrooms and why NLGJA is loath to jeopardize members’ reputation as journalists.

In terms of criticizing the San Francisco Chronicle’s coverage of Prop 8 and specifically the story about  kids attending a teacher’s wedding, those who reviewed the coverage for NLGJA did not find that story or coverage problematic.  Journalists report what they see.  A story about kids attending their teacher’s wedding is a compelling story in the narrative of same-sex marriage debate in California.

That it was later used by Prop 8 supporters in a very successful advertisement that No on 8 had difficulty countering is not the determination of whether it is good or bad journalism.   As long as reporters are committed to fair and accurate coverage, the story stands on its own and it is then up to the activists and politicians to sort through the repercussions.  Good journalism reports and tells stories, whether it is politically problematic for activists or not.

The fact that the Chronicle’s story was a turning point–in the eyes of some activists–means the reporting was interesting, relevant, and newsworthy.  It wasn’t the Chronicle’s job to pick sides and make editorial decisions based on whether a fair and accurate story could hurt one side or the other. Putting that story on the front page was a defensible editorial decision, as were process stories which raised concerns about No on 8′s tactics and leadership.

Could there have been better reporting with more context on Prop 8 from all media?  Sure.  But that’s pretty much true of every story out there. Should there have been more “follow the money” reporting on both sides of the Prop 8 story?  Sure.  As someone living on the other side of the country, I felt I saw a lot of coverage of the Yes on 8 funding and some, but not as thorough, coverage of the No on 8 side.

But citizen journalists and LGBT press also play a role in this.  If there was too much coverage of the problems with No on 8′s strategy in the Chronicle, some have argued there wasn’t enough coverage from citizen journalists and LGBT journalists who were dependent on the same activists who were pleading with bloggers and LGBT press members to remain on message.  While journalists were busily reporting on Yes on 8 and their financial ties, the No on 8 campaign was struggling– and some would argue imploding– outside of the glare of the media: traditional, LGBT, and citizen.

Could NLGJA have been more involved in aiding journalists in covering the Prop 8 story?  Again, I’d argue sure.  We did issue press releases and the issue was discussed at conferences.  The Prop 8 election came as the organization was dealing with financial trouble plaguing the media industry, which meant we cut staff and resources available to respond and guide. But our Rapid Response Task Force continued to monitor coverage and work with newsrooms when concerns arose.

One of the purposes of this blog has been to create a conversation around better coverage.  Prop 8 and same-sex marriage have been constant themes in our blogging, encouraging journalists to be better at how the same-sex marriage story is told and how the Prop 8 legal battle is reported on.

In introducing our first plenary session at the San Francisco conference, Michelangelo Signorile recounted that first NLGJA conference where “very heated debates” broke out over the issue of “outing.” It is part of our organization’s DNA that there will be disagreements over the direction and focus of NLGJA.

The leaders of NLGJA have always been willing to engage critics both inside and outside our membership and we want to create a conversation as journalism–and specifically journalism on LGBT people–changes. We may not reach agreement or consensus, but there is room for all sides of the journalism debate. We invite critical voices to sit on panels and plenaries year after year, including at this year’s conference in San Francisco.  It’s what good journalists do.

2 Responses

  1. Is it the responsibility of a journalist to “report what they see” or “report what makes the most compelling story”?

    Reading the article, it’s clear from line one that the article intended to grab attention, by stating that the event put “public school children at the center of a fierce election battle over the fate of same-sex marriage.”

    The article portrays a story in which school children were sent on a field trip to attend their lesbian teacher’s same-sex wedding. To further illustrate the “contention” about public education, children, and the “threat of same-sex marriage”, the article seeks the opinions of Yes on 8 staffers, who state that the school is indoctrinating children and compromising the beliefs of parents, that this is evidence that the threat is real (to say nothing of whether or not it actually was).

    In reality, the field trip originated from parents. A parent suggested the idea and the majority of parents, save two of the children’s parents, fully supported it and allowed their children to go. The parents who disagreed did not sign the permission slip and the children were allowed to remain at the school with another class. The school cleared the idea and also noted that there was some educational and/or memorable while appreciating the service of the teacher. There is no reason to believe that a parent-driven, parent-approved, school-cleared field trip to attend a beloved first grade teacher’s wedding is evidence of indoctrination of any kind.

    Was your article factually inaccurate? No. You provided all the facts. But to claim that your journalists only “report what they see” is blowing smoke. Your article crafted the story in a manner that was most controversial, perhaps one that, like all news, could grab the most attention. The way I described it above is also true, but admittedly, it is not compelling. It’s not controversial, there is no edge, nor drama. The most relevant statement you could draw from a Yes on 8 individual is that they don’t like that so many parents approved it, since no objecting parents’ beliefs were actually compromised. It was a class celebrating a happy occasion for a teacher they liked, based on the parents’ idea and approval.

    But instead, what Tillman wrote was a piece that exploited the event as a contentious footnote in the debate over same-sex marriage, where children were put in a “firestorm” and where the fears of many Yes on 8 individuals were validated, by intentionally or unintentionally misinformed statements from heads of Yes on 8 no less.

    Can anyone really fault your journal or your journalists for doing what every news outlet believes they have to do–beat up a story? No. Everyone does it. But can you sit there and act like beating up a story isn’t common practice, that it wasn’t used by your journalists, that it wasn’t used to make this story more compelling? No. You sensationalized a story and portrayed it in the most controversial and compelling way, and whether or not activists could respond to it effectively, it is your article that provided the fuel for that fire, plain and simple.

    No one can justifiably claim that this article cost same-sex couples their equal rights, but it certainly contributed to it. The danger of “beat up” journalism is that its irresponsibility and lack of objectivity can provide fodder for misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Surely you knew this. Surely you weren’t that naive. And if that is the case, you can’t write this response with a clear conscience.

  2. I agree with Terence and Karen. The Chronicle story was a provocative intervention in the Prop 8 campaign, not a proper story.

    Moreover, the statement “Journalists report what they see” is simply not true. All sorts of considerations go into whether what journalists see constitutes a news story and whether a news story should be printed.

    The burning of the Quorun could amount to a compelling news story, but I kind of suspect that should that event occur in Florida tomorrow, lots of news agencies are going to think carefully about how they are going to report it, whether they are going to photograph or televise it, etc.

    But back to gay issues. One of the things that NLGJA should be very interested in is how openly gay journalists can offer perspectives to editors and publishers and straight journalists about how to cover gay issues. Instead, however, NLGJA seems more interested in saying that all journalists are the same and that gay journalists have no particular responsibility toward the gay community or even toward representing a gay perspective to their colleagues and employers. That seems to me to make NLGJA a paltry thing, hardly worth sustaining.

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