UNITY 2012: Day 1

Despite the saying, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” the first day of UNITY 2012 in Las Vegas was too special and important to not share.

The opening program was hosted by Juju Chang of ABC News and Mark Whitaker, EVP and Managing Editor of CNN Worldwide.  The program included comments by the alliance presidents and Unity president Joanna Hernandez, as well as an award to Unity founder Will Sutton, who encouraged Unity and NABJ to continue to seek reunification efforts.

For NLGJA, the immediate feeling I had is “we are part of us.” Any concerns about tension regarding NLGJA’s presence immediately melted away as the spirit of diversity and unity became evident from the very beginning. As the drummers representing the spirit of Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans filled the ballroom (and yes, we need to find an LGBT drumming spirit somewhere), the sense of community was clear.

The opening plenary featured Whitaker hosting a panel focused on “A Difficult Conversation” and the tensions that often exist among racial and ethnic minority groups, as well as LGBT people. The panelists included LZ Granderson, Helen Zia, Ray Suarez and Marley Shebala. After the panelists introduced themselves–including LZ and Helen talking about their identities as being both LGBT and people of color–Whitaker immediately plunged into the difficult question of NLGJA joining Unity after the departure of NABJ and whether that prevented NABJ from halting reunification efforts.  It was an enlightening and tough conversation that also explored the Trayvon Martin case and immigration and laid the framework for convention attendees to really ask the hard questions and explore what brings us together as journalists and what often separates us as different organizations representing different constituencies.

That spirit carried into the opening reception, where I was immediately struck by how diverse and unique this gathering is. Seeing journalists of color mingling with each other and with white journalists, LGBT journalists mingling with straight journalists, old friends greet each other as they make new friends reminds me why I believed it was so important for NLGJA become part of the alliance. I also see a special sense of pride in LGBT journalists of color who have long been active in their own alliances–as well as NLGJA–realizing that “we’ve arrived” and they can take special pride in both being LGBT and journalists of color.

On a personal note, I’m pleased to become the president of NLGJA after this convention. While my writing on the blog may take a less provocative tone, I hope to continue to blog and continue our conversation about the fair and accurate coverage of LGBT issues and the important role of LGBT journalists.

Observations on the NLGJA Excellence in Journalism Awards

nlgjaI was pleased to chair the NLGJA Excellence in Journalism Awards, announced today. Without divulging too much information about the process, there were some interesting trends in the winners and finalists that say a lot about the future of coverage of the LGBT community.

- Two awards, best online and best TV network segment, went to coverage of the same story: telling the story of Kirk Andrew Murphy, who was treated for “pre-homosexuality” at UCLA by George Rekers in 1970 and how it affected the rest of his short life. The winners were able to use their unique platforms–a national news show and an online effort run by a citizen journalist–to tell this unique story.

- Journalist of the Year Steven Thrasher found time to cover LGBT issues for the VIllage Voice as a staff writer, but also write expansive stories for the New York Times and Out.

- Sarah Petit Memorial Award for LGBT Journalist winner Chris Geidner, formerly of MetroWeekly, showed how effective LGBT journalism includes social media, online columns, and traditional print efforts.

- HIV/AIDS is still a story people are talking about.  HIV/AIDS related stories won for opinion writing, radio, and HIV/AIDS coverage.

- Covering LGBT issues is not just happening in big cities on the coasts. The student winner was from Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.  The best local television segment went to Fox4 (WDAF) in Kansas City.  The best feature writing was in the Tulsa World in Tulsa, Okla. Online winner Box Turtle Bulletin is based in Tucson, Arizona.

Why Journalists Coming Out (and Being Out) Still Matters

It’s easy to be a little cynical about the news today that Anderson Cooper has confirmed, “the fact is, I’m gay.” His endearing and interesting letter to Andrew Sullivan, who seems to have been out since the moment he burst onto the U.S. journalism scene, demonstrates not so much the painful and heartbreaking story of a closeted journalist, but instead someone who has just had enough with the rumors and innuendo and decided it was time to be honest with the public . . . in the interest of the public.

It’s become clear to me that by remaining silent on certain aspects of my personal life for so long, I have given some the mistaken impression that I am trying to hide something – something that makes me uncomfortable, ashamed or even afraid. This is distressing because it is simply not true.

I’ve also been reminded recently that while as a society we are moving toward greater inclusion and equality for all people, the tide of history only advances when people make themselves fully visible.

In his letter, Cooper explains why he hasn’t talked about being gay before and why he was concerned that being openly gay would suggest that he could not be seen as objective. What he doesn’t mention is the oft-repeated concern by television journalists that they could lose viewers or harm their employer by being openly LGBT. There is important progress in that.

In reaction to the announcement, NLGJA said on its Facebook page:

NLGJA appreciates Anderson Cooper’s honesty and his decision to publicly come out. Our members share his sentiment that as journalists, not activists, we have a significant role to play as advocates for fair & accurate coverage of the LGBT community in the mainstream media. We have worked hard to ensure that all journalists are comfortable being out in the newsroom and having it not be perceived as detrimental to their ability to do their job.

It’s important to remember that while there has been a number of journalists who have come out on national television in the last few years, the numbers are low enough that you can count them on your fingers and still have fingers left to text. The number of openly LGBT journalists in-front of the camera in major and smaller markets is still abysmally low, with women doing worse than men. Having a successful journalist like Anderson Cooper come out sends the signal that there may also be room to do it if you are in a top 20 market or in one of the tiniest markets in the country.

Cooper’s announcement also reminds us that maybe there will come a time when journalists–or anyone, for that matter–will not have to choreograph their announcement or worry about how they handle being LGBT.  That hope, of course, is something we see in the youngest generation of journalists who are open at the beginning of their careers or even before their careers take off.

That message is brought home by the death of Armando Montaño, a student member of NLGJA who was found dead in Mexico City while on an internship with the Associated Press. Montaño, who was supposed to participate in the UNITY Student Project in August, was a member of both NLGJA and NAHJ.  Mando represented the next generation of journalists for whom being LGBT is not something that needs to be hidden or obsessed about, but instead is just part of who they are as individuals . . . and journalists.

While we can thank Cooper for taking the brave step of coming out and being both a role model and a symbol, we can also thank Montaño for a glimpse into our future when coming-out letters just won’t be necessary anymore.

Geidner Heading to Buzzfeed

News this afternoon (h/t FishbowlDC)  that Chris Geidner of D.C.’s MetroWeekly has been hired to cover the LGBT/gay marriage beat for Buzzfeed out of their new D.C. bureau. Here’s what Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith (formerly of Politico) had to say about the hire:

Chris Geidner is the fastest, best-sourced reporter on his beat. The marriage wars and gay rights battles are some of the key stories of the decade; stories that readers from BuzzFeed to social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit care about deeply. It deserves to be treated with a fair mind as a front-line political beat, and Chris is uniquely positioned to turn BuzzFeed into a hub for that coverage.

Here’s what Andrew Sullivan had to say about the announcement:

Every now and again, a real star emerges. And Ben Smith at Buzzfeed has now nabbed Chris Geidner, one of the best gay reporters out there, to chart gay issues through this campaign and beyond. Dish readers have already come to know Chris’s work in the gay press. This is a sign that the mainstream takes this story – and the accurate telling of it – as seriously as it should.

In a tweet, Geidner credits Sean Bugg and Randy Shulman for discovering him and giving him a national platform.

Geidner won NLGJA’s Excellence in Journalism award for news writing in 2011 for his coverage of DADT. He won second place for online journalism and was runner-up for LGBT journalist of the year.  This year, he was the co-winner of a GLAAD award for magazine writing for his coverage of the Defense of Marriage Act.

About That Study

A lot of talk in the media today about the study by University of Texas professor Mark Regnerus in Social Science Research that questions the outcomes for children raised in same-sex relationships.  The study was rolled out to the press last Thursday and the first reports on the study in the mainstream press came from the conservative newspapers Washington Times and Deseret News.

Fortunately, the folks at Box Turtle Bulletin were all over the research and quickly provided important information about the study, including news that the study was funded by two conservative foundations that fund efforts opposed to same-sex marriage–the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation.  Like most of the work at BTB, the analysis is rational and even-handed.

The best mainstream coverage of the study came from the New York Times, which did a nice job explaining both the critiques of the study but also explaining the study’s strengths, including quotes from supporters of same-sex marriage who nonetheless believe the study is significant.

Other good coverage came from Slate, which featured both the study’s author as well as a fisking of the research by William Saletan.

Beyond that, most of the coverage is predictable based on who is doing the coverage.  The conservative world thinks it’s the best thing since sliced bread in a bag and the progressive/LGBT media has taken the approach that it is deeply flawed research based on a clear conservative agenda.

There is nothing more difficult than writing about social science research, especially when it comes to the LGBT community where the research is often deeply flawed or deeply limited.  In fact, a companion analysis in Social Science Research looks at the problems in many of the “kids are alright” studies on LGBT families and notes the problems that exist in that research.

For journalists, our first job is to be accurate . . . and skeptical.  We must look at research and put it into context.  While lots of people are demagoguing the research, Regenerus is fairly upfront about the study’s limitation and encourages people not to use the data to make assumptions about LGBT families in 2012.  Of course, he says that knowing that’s exactly what people are going to do with the research.

But being skeptical of research is a two-way street and journalists need to be skeptical (and find out the agenda of the researchers and funders) whether the research undermines assumptions or confirms assumptions.  There’s a lot of flawed research out there, including research that is favorable to LGBT families.

As more coverage of the study emerges, it will be important to avoid the demagogues and seek out analysts who can speak to research design and to people who have actually read the study.  What are the strengths of the study?  What are the flaws?  Are the critiques fair?  Does it matter who pays for a study?  These are all questions journalists should be asking as the study moves beyond the ideological arena and into the mainstream.