Diversity in Lincoln, Neb., through the lens of high school proms and teens

Bobby Caina CalvanBy Bobby Calvan (Reporter, The Heartland Project)

LINCOLN, Neb. – The assignment was straightforward: Produce a story about the growing diversity in the Cornhusker State’s capital city.

Certainly, we could have gone straight to the U.S. Census Bureau’s website and downloaded the data. We could have strung together a bunch of numbers and surrounded them with quotes and analyses.

We could have left things there.

But the editor of the Lincoln Journal Star, Dave Bundy, wanted a different approach. He wanted a story that put a face on the numbers.

Bundy had a novel idea — tell the story of his city’s diversity through the lens of a quintessential American institution: the high school prom.

As is often the case, schools serve as microcosms of a community’s evolving demographics – and Lincoln is no different.

As our report points out, about a third of the roughly 38,000 students attending Lincoln Public Schools are now from communities of color. That’s a huge jump from about 15 years ago, when the majority of the school district’s students – nearly nine in 10 – were of European descent.

In recent years, Nebraska has experienced a surge in its population of immigrants, many of them of Hispanic origin. But Nebraska is also a safe haven for refugees escaping the turmoil of their homelands, including Sudan, Burma and Iraq.

The prom package Bundy proposed would be a perfect vehicle for launching the Heartland Project, a first-of-its-kind collaboration aimed at broadening news coverage of communities of color – as well as gay, lesbian and transgender issues – by partnering with newsrooms across Nebraska to produce stories on folks and issues that often don’t get attention.

The Journal Star has been among the first of Nebraska’s newspapers to embrace the collaboration.

As the lead reporter for the Heartland Project, it was my responsibility to take the prom story and run with it. I set out to pursue the package in words, pictures and video.

As part of the assignment, I’d write an overarching story connecting prom and Lincoln’s evolving demographics. And I’d enlist journalism students to help produce vignettes, photographs and videos that would spotlight teens from different backgrounds.

Among the teens we profiled: a teenager who moved to Lincoln from Mexico City, a Burmese girl born in a refugee camp in Thailand, a student coming to terms with her sexual identity, and even a foreign exchange student from Sweden.

The prom project was about acceptance and belonging, regardless of background and life stories. It’s about inclusion and being a part of the broader community.

Indeed, “community” is at the core of the Heartland Project’s mission of collaborating with newsrooms across Nebraska to generate stories, like the prom package in the Lincoln Journal Star, to enhance coverage of the state’s increasingly diverse voices.

The Heartland Project is itself a collaboration. With funding from the Ford Foundation, the project brings together the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The ambitious project will undoubtedly have its challenges, as was clear during the reporting of the prom stories.

Some at Lincoln Public Schools had their guards up, and it took some cajoling to get cooperation. (Others, including teachers and family advocates who have long worked with refugees and the LGBT community, were more embracing.)

It’s only natural to distrust an outsider – in my particular case, an experienced reporter from Washington, D.C. – who begins venturing into areas seldom explored.

Some of those challenges come from my own deficiencies. Over time, I’m certain that I’ll develop better skill in directing inexperienced journalism students. When I move on from Nebraska in December, I hope to become a better teacher, editor and leader.

The prom project has been a learning experience for me, for my colleagues at the university and – I can only hope – for my crew of student journalists.

There is so much more to learn. Indeed, I hope the Heartland Project becomes the learning experience it is meant to be.

THC in Pot Affects Monkey SIV; Half-Baked HIV Reports Follow

By Benjamin Ryan (Editor-at-Large, POZ)

marijuanaA study showing that a component of marijuana modulates the disease progression of the simian version of HIV in the guts of monkeys has led to a rash of hyperbolic and highly inaccurate reporting of the research in the popular press. Publishing their findings in AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses, investigators from Louisiana State University (LSU) and the Tulane Primate Center gave twice-daily injections of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the main psychoactive element of marijuana and one of more than 60 cannabinoids in the drug) to four rhesus macaque monkeys and gave a placebo to another four monkeys during a 17-month period. Then they infected the primates with SIV, HIV’s simian cousin.

Analyzing the differences in duodenal, or gut, tissue between the two groups of monkeys above five months after they were infected with SIV, the investigators found that the THC-treated macaques had a higher level of CD8 central memory T cells and a higher level of a specific kind of CD4 cells that scientists believe may be summoned to restore CD4s killed by the virus, as well as an increase in the expression of certain cytokines that indicate a less inflammatory state.

Ultimately, the findings identify potential mechanisms that THC affects and that can in turn alter the course of SIV disease.

To read the reports in various online new sources, however, much greater scientific leaps had been made.

The study’s lead author, Patricia Molina, MD, PhD, a professor at the LSU Health Sciences Center, New Orleans, expressed in a email to POZ her “frustration with the liberal, inaccurate, and wrong approach that the journalists have taken to interpreting our results.”

The Daily Beast ran a headline that touted, “Weed Could Block H.I.V.’s Spread. No, Seriously.” And yet, as the article itself pointed out, the study was not conducted on marijuana, but on one of its ingredients. Furthermore, the study did not cover, nor did it make any projections about, THC’s ability to impede, much less outright block, the spread of HIV from person to person. ThinkProgress, meanwhile, put it rather more equivocally, if still inaccurately: “Marijuana May Help Stop The Spread of HIV.” The Guardian Liberty Voice went the furthest, with its headline: “HIV Infections Cured With Cannabis a Real Possibility.” The study was not concerned with a potential cure, nor even a systemic examination of THC’s effects on SIV throughout the monkeys’ bodies, but only analyzed the effects of the drug in the gut region.

To read these three particular reports (there are others) in chronological order, it would appear that Liberty Voice and ThinkProgress each essentially copied the reporting, much of it erroneous, in The Daily Beast. ThinkProgress even lifted a clause of telling similarity out of The Daily Beast, which wrote: “Mirroring other studies that link marijuana to HIV, the study illustrates…” ThinkProgress parroted, “This isn’t the first study to report a correlation between cannabis and HIV.” The study did not “link marijuana to HIV.” Rather, it examined a link between THC (which is a cannabinoid, not cannabis itself) treatment and changes in HIV disease progression—an important distinction. Previous studies have looked at whether medical marijuana helped battle symptoms such as nausea, pain and appetite loss among people with HIV.

All three stories mistakenly reported that the macaques were already SIV positive when they received the 17 months of THC, although in fact the primates were not infected until after the end of the THC treatment.

Perhaps most outlandishly, The Daily Beast stated, “In 2011 alone, 636,048 people died from AIDS.” That figure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, represents the total number of people throughout the entire HIV epidemic in the United States who have received an AIDS diagnosis and who have since died. An estimated 15,529 people with an AIDS diagnosis died in 2010.

In addition, both The Daily Beast and Liberty Voice mistakenly called SIV “RIV.” And Liberty Voice reported that “hundreds of researchers have reported that THC was able to pierce the RIV virus in monkeys.” There were not hundreds of researchers working on this paper, nor did they discover that THC pierced “RIV.” Additionally, “RIV virus” is redundant, since the “V” stands for “virus.” (ThinkProgress also referred to the “HIV virus.”)

Each of the news reports did drive home an important consideration: The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug—the same as heroin and LSD—which hinders research into the potential benefits of THC and pot.

Other inaccurate reports can be found in The Huffington Post, High Times, The Fix and Queerty.

To read a press release on the study, click here.

To read the study, click here.

To read the Daily Beast story, click here.

To read the ThinkProgress story, click here.

To read the Liberty Voice story, click here.

This article was originally published on POZ.com.

Be Smart in Covering Michael Sam As First Openly Gay Player In NFL Draft

Michael SamBy Sharif Durhams (Treasurer, NLGJA)

Missouri defensive end Michael Sam’s announcement Sunday that he’s gay will make him the first openly gay participant in the NFL draft, a development that’s likely to be the topic of news and sports media discussions Sunday.

We know from other “coming out” stories, those discussions among well meaning journalists can sometimes go awry.

NLGJA member and hockey writer Tony Jovenitti puts it more bluntly in his “Out in Left Field” blog. Some of the commentary, he says, is moronic:

Most people don’t try to be morons. And most people aren’t inherently morons. Hopefully, they just don’t know any better—and some education will help them. Otherwise, they are just homophobic assholes.

And since most of you probably don’t want to be homophobic assholes, I’m going to do all my straight friends a favor and give you a guide of how NOT to react to the Michael Sam story.

Jovenitti lists “five things that you should never say when you’re talking about this story.” The list is billed as being for friends to help them avoid seeming out of step, but it can apply just as well to journalists who will be talking about this unprecedented development.

The New York TimesESPN and Outsports had early word of Sam’s announcement and all have well crafted coverage of the story.

Stiffed ‘Fag’ Waiter: Why Media Coverage Matters

Carrabbas

By Bil Browning (Founder and Publisher, The Bilerico Project)

A waiter at a Carrabba’s Grill in Overland Park, Kansas, was stiffed on his tip by anti-gay Christians who complimented his service but also called him a “fag.” The shining examples of brotherly love left a note on the back of their bill.

“Thank you for your service, it was excellent. That being said, we cannot in good conscience tip you, for your homosexual lifestyle is an affront to GOD. (Homosexual slur) do not share in the wealth of GOD, and you will not share in ours,” the customer wrote. “We hope you will see the tip your (homosexual slur) choices made you lose out on, and plan accordingly. It is never too late for GOD’s love, but none shall be spared for (homosexual slur). May GOD have mercy on you.”

If you watch the local CBS station’s report on the event, you’ll notice that the language is markedly different than the printed version posted online. Reporter Sandra Olivas doesn’t read the contents of the note herself, instead relying on a local pro-gay pastor to tell viewers what was said – complete with the obligatory censorship of the word “fag.” However, she repeats the same language left on the note in her actual reporting.

This is problematic. While she’s obviously shying away from repeating the noxious filth spewed by the holier-than-thou pasta lovers and gives a generally positive report, by casually repeating that the waiter has a “gay lifestyle” and the minister has a “homosexual partner,” she reinforces the very language and underlying prejudices of the couple who left the note.

There is no “gay lifestyle” and there is no need to use clinical language about sexuality to refer to the other man’s spouse. No one would say “the black lifestyle” or “his heterosexual partner.” All of the media style guides tell reporters to avoid both phrases – and there’s a reason why.

Olivas’ reporting emphasizes a divide between straight and LGBT people that is simply unnecessary. That “us versus them” mentality is what fed the hateful Christians’ sense of entitlement and superiority that made them think their behavior was okay. After all, media coverage like this is the real choice.

I wrote to Olivas to express my concerns and she wrote back.

Assuming that Olivas’ intentions were good and this was a simple mistake, I sent her an email this morning.

Sandra,

I wanted to thank you for your story on the gay waiter who got stiffed at Carrabba’s Grill. However, I wanted to point out something that is problematic with your reporting.

As a reporter myself who covers LGBT issues, I wanted to point out that you say he has a gay “lifestyle” and is a “homosexual.” Did you also notice that those are the same words written on the receipt by the customer who wanted to degrade him? You’re simply parroting back what they said only you’re doing it nicer.

There is no “lifestyle.” LGBT people come in many shapes and sizes – we’re not one big monolithic group where everyone gets a membership card and is told how to act and what to do. You’d never say “he happens to lead a black lifestyle.” As well, the term “homosexual” has long ago been jettisoned for it’s focus solely on a sex act. All of the major styleguides – including the AP, NLGJA, GLAAD, New York Times, etc – all say not to use it. “Gay” is sufficient.

I noticed that the offensive language was removed from the print version of the story on your website. Please consider these points for your next on-air report. I know there’s likely not a lot of gay news in Kansas, but please don’t use the same language the hateful bigots did. Surely you’re a step above them.

To my delight, Olivas wrote back, acknowledged her mistake, and promised to do better in the future. This wasn’t one of those wishy-washy “thanks for writing me and I’m going to pretend like you said something while still defending my fault” emails either. Olivas took ownership of her mistake like a professional.

Good morning Mr. Browning,

I appreciate your concern and I will keep this in mind for the future. I know words do matter and I would never want to be insensitive to anyone in my reporting. I agree I should have only said partner and left out the word homosexual. The story was proofread by an editor who missed the error as well. So I have made them aware of this too so it doesn’t happen again as we continue to cover similar stories in the future.

As far as the term “lifestyle” I agree with your point as well. However, I was quoting what the customer actually wrote on the receipt as the reason for not tipping the waiter and maybe that wasn’t clarified to the viewer enough.

Again, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me.

Thanks again & have a great day,
Sandra Olivas

As someone who’s watchdogged local TV reporters for years on their word choices, I can honestly say that this is the nicest and most professional email back I think I’ve received. Remember when Indianapolis NBC reporter Steve Jefferson was named the “worst reporter in the nation” for his problematic coverage of the murder of a transgender woman and subsequent rejection of any corrections? The station’s news director eventually intervened, corrected the coverage, and arranged for diversity training for newsroom staff. In this case, the information flowed up to editors instead of being forced on the journalists by management.

Olivas is no Steve Jefferson. She was willing to reflect and use her journalism to reflect its true meaning: to be an impartial, unbiased source of news and information without resorting to sensationalism.

The recent success of the LGBT movement hasn’t been solely accountable to the record number of people coming out. A large part of the advances have come just as simply and of the same magnitude: media coverage that reflects our real lives – our trials and tribulations as well as our triumphs. The truth shall, indeed, set us free.

This article was originally published on The Bilerico Project.

The Road to the NLGJA Hall of Fame

By Mark Segal (Publisher, Philadelphia Gay News)

What surprised me most at the National Lesbian Gay Journalists Association annual convention in Boston last week was the concern for print media.

Granted, print media is having a hard time at present; it doesn’t know how to monetize its online material and print circulations are on the decline. So, that led me, at the last minute, to completely change my acceptance speech for my induction into the NLGJA Hall of Fame.

First, to give some perspective to audience members who didn’t know me, I detailed my activism background. Those of you who have read this column regularly know that the timeline went: Stonewall, Gay Liberation Front New York, the founding of Gay Youth, disruptions of “CBS Evening News” with Walter Cronkite … then the founding of PGN.

PGN Masthead

I first told them of our early days in which we put up with bombed vending boxes, vandals destroying our office, only having one IBM Selectric typewriter and using press type for headlines. We even had The Thunderbolt, the nation’s white supremacist magazine, put us on their hit list. No journalism organizations allowed us to join (now I sit on their boards).

Then to give them optimism, I explained that PGN now owns its own building, equipment, all our bills and taxes are paid to date and we employ a full-time staff of 14 with full benefits. That is success in print media.

Then the important part — how did we become so strong? It’s a simple formula, at least to me. A strong business department that makes the funds to hire award-winning journalists to put out not an LGBT newspaper, but the highest-quality journalistic newspaper that serves the LGBT community. It was easy to explain that. PGN is the most-awarded LGBT publication in the nation. Yes, I said that with some of the other publishers present.

Stories that readers can get only in your newspaper bring readers, so publications shouldn’t be afraid of controversy and strong opinion pieces, and allowing those who disagree with you to do so in your letters to the editor or in op-ed pieces. But the most important is investigative reporting. Here I recalled Tim Cwiek’s 10-year saga on the Nizah Morris case, which prompted a new report by the city’s Police Advisory Commission, and rule changes at the Philadelphia Police Department. No other paper that I know of would put the resources into such a story for so long.

Hard news and features keep you relevant. We were out front on the Boy Scouts and the city’s decade-long battle with that group began in our pages, while we also covered the dangers of pumping parties, requesting a reporter to spend a night on the streets with homeless gay youth.

Media has changed and print must embrace and innovate. I explained that we have partnerships with philly.com and Philadelphia Business Journal, the first such partnership in the nation. Our work with the Philadelphia Multi-Cultural News Network, which not only allows PGN to work with a full range of diverse publications but has helped more than 20 newspapers, making Philly a vibrant, diversified newspaper city.

I had much more I could have added, but my time limit was running out. My desire was to bring new ideas and optimism, and I believe I succeeded.

Mark Segal, PGN publisher, is the nation’s most-award-winning commentator in LGBT media. He can be reached at mark@epgn.com. This article was originally published on epgn.com.