Is There a Civility Crisis in Responding to Media Concerns: A Call for Change

In a mea-culpa for her coverage on ex-gay therapy, CNN’s Kara Phillips said it was a mistake to have Richard Cohen on her show without a countering expert. But she also had very sharp words for the e-mailers who contacted her voicing their outrage.

I wish that all of you knew my heart. And as a journalist with a long track record of covering gay and lesbian issues, I wish that those of you who sent me vicious emails watched my newscasts more often because if they did my guess is they would not have been so quick to send such hateful messages.

They don’t know my record and my unswerving support for all communities in the battle for human rights, including gays, lesbians, and transgendered individuals. And to make it perfectly clear, I love debating issues, it evokes passion. But if we cannot treat each other in a civil manner, even when we disagree, then we will never move forward and have a world where all people are treated with the respect that they deserve.

This is not the first time that incivility by people complaining about coverage of LGBT issues has raised eyebrows. The Washington Post’s ombudsman Andy Alexander said that problems with a story about the National Organization for Marriage’s Brian Brown “combined to ignite reader reaction as vitriolic as any I’ve experienced in my seven months as ombudsman.”

In reporting on Phillips’ mea culpa, our colleagues at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation–who launched a call to action against CNN–responded to Phillips’ complaint about her email.

We are disturbed to hear that Phillips has received some vicious and inappropriate emails. This is unacceptable and GLAAD strongly condemns these letters. We asked our members to criticize how the story was handled, not attack Phillips personally, and we urge people to refrain from this type of troubling correspondence.

We have, however, seen many emails sent to CNN where people eloquently and passionately told their stories and made their case. To hear that others are inserting ugliness and personal attacks into this discussion is not only wrong, it actively undermines the conversation we need to be having.

The media doesn’t reform its ways based on mob rule and uncivil, ugly, hateful emails to reporters and media doesn’t further any agenda for better coverage of LGBT issues. We can disagree without becoming uncivil, no matter how angry you may be.

The democratization of the public square means that it is easier to respond to an article or blog post instantly, without thinking about the repercussions or taking responsibility for your tone.  For bloggers and opinion makers, we can write a quick blog post or blast off a tweet in anger without thinking about the tone that is being sent by our actions.

The downturn in discourse–especially on LGBT issues from people inside the community–is a real concern moving forward.  Comment sections on some of the most popular LGBT blogs are littered with unchecked vitriol and hyperbole, as well as threats and insults.  This heightened rhetoric is already being used as a talking-point on the right and was used as a rationale for shutting down the broadcast of the Prop 8 trial earlier this year for fear of violence against Prop 8 supporters.

Yes, it’s a talking point that has been poorly documented by those spouting it.  But one doesn’t need to look too far for ugly and hateful rhetoric by people inside the community. And when people hit the “send” button and extend that rhetoric to people in the media, it only undermines the efforts to have a civil conversation about how LGBT people are portrayed in the media.

We need to do better.  We need to take responsibility for how we respond to the media when we have concerns about coverage.  We need to take responsibility for what is being said in comment boxes and comment sections. We need to be more civil in our discourse.

(As always, these are my views as a blogger and are not intended to represent the views of NLGJA as an organization).

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