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.

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