Gabriel Arana’s ‘Reparative Journalism’

There’s been a lot of buzz about Gabriel Arana’s piece about his experience in reparative therapy, that was published in the American Prospect.  But the Columbia Journalism Review has done a great analysis of the impact of Arana’s piece in Curtis Brainerd’s Observatory blog focusing on science journalism, specifically Arana’s decision to ask for comment from the author of a controversial study backing the therapies.  That psychiatrist, Robert Spitzer, has now backed away from his findings and credits Arana’s journalism for the move.

Nonetheless, Spitzer stuck to his guns for more than a decade, until Arana showed up at his door earlier this spring. In the course of their interview, Arana told Spitzer that in 2001, his reorientation therapist had asked him to participate in Spitzer’s study. But Arana never called. Had he, Arana added, he would have told Spitzer that he, too, was making progress, even though he wasn’t.

The revelation pushed Spitzer over the edge. When Arana asked about the criticisms of his paper, Spitzer finally admitted that they were “largely correct.”

“What impressed me was how he said that had he called in, he would’ve told me he was making improvement, when in fact he was not,” Spitzer said in an interview with CJR. “It made me think about what I didn’t want to think about, which was my decision to accept the credibility of my subjects’ answers.”

Spitzer saw that those answers were inherently unreliable and unverifiable, and the conversation convinced him to follow through on a letter he’d been thinking about writing to Archives of Sexual Behavior formally disavowing his research.

Brainerd says Spitzer’s repudiation of the his research is an example of what good science journalism should do, and something that has often been lacking when it comes to covering reparative therapy.

Indeed, Arana’s work is a wonderful, albeit rare, example of the corrective power of courageous journalism. His article has set off a wave of high-profile coverage, including the front-page Times article cited above, which was published on May 19. On Monday, NPR’s Talk of the Nation invited Spitzer, Arana, and Benedict Carey, the author of the Times piece, to discuss the repudiation of the 2001 study.

“I didn’t go with the expectation of confronting [Spitzer],” Arana explained, adding that he “was a bit taken aback” when Spitzer conceded that his study was fatally flawed.

Unfortunately, coverage of reparative therapy was not always as critical as it could have been. In his article for the Prospect, Arana noted that in 1998, the year he started therapy, national newspapers published an ad campaign sponsored by conservative religious organizations asserting that the technique worked.

It’s worth noting that all science journalists aren’t ready to jump on the bandwagon that reparative therapy is junk science based on Spitzer’s repudiation of his own very flawed study. Slate’s William Salatan says that while Spitzer’s study was flawed doesn’t mean there isn’t some meat to the suggestion that reparative therapy can work for a small, subset of people.

The gist of the literature is that a few people might manage to change their feelings, and some can change their behavior, but most fail. In his report on the 2001 study, Spitzer argued that even a partial change in attraction after therapy should be acknowledged as significant, as it would be in evaluating a drug. But the FDA doesn’t approve drugs that work only in an unquantified, poorly defined subpopulation, based on self-reporting, when such drugs are also reported to have harmed other patients. Look what happened to Arana. After his conversion therapy, he writes, “I spent hours in front of the window of my third-story room, wondering whether jumping would kill or merely paralyze me.”

Spitzer’s study never was the smoking gun it was cracked up to be. It didn’t substantiate conversion therapy as a cure, or even as a safe treatment, for homosexuals in general. By the same token, his apology doesn’t warrant the therapy’s eradication. What he showed us, anecdotally, is that an unusual subset of highly motivated people can find ways to alter their sexual self-understanding and possibly their behavior. Those people have no grounds to say conversion therapy will work for the rest of us. And we have no grounds to say it can’t work for them.


HIV-Positive “Ex-Gay” Pastor Links Gays With AIDS

Pastor Phillip Lee, founder and executive director of the “ex-gay” His Way Out Ministries of Bakersfield, Calif., wrote an op-ed in the Sunday, Dec. 4, edition of The Bakersfield Californian linking gays with AIDS. Lee is HIV positive and claims to no longer be gay.

From his op-ed:

“While AIDS is not solely a homosexual disease, the disease was confined almost exclusively to homosexuals in the beginning years of the epidemic in the United States. I personally witnessed this horrific tragedy unfold while living in San Francisco, having several personal friends die of AIDS at the beginning stages of what is now a pandemic. Tragically, the reality and threat of AIDS has not stopped men from engaging in unprotected sex and the continued risk-taking by many does not appear to result from a lack of awareness.

“There is, therefore, little to no evidence that homosexual practice can be anything other than a severe threat to the sanctity of life. That said, all efforts should and must continue to better understand and find a cure for AIDS and AIDS-related diseases. However, if the sexual behavior that is fundamental to most homosexual practice constitutes the primary means of transmitting such disease, then it only makes sense for society to do all it can to decrease such behavior, which ultimately protects the sanctity of life.” has posted this statement from the newspaper’s editorial page director Robert Price explaining the decision to run the op-ed:

“We thought Phillip Lee’s perspective as a ‘former homosexual’ who happens to be HIV-positive, and who lost several friends to AIDS, gave him some standing on the issue, dubious and antiquated as his views might have been. We also thought our consistent editorial positions on gay rights would mean something here…

We do publish opinions we don’t agree with ourselves. When we choose to do so, we are almost always pleased to see perspectives of dubious merit answered thoughtfully by others in the community, with the result being a more complete understanding of the issues. I am certain that is happening in this case…

We have already published several letters in response to Lee’s op-ed (some also taking us to task for publishing it in the first place) and will publish several more, and we have invited GLAAD to write an op-ed on the subject. Our original thinking here was that we wanted to encourage some conversation on this topic. Well, I guess we succeeded.”

The pastor’s belief that AIDS justifies suppressing homosexuality–which I completely disagree with–is beside the point in this situation. Anti-gay forces have been using the “gay equals AIDS” equation since AIDS became a pandemic 30 years ago. And they still are today.

What I find little patience for in this situation is the decision by the newspaper to publish the op-ed in the first place.

Being HIV positive and having lost friends to AIDS makes Lee no more qualified to be allowed to advance his “gay equals AIDS” rhetoric than being HIV positive and having lost friends to AIDS would make someone qualified to be allowed to deny HIV causes AIDS.

I doubt that the newspaper would have allowed Lee a platform to deny HIV causes AIDS (at least I bloody well hope so). I see no difference.


NPR Responds to Criticism of Conversion Therapy Story

In the wake of criticism of an NPR story on conversion therapy, NPR’s ombudsman and a top news official have responded to the critiques.

Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos, wading into what is likely the first of many controversies involving LGBT issues as the new Ombudsman, said the story was well-done, but that critics had reason to complain:

To be fair, to lay it all out is far too complicated in a single, 9-minute radio segment. Spiegel and Gudenkauf were trying to give an insight, a compelling slice of two lives that was fascinating story-telling that hinted at some of the answers. They say they may dive deeper in future stories.

But listeners are right to demand that even this story somehow should have addressed the substance of the divisions over conversion therapy. The one attempt to provide that context in the story – an interview with a psychologist – failed to do so.

and this is how he concluded:

Spiegel and Gudenkauf clearly worked hard on this story. They simply made some wrong assumptions about what most of us know about sexuality and conversion. I can understand why they did so. On many stories, in defiance of standard journalism practices, I am often the first to say that reporters should assume more about the what the audience knows. The good thing about this subject is that Spiegel and Gudenkauf will have many more opportunities to return to it.

This is an interesting observation. It also says something about the issue itself. While many of the criticisms of the story surrounded the question of whether there was even a “debate,” in fact may listeners may not have even understood the issue at all to put that in context.

Schumacher-Matos also hit on a criticism about not explaining the financial and professional interest of the subjects who were interviewed.

Responding to another criticism from listeners, Spiegel and Gudenkauf acknowledge that they should have reported on air that Wyler founded an organization that claims to help men who have same-sex attraction to change. But they said that Toscano, too, profits from his experience, writing a play and giving speeches about it.

Margaret Low Smith, the acting Senior Vice President for news, also responded to the criticism:

Nonetheless, we could have done a better job on this story. Though we stated at the end of the piece that conversion therapy harms gay people and people who find it beneficial are very rare, we should have addressed those questions earlier and in greater detail so that listeners could hear the stories of Rich Wyler and Peterson Toscano with that context in mind.

We also unintentionally left the impression with some listeners that the establishment psychological community only began to discount conversion therapy in the last few years. Though some therapists disagree with that mainstream view, it has been widely held for many years.

Finally, we should have mentioned in the story that both of the men profiled – in the wake of their therapy – organized their professional lives around their respective experiences and profit from their activities.

Debating NPR’s Suggestion There is a ‘Debate’ Over Conversion Therapy

The moment I heard an intro to Alix Spiegel’s NPR piece on conversion therapy, my reaction was: “This isn’t going to end well.”

Not because the story wasn’t compelling and interesting.  Instead, because these kinds of stories are a “no win” situation, no matter how careful the reporter may be.  So, let’s look at the critiques that are rolling in.  The first criticism came from Zach Ford at ThinkProgress, the blog run by the progressive Center for American Progress.

A National Public Radio segment this morning suggested that ex-gay therapy is still up for “debate,” misrepresenting it as a “controversy” on which “the jury is still out.” Even though ex-gay therapy is roundly condemned by professional medical organizations as ineffective and harmful, the segment attempted to create a false balance by including stories from both sides of the “debate.” Ex-gay Rich Wyler, founder of People Can Change, had the opportunity to  reiterate many untrue ex-gay talking points, including unfounded “causes” for a gay orientation, the misguided notion that it’s ethical to support a patient who wants ex-gay therapy, and a completely inaccurate comparison between ex-gay and transgender patients. Ex-gay survivor Peterson Toscano countered by explaining the traumatic harm he faced in ex-gay therapy, but many of Wyler’s points went unaddressed.

The reality is that there is no debate about ex-gay therapy, and by providing a platform for Wyler to continue propagating the myths about its potential, NPR is contributing to a culture of harm.

At the end of the post, Ford acknowledges he has a radio show with Toscano, one of the subjects of the NPR story.

At Religion DIspatches–a religion website focusing on progressive voices–Warren Throckmorton argues NPR failed to explain how controversial Wyler’s approach to conversion therapy is and failed to delve into that approach which has been rejected by Exodus International.

The NPR report notes Wyler’s self-diagnosis but obscures the methods he uses to treat himself. Rather than a cerebral discussion of family dynamics as portrayed by NPR, JIM promotes skin-to-skin therapy, where men retreat for a weekend with other same-sex attracted men to hold each other for the purpose of establishing closeness to other men. They believe such activity establishes a more platonic bond with men which helps extinguish homosexual attractions.

Also at Religion Dispatches, Candace Chellew-Hodge said the segment suffered because it failed to probe Wyler’s self-interest in being a “professional ex-gay.”

One of the reasons I left the news business nearly ten years ago was because the media’s idea of “balanced” reporting had become increasingly neurotic and, well, unbalanced. Our modern media believes that balance means finding one example of a story it has decided to pursue on one side of the issue, and then find another single example on the other side of the story then simply compare and contrast. Voila! Balance.

That’s what NPR has done in this morning’s report about “reparative therapy” for gay and lesbian people. The report took someone who claims to be “cured” of his homosexuality, Rich Wyler, and juxtaposed his story with that of Peterson Toscano, a man who went through “reparative therapy” and says he was deeply harmed psychologically by the experience.

Overall, the story was heavy on narrative and light on context and facts. I’m not sure that’s a criticism, but just noting that it was radio storytelling at its best in the sense of letting subjects talk with the help of a good reporter. I found Wyler and Tosacano both difficult to listen to because their stories were so sad and painful. The danger in presenting two people who are on opposite sides of an issue is that it can set up the perception that the world is divided 50/50 on an issue, when in fact there is no such 50/50 balance on the effectiveness of conversion therapy with the overwhelming evidence finding it isn’t effective.

I’m sympathetic to the suggestion that Wyler’s own approach to conversion therapy (and self-interest) isn’t properly framed and described, as well as not placed in the context that it is rejected even inside the ex-gay movement. That would have been helpful to the listener.

On the question of whether there is a “debate,” my sense is that criticism is off-base. There is a debate over conversion therapy, but it’s a debate where LGBT activists insist there is no debate and rely on the APA statement while those sympathetic to the idea of conversion therapy and being ex-gay believe the debate is still raging on, the APA statement was more political than science-based, and that the media is cooperating in silencing the debate.

By any definition, that is a “debate.” It may not be an even-sided debate or even a completely honest debate, but it is a debate nonetheless. The story very clearly points out the APA position and even provides a voice for that position. But journalists have a responsibility not to ignore a dispute just because one side says the debate is over. While this piece may have flaws, it is unfair to say it was unbalanced.

I know there is “debate” over this issue, from a journalism perspective, and we are interested in your thoughts.

Should ‘Ex-Gay’ Be in Quotes?

A board member of Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays has complained to the Washington Post about its use of quotes around the term “ex-gay.”  Why, the letter-writer asks, is “ex-gay” put in quotes while “gay” isn’t.

Putting “ex-gay” in quotes suggested that such a sexual orientation is not valid, not recognized or both. But thousands of former homosexuals collectively identify themselves as such. The D.C. Superior Court ruled in 2009 that ex-gays are a protected sexual orientation class in the District.

Not all persons who experience same-sex attractions choose to live gay lives. Many of us have voluntarily left a homosexual life through therapeutic work or behavioral choice. I did, and I have been happily married to a woman for nearly five years; we have two children. I no longer experience same-sex attraction and have no desire to return to the homosexual life. Please respect this choice.

TBD’s Amanda Hess reacts to the argument and suggests that PFOX is up to no good and that the tactic is an attempt to legitimize their victim status.  She also says this about the quotes:

Even if “thousands” of people identify as ex-gay—and I can find absolutely no support for that figure—is that niche group really visible enough to be readily “recognized” by readers of the Washington Post? Everyone knows what “gay” is. Not everyone knows what “ex-gay” means. And as long as that’s the case, PFOX will maintain its strategically advantageous outsider position. Better to annoy the gays with.

NLGJA’s style guide puts quotation marks around the term, without explanation. This is an explanation of the term:

“ex-gay” (adj.): Describes the movement, mostly rooted in conservative religions, that aims to change the sexual attraction of individuals from same-sex to opposite-sex. Generally discredited as therapy in scientific circles.

A short exchange on an NLGJA listserv failed to get a resolution on whether the quotes–often considered “scare quotes”–were appropriate. Some people suggested that people should be allowed to label themselves–something that has long been a guiding principle for NLGJA’s style recommendations–and therefore ex-gays should be able to use the term without having it couched in quotes.

So what do you think? Should “ex-gay” be put in quotes?