CNN Premieres “Gay In America”

Tonight is the official launch of CNN’s “Gay in America” segments, starting with “Gary and Tony Have a Baby.” The project is part of CNN’s larger “In America” series hosted by Soledad O’Brien, a longtime supporter of NLGJA and our emphasis on fair and accurate coverage of LGBT issues.

A number of people have already seen the documentary, which premiers tonight, and as you can imagine there’s been a lot of discussion. Tom Shales of the Washington Post called the documentary “high-road television — meaning it’s been made as a gesture toward enlightenment and not to grab big ratings, which it probably won’t.”

Unlike a lot of coverage of LGBT issues, CNN has been open about the fact that they aren’t trying to show “all sides of an issue” but instead are exploring the lives of one gay couple as they explore having a family. This approach is a step forward, but has not been without its detractors, even inside the LGBT community.

Bil Browning at Bilerico Project criticized the portrayal of gay America pointing out that the subjects were white, affluent, and urban, thus playing into typical media portrayals of the LGBT community. Cathy Renna, who says she has worked with people involved in the project, defends the show but acknowledges the weakness of following a single couple.

In addition to the documentary, CNN has a lot of additional content on the Gay in America site which provides even more context and suggests CNN has invested significant effort in starting this series.

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Radio Silence Isn’t Golden

NPR's Talk of the NationSometimes it’s not what is said, but what is not said that matters. That is often the case when mainstream media tackles LGBT stories.

Last Tuesday, NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” devoted its first half-hour to a discussion of same-sex marriage and Prop 8. The California Supreme Court had predictably upheld Prop 8, and host Neal Conan interviewed a reporter, a minister who supports Prop 8 and a California woman who married her partner before November. It was a lot to cover, and overall Conan did a decent job.

Unfortunately Conan missed opportunities to correct misinformation, and myths that continue to swirl around the same-sex marriage debate, even after years of discussion, were allowed to stand as facts.

Guest Pastor Jim Garlow, minister of Skyline Church in La Mesa California was positively giddy with excitement over the ruling. Sure enough, he spouted the same old rhetoric, but one thing caught my ear. According to him, social science research has established that children do best with a father and a mother. Problem is he’s flat out wrong.

The anti-gay contingent has been cherry-picking research and citing studies of families headed by single mothers to support this claim. But when families headed by same-sex couples are actually studied, social science research shows that children in two-dad or two-mom families do just as well—or even better—than children in traditional families.

It would have taken just a few seconds to correct Garlow’s assertion. Instead Conan asked him about his sermon topic for the following Sunday.

Later, a caller chimed in to assert that opposition to same-sex marriage is not always about religion, an interesting point. He went on to cite the incorrect assertion that same-sex couples can create legal safety nets that offer all the rights of marriage—an idea that has been soundly refuted. In fact, the United States General Accounting Office reported that marriage offers more than 1,000 rights and responsibilities, many of which are not available outside marriage.

Again, Conan neglected to correct that myth.

I’m not a broadcaster, and I certainly appreciate the time constraints and on-the-spot thinking that radio hosts must handle. At the same time, I expect reporters of all kinds to counter misinformation. In particular, these two assertions made on “Talk of the Nation” are low-hanging fruit for any reporter covering the same-sex marriage debate.

Introduction: Laura Laing

communicateNo one likes an argument, but according to my partner my passion for language makes me a real pain in the you-know-what.  I have this horrible tendency to pick apart her examples and comb through her word choices, searching for a moment to shout—with my index finger pointed to the sky—“Ah-hah!  You’re being inconsistent!”

Sadly, our daughter has the same gotcha love affair with language.  With the wisdom of her nine years and none of the brain clutter that her moms have accumulated over the last 40, she zooms in on unfair generalizations and imprecise statements of fact.

The truth? I’m as proud as can be of her.

What makes my partner roll her eyes during an argument makes me a pretty good journalist, I think.  And of course I’m not alone.  Newsrooms across the country are full of uppity language- and fact-hounds like me—no matter what the public likes to believe.  They worry over the one interview that didn’t go as planned.  They flip through stylebooks (or wind through style Web sites) looking for just the right word or phrase.  Say what you want about the state of journalism, but I believe that reporters and front-line editors are as dedicated as ever to reporting accurate and thought-provoking stories.

But because we’re human, we bring our own foibles to our work.  We can strive for objectivity, but it’s impossible for us to maintain a perfect balance.  (I don’t believe in balance anyway, but that’s a discussion for another day.)  There’s a limit to self-awareness, and even the most astute journalist misses the mark from time to time.  Thank goodness for editors and eagle-eyed readers.

And that’s why I decided to accept NLGJA’s invitation to blog here.  Over the years, I’ve e-mailed dozens of journalists who are covering the GLBT beat, congratulating them on a well-reported story or (hopefully) gently pointing them to a better way to tell the story.  I’ve almost always received positive feedback and thank yous for alerting them to a potentially insensitive term.

I believe that conversations about missteps or misunderstandings or mistakes are how we can achieve more accurate and sensitive reporting.   Without these conversations, GLBT stories won’t be good reflections of the individuals who make up our diverse community and the issues that we face.  This is as important to our craft as it is to our readers and the stories we tell.

So let’s get talking.