Gay community gives media failing grade

Date: January 1, 1970
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A recent radio talk show discussed some of the terms used to describe gay and lesbian people, and, rightfully so, invited a prominent gay presenter to talk about what he thought of the way that media represented non-heterosexual communities. Unfortunately, this type of balanced media coverage of non-heterosexual communities is rare.

Rather, the norm when reporting on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities is often negative. Recent research conducted by the Gay and Lesbian Archives (GALA) of South Africa and the Community Media for Development (CMFD) found that media usually sensationalises and gives an unfair reflection of the LGBTI sector.  
As South Africa’s landscape changes and develops there is increasing awareness of the need to ensure diversity of stories covered, voices heard, and access to the media. Funded by the Media Development and Diversity Agency, the ‘Out in the Media?’ research set out to identify issues, gaps and possible solutions related to reporting on LGBTI issues.
Media reflects society but also plays a part in shaping how society views certain topics or communities. Media is very influential and how media portrays groups such as the LGBTI sector influences what society thinks. Coverage that is negative, stereotypical or even non-existent, affects how society views these communities.
Christine Davies, one of the respondents interviewed for the research, agreed, “Media tends to sensationalise or demonise homosexuality. Very few reports are celebratory in nature. Specifically headlines will refer to sexuality in criminal cases.”
Media is always quick to point out sexuality in news, even if it unrelated to the crime – creating a sense of ‘otherness’, that the community is not part of the rest of society. Headlines such as Lesbian rapes old granny insinuate that the lesbian’s sexuality is reason for her actions. There are more reports of men raping women but we would never see headline that says ‘Heterosexual man rapes young girl.’
Of course, it is not one-sided. When speaking to journalists I found that a number of journalists feel that the LGBTI sector is not easy to access. One the journalist said, “LGBTI people should get more involved, stop avoiding and closing doors but rather sit down and learn to trust, and give way to promoting better image of LGBTI people, including experts. Avoiding means journalists go to wrong people for a story.”
LGBTI organizations themselves are mostly reactive when it comes to working with the media, mainly responding to bad coverage or issuing press releases only at certain moments. Few organizations indicated that they maintain ongoing relationships with journalists, keep media databases, interact with editor’s forums or journalism schools.
Even fewer are undertaking projects that build the capacity of journalists or the sector to create better media. Doing so would serve to help support good media.
LGBTI organistions do give credit where due and said that some journalists and media houses report fairly on their issues and events. However, many more journalists and media houses do not respond to information sent out or contact the organisation for information before doing a story.
I believe both parties are right. When we look at newspapers, there are a number of fair articles. Yet, we also see offensive headlines and editorials. We would not accept these when it comes to race, or any ethnic group, so why do we accept them about sexuality.
Take the annual Gay Pride March, which is the only time of the year that many in the straight community (or so they think) encounter the LGBTI community. There is much media coverage, but coverage tends to focus on the sensational. Though they are small number of the community, each year photographs of ‘drag queens’ and the most outrageous outfits dominate the photographic coverage.
Maybe this is somewhat understandable by the very nature of journalism, which tends to focus on the most interesting, shocking, and sensationalist element of any story. However, the unbalanced nature of the coverage is a problem.
One would hope to see interviews with the LGBTI sector about issues that affect them, such as lesbian rape, homophobia and being gay in the workplace. Where are the supportive parents who come with their sons and daughters to the Pride March, the entrepreneurs, and the athletes? Media rarely shows or interviews these people though they are an important part of our community.
As the research suggests, there are a number of ways to help narrow the gap between journalists and the LGBTI organisations, so we see better coverage. Education and training are the main tools to bring about change. Information and skill sharing will bridge the communication gap, while editorial policies will help ensure fair reporting.
As Mashilo Mnisi, a journalist at Behind the Mask, pointed out, “Mainstream media can be more viable and join forces with LGBTI organizations to gain a better insight of the issues.”
Just as journalists and media have learned and committed themselves to covering issues of race using sensitive terms where necessary, and not revealing a persons race when it is not necessary, hopefully journalists will soon learn to do the same for sexuality issues. After all, our rainbow nation is not just about race, but embracing the many kinds of diversity found in our country and our communities.
Nosimilo Ndlovu works with Community Media for Development and was a researcher/ writer for ‘Out in the Media?’ She is a graduate of Gender Links Media Literacy course. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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