From ‘objectivity’ to the ‘gay agenda’

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Gay journalists feeling extra pressure, criticism on the job

Caught between mainstream editors suspicious of a so-called “gay agenda” and activists promoting their version of things, gay journalists say their biggest struggle in the newsroom these days isn’t being openly gay but balancing their life and professionalism.
It’s a strain that often complicates journalistic decisions on stories about gay issues, these journalists say. The frequent result, attendees at the recent National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (nlgja) convention in Atlanta said, is “self-editing,” another word for a paralyzing second-guessing.
“Is there [a time] in the newsroom where I say, ‘Everywhere else I trust my news judgment, but I just don’t feel comfortable in this area’?” asked Cheryl Segal, assistant metro editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Dana Williams, assistant city editor at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, said she sometimes catches herself hesitating about suggesting gay-themed stories. “I do find myself thinking, ‘If I don’t assign this story ? who is going to assign it?'” she said. “Sometimes I do think it’s my responsibility to speak out. I’m a lesbian, and we don’t have many people like that in the newsroom. So I do have to be the lesbian voice.”
It is a voice more newspapers are encouraging. “You used to kind of show up at work and leave your life at the door,” said Cindy Gorley, the Journal-Constitution’s metro editor. Gorley proposed a simple rule for stories: If actual events in a paper’s coverage area are not propelling a story, “then you probably are pushing an agenda. If something is happening, you have reason to do a story and it’s not an agenda.”
At gay newspapers, the issue often becomes more complicated. “The gay press was born of advocacy, of a dream to build up the gay community,” said Rawley Grau, now editor in chief of Q Syndicate, a syndicate for gay-oriented news and features.
As a result, activists in what is often called the “lgbt community” (for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people) expect the papers to do their bidding.
“Many people still see [the paper] as their newsletter, their bulletin board: ‘Here, I wrote something, put it in,'” said Barbara Dozetos, editor in chief of Out in the Mountains, a Vermont paper.
Laura Brown, a reporter for the Southern Voice newspaper in Atlanta, said activists have asked her to quash stories. “I figure ‘the community,’ so to speak, is better off [reading controversial stories] so that 60,000 people know about it ? rather than just 10 or 12 activists,” she said.
But the reaction can be harsh. When Mubarak Dahir reported in a Philadelphia alternative paper about public sex taking place in gay bars and bathhouses, he was ostracized and threatened with violence. “I was told repeatedly that the problem [with the story] was that straight people read it ? and it made us look bad,” Dahir said.
One activist attending the nlgja meeting suggested journalists often have the wrong idea about whether their own stories are really advocacy pieces.
“Many times when we [journalists] are trying to be balanced, we report things we know not to be true, such as about [gay people being] child molesters or statistics like 75% of gay men don’t know their father.” said Wayne R. Besen, assistant director for communications of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay civil-rights organization.
(Editor & Publisher [Caption]
(copyright: Editor & Publisher September 25, 1999) [Caption]

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