Lessons on covering LGBTQ issues

Why the media should stop treating sexual minorities as the next, big sensation

It’s no secret the media loves drama. Sensationalising sexual minorities for shock value has become the norm in media with little representation of the normal, everyday lives almost all of them realistically live or the very real challenges the community faces.

In a room full of activists and journalists a panel came together on July 20, 2017 to discuss the ways Indian media covers gender and sexual minorities. Hosted by Jeeva, a community organization that works on issues concerning sexual minorities the panel consisted of LGBTQ activists and journalists from a variety of outlets including News Minute, Ananya, YourStory and Radio Active. At the root of the discussion was ways to sensitize the media, lawmakers and everyday people to sexual minorities and their unique struggles.

TransQueer rights activist and panelist Rumi Harish presented on the media’s coverage of women’s rights and independence commenting on the lack of police and government intervention in abusive households. Main points included media sensationalizing sexual coming out, protecting women from public shaming and the need to use appropriate language when speaking about the LGBTQ community.

Sourav Roy, editor of YourStory spoke from a media standpoint calling to action the coverage of LGBTQ stories in rural areas, mass media covering real issues and creating dialogue surrounding these topics. Fact checking and offering a range of perspectives were also priorities brought up by Asha Krishnaswamy, who worked formerly at the Deccan Herald. Finally, journalist Naveen Soorinje spoke on teaching young journalists how to appropriately cover marginalised communities including appropriate language and engagement with LGBTQ community members.

Everyday sexual minorities face discrimination and must overcome challenges the rest of us never consider. The media does not often express true representation of the lives of sexual minorities. Instead sensationalised stories of events and people in the LGBTQ community and the extravagant lives of celebrities overshadow the reality of living as a sexual minority.

Examples of media sensationalising brought up in the panel included putting same-sex married couples on blast, broadcasting their nuptials as first in a specific area or shocking exposes into their private lives. Or a journalist posing as a member of the LGBTQ community to gain insight and publish private facts or expose an individual and their family to public shaming.

Listening to this passionate panel discussion there is no doubt in my mind that the way media covers the LGBTQ community needs to improve. But how will this be achieved?

While India and the world have not fully accepted the LGBTQ community and they continue to fight for equality, media coverage must act as a catalyst for change. When transgender and other sexual minorities are shown in a negative light or cast as unnatural by sensationalised coverage, the progress toward acceptance and equality takes two steps back.

The unfortunate reality for the LGBTQ community is the lack of fact checking and diverse voices in newsrooms. The panel often cited stating false information or shedding light on only one side of the story. These are problems that destroy sexual minorities in the media and in doing so greatly impact their private lives.

On the other hand the panel pointed out that the media can be beneficial in the advancement of LGBTQ rights if representation is accurate. There are always multiple sides of each story. Uncovering the truth even if that means telling a positive story possessing no shock value is not only ethical journalism but more beneficial to the sexual minorities and society as a whole.

Diversity in newsrooms was another solution emphasised by the panel. When a range of voices are pushing for a variety of stories and angles a newsroom is more likely to stray from the sensationalised story structure.

But transformation takes time. Similar to the coverage and laws on rape cases and women’s rights, society can be a slow mover. The panel was clear that structural changes must be made, leadership in newsroom must shift to positive, inclusive storytelling and the world must begin to accept differences into the fabric of society.

While the slowness of these changes inhibits the LGBTQ community, it’s also a reminder that it should not be completely on the shoulders of sexual minorities to fight for equality and acceptance. Participating in change, making active improvements in diverse coverage, fact checking and producing positive stories on marginalised communities are the first steps.

By the time the panel had finished and I had further discussed these issues with panelists over tea, I decided that this discussion was successful in bringing awareness to journalists like myself. I walked away from that panel, curious on the ways I could be more sensitive in covering marginalised communities and inspired by the journalists that spoke on their reforms in an effort to provide more equal coverage. It will not happen overnight, but educating journalists like others and myself will eventually see a shift in newsroom dynamics to benefit sexual minorities and other marginalised communities.