When my own newspaper gets it wrong

Originally published in In Newsweekly, May 3, 2006.

In Newsweekly columnist Rev. Irene Monroe discusses how her own paper does a poor job covering minority communities

Covering the news is an arduous task when it comes to communities of color and other marginal groups within the larger lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community around the country. One of the problems is due to the paucity of reporters of color in our newsrooms.

And because of a lack of reporters from our varied communities, these stories are then subsumed by a white queer universality that not only renders these marginal populations within the larger community speechless, but invisible as well.

Today, there are ways in which members of marginal populations will be photographed – front and center – in queer papers, but are still invisible. And they are invisible not only to themselves, but also to the larger community because the truth of their stories is never told.

In looking at my own paper, In Newsweekly, there are three interrelated issues pertaining to what I call its “news lite” coverage of marginal groups within its community that I would like to bring to the fore. But while I am turning a critical eye to my home turf, much the same can be said of queer papers across the country.

First, In Newsweekly’s coverage of African Americans comfortably fits within the racist iconography of the dominant culture’s portrayal of us. One of the images is the “helpless victim” dogged by the weight of race and poverty. In the case of In Newsweekly’s coverage of the “helpless victim,” its portrayal of how survivors of HIV/AIDS is clearly shown in last week’s piece about T. Lance Black entitled, “AIDS funding vacuum hurts real people.”

In reporting how a federal funding reduction in healthcare programs for people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS are being slashed and its potential impact to the New England region, Black becomes our poster boy. While it is an indisputable fact that African Americans across the county will be gravely impacted by the reduction of federal funding, it is, however, the imbalance of reporting between the personal subject of the story – T. Lance Black – and the thematic subject – reduction of HIV/AIDS funding – that exploits black suffering to tell, from the media’s perspective, a good news story.

For example, the article has a huge photo of Black replete with helpless-victim quotes like, “I already don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring, if I’m even going to be here tomorrow.”

While this story is real, it is harmful when it is the only type of news coverage done around HIV/AIDS and African Americans because it diminishes, individually and collective, the hope and agency to combat the problem. And a 2004 Kaiser Family Foundation survey showed that when it comes to health issues, African Americans trust community-based media.

Second, when not portrayed as “helpless victim” struggling with HIV/AIDS, then it is the classic “happy negro” minstrel image that the paper recently portrayed of the Bayard Rustin Community Breakfast with the hubris to title the piece, “Humanity reigns at the Bayard Rustin Breakfast.”

For 17 years, this annual breakfast functions as a forum for LGBTQ communities and their families to be informed, affirmed and empowered in the face of this devastating epidemic.

The coverage of the breakfast was referenced on the cover of the paper. However, a reference to the breakfast and five “happy negro” shots is not coverage. And with no mention of the national controversy surrounding originally scheduled keynote speaker Jasmyne Cannick and her controversial Advocate.com column, “Gays first, then illegals,” speaks to the “news lite” coverage given to black news in general.

Had the decision-makers at my own newspaper understood that the Bayard Rustin Community Breakfast is much more than black folks getting dressed up to go eat, the event would not have been summed up merely by fewer than 100 words and five “happy negroes.” But instead, the breakfast was portrayed as entertainment, and thus, the coverage was totally dismissive of black agency in the face of this epidemic and in the face of our own black community not dealing with the issue because of its homophobia.

Third, when the news coverage is not viewing black life from images of either the “helpless victim” or the “happy negro,” the news coverage then views us from an iconography of white queer images that do more than distort who we are. It bleaches out not only the pantheon of black sexualities, but it also reduces who we are in a gay/straight binary like the portrayal of my bishop, the Rev. John Selders, in a recent article entitled, “Straight black minister joins fight for gay equality.” Selders is bisexual!

And this is what my bishop wrote to me in an e-mail:

“This is not true at all! The writer NEVER asked me how I identify. I would have said BISEXUAL loud and clear. The conversation/interview never lead to any disclosure of the kind. The editor/writer is a damn liar. Too much out there on me as Bi to suddenly declare something different.”

Gay newspapers function as important community-based media. They will report what the larger media will not about our lives; and they are our mirrors, reflecting our lives and our stories back to us. Therefore, in bringing our varied communities together, both locally and nationally, we must be journalistically responsible in our reporting. Why? Because if we don’t do it, no one will.

Editor’s note: In Newsweekly regrets reporting inaccurately on Rev. John Selders’ sexual orientation and any inaccurate and offensive portrayals of members of our community. The newspaper apologizes for any harm done because of its actions. See the editorial on page A4 for a full statement.

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