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"Lesbians and Gays in the Newsroom - 10 Years later"

The Complete Survey

  The Press Release

Content Audit of Newspaper Coverage In Four Cities

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"Lesbians and Gays in the Newsroom - 10 Years later"
The Press Release

Sharon Stewart (213-740-7895), email: sstewart@rcf.usc.edu
Beth Morgan (213 821-1491), email: bem@usc.edu

September 7, 2000

Media Cover 'Hot-Button' Stories But Fail
to Focus on Day-to-Day Gay & Lesbian Issues

USC Survey Also Finds Anti-Gay Slurs Still Common in Newsrooms

Most mainstream gay and lesbian journalists who responded to a national survey are "out" to their colleagues and managers, but many find serious shortcomings in the quality of their news organizations' coverage of gay and lesbian issues.

Rising expectations may be one reason gay and lesbian journalists say their news organizations have made spotty progress in covering the gay community, according to a University of Southern California survey, "Lesbians and Gays in the Newsroom - Ten Years Later." The survey gleaned the views of 363 print and broadcast journalists from a 65-question multiple-choice questionnaire and follow-up anecdotal interviews.

"The common assumption has been that greater openness, safety and comfort for gay and lesbian journalists in newsrooms would lead to dramatic increases in quantity and quality of coverage of the gay community. But fewer than 20 percent of the journalists surveyed rated local coverage of gays and lesbians as 'good' or 'excellent,'" said Leroy Aarons, the study's co-author and director of the Program for the Study of Sexual Orientation Issues in the News at USC's Annenberg School for Communication.

In contrast, said Aarons, the same journalists gave their news organizations an 83 percent "good-to-excellent" rating for general news coverage; a 67 percent "good-to-excellent" rating for coverage of women in general, and 45 percent "good-to-excellent" rating for coverage of people of color.

Aarons and co-researcher Sheila Murphy, associate professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, contrasted the respondents' low ratings for local gay coverage with much higher grades for hot-button issues such as the Matthew Shepard slaying and the coming-out of comedian Ellen DeGeneres.

"The study suggests that broadcast stations and newspapers favor high-visibility, dramatic stories over the hard digging associated with ongoing local stories involving gay and lesbian issues," said Murphy. Follow-up interviews suggested that contemporary gay and lesbian journalists have higher expectations than those of a decade ago when Aarons conducted a similar survey, she added.

"Ten years ago, we [lesbians and gays] were happy with bones thrown our way. Now we want to be a legitimate part of the community and covered [by the media] in the same way as sports, religions and family [are]," said survey respondent Maria M. Cornelius, assistant managing editor of the (Knoxville, Tenn.) News-Sentinel.

Many of the journalists surveyed were recruited from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA), a professional group founded by Aarons in 1990. Others responded to fliers distributed in newsrooms by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) and the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA).

While those surveyed found an increase in sensitivity and balance in the way gays and lesbians are portrayed in the news, they made it clear there is still far to go. Surprisingly, survey respondents reported that slurs against gays are still common in many mainstream newsrooms.

The survey - released in conjunction with the 10th anniversary convention of the NLGJA, held Sept. 7-10 in San Francisco - is a follow-up to a landmark study coordinated in 1990 by Aarons, then executive editor of the Oakland Tribune, and initiated by then ASNE president Loren Ghiglione.

"The survey results are encouraging because journalists need no longer hide their sexual orientation in the newsroom," said Ghiglione, director of USC's Annenberg School of Journalism. "But it also shows how much work still needs to be done; it's instructive for newspaper editors and managers who are interested in covering their entire community and creating a fair and inclusive newsroom."

"There is good news here: Never before have so many gay and lesbian journalists been free to be open about their identities in the workplace. And news organizations increasingly provide better equality in employment benefits," added Robert Dodge, board president of the NLGJA, which collaborated in the survey. "But this survey also points to serious deficiencies. Anti-gay slurs, widely reported as existing in our nation's newsrooms, suggest that hostility and prejudice continue."

Trends identified by the study may also reflect broader social phenomena, said Geoffrey Cowan, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication.

"The news media, with some notable exceptions, have become less interested in hard news and more obsessed with scandal, celebrity and 'news you can use,'" Cowan said. "Scholars may ask whether concerns expressed by gay and lesbian journalists are echoed in trends observed by reporters from other groups, such as African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, women, Jews or Christian conservatives."

The present survey, made possible with grants from the Ford Foundation and from philanthropist Michael Huffington, compares results with those from the 1990 survey, as well as a 1993 survey of broadcast journalists.

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