by Yelena Dzhanova
News coverage has historically marginalized and sidelined large swaths of people, including the LGBT community. There is a significant need, therefore, to re-examine the way news coverage happens. To do that, I propose revamping the way we are teaching young and emerging journalists, starting with the incorporation of new teaching methods. I will examine and interrogate the methodologies that journalists today employ to cover LGBT issues. I will propose changes to journalism curricula to include specific training and methods to aid in journalistic coverage of LGBT issues, and demonstrate the need for such a change using present-day examples across news outlets that contribute to the stigmatization of LGBT people. At the forefront of this research is the following questions: What possibilities exist and which can I imagine or conjure up to seamlessly teach and integrate queerness in journalistic practice while minimizing or eliminating harm to the queer community? With this project, I aim to do three things: 1) analyze modern-day, concrete news examples to illustrate how mainstream journalism consistently fails queer communities, 2) help newsrooms and educational institutions understand some of the ways they are falling short of teaching and providing strong and accurate queer coverage, and 3) propose specific strategies that start in the classroom and are designed to empower budding journalists to critically examine the news.
I never intended to go into journalism. Growing up, I planned to work in book publishing and do activist work on the weekends. I wanted to be a volunteer firefighter on nights after work, when I would finish going through the final manuscript for the next Gone Girl. I loved reading and telling stories and wanted to do as much of it as I could.
I started college by interning at bookish places like nonprofit literary agencies and poetry houses. I organized rallies to protest injustices in New York City and within the City University of New York. I took frequent trips to Albany to talk to legislators about Fight for $15 or tuition hikes at CUNY. Both politics and literature excited me.
But along the way I fell in love with a different kind of storytelling: journalism.
I ended up taking journalism classes in school. I worked my way to the top of my school newspaper, The Ticker, eventually taking on the role of editor-in-chief two years in a row. I poured myself into The Ticker. I began leading high-impact investigations that exposed plagiarism and other unethical behavior within the Undergraduate Student Government, forced a department head to fire a professor accused of sexual misconduct, and broke down to students vital information about obscure CUNY policies. I made people at a commuter school want to read a newspaper produced by students. Copies flew off the shelves, and traffic to our website soared for years. I was so madly in love with the job.
And when I graduated, I started covering politics at CNBC, writing about Donald Trump, the White House, and Congress. Today, I write about criminal justice and gender-based violence, and I oftentimes feel like I am doing important work. The stakes are even higher than they ever were when I was first starting out — and they get higher every day. I influence what happens in people’s lives, and that is why representation and accurate portrayal in news matter. Every day I think about how effective I am or could be in covering and exposing violence against the LGBT community, and every day I think about how journalism consistently fails queer coverage.
Queerness is not taught in journalism, and I argue, in part, that it should be because it requires and merits daily coverage. I strongly believe in the need for journalism, as it provides information for the masses that help people through their daily lives. The way we as journalists cover the news, therefore, is important and worthy of close scrutiny. I propose we re-examine the way we teach younger and emerging journalists, including an incorporation of new teaching methods. In this paper, I will examine and interrogate the methodologies that journalists today employ to cover LGBT issues. I will propose changes to journalism curricula to include specific training to facilitate journalistic coverage of LGBT issues, and demonstrate the need for such a change using present-day examples across news outlets that inadvertently (or unabashedly) contribute to the stigmatization of LGBT people.
I believe in the power of journalism to make change. Journalism is important because knowledge is power. News gives many people a way to get information about what is going on around them and in the world. News is one of the main ways people can make sense of the day. It has the power to shape how people think about themselves, interact with others, and make decisions. News coverage in the United States needs to be as wide and varied as the U.S. public, or it can fall significantly short of its purpose and has the potential to leave millions of people in the dark and at an even greater disadvantage, resulting in a prolongation of inequity and injustice. In other words, the stakes are high.
That’s where this project comes in. The purpose of this project is to manifest a sense of discomfort and disrupt newsrooms and educational institutions, as well as to make journalists question the limitations and shortcomings of their ethics and values. At the forefront of this research are these questions: What possibilities exist, and which can I imagine or conjure up to seamlessly teach and integrate queerness in journalistic practice while minimizing or eliminating harm to the queer community? With this project, I aim to do three things: 1) analyze modern-day, concrete news examples to illustrate how mainstream journalism consistently fails queer communities, 2) help newsrooms and educational institutions understand some of the ways they are falling short of teaching and providing strong and accurate queer coverage, and 3) propose specific strategies that start in the classroom and are designed to empower budding journalists to critically examine the news.
This brief paper consists of three substantial parts: 1) a critical examination of recent news coverage around queer and LGBT+ issues, 2) a discussion of the way journalism is taught to students through a reflection of my own experiences in and out of the classroom, and 3) a conceptualized roster of concrete ideas designed to bridge the gap between journalism and queerness and strengthen journalistic coverage around queer- and LGBT-centered themes and ideas.
Interrogating Queer Coverage in Journalism
This section examines four different news articles on various LGBT issues that were published since 2019. I chose these four specifically because they run the gamut in terms of the outlet in which they were published. I begin with an article from the Daily Mail, a British tabloid that also has a substantial US-based readership and US-centric content. Then I examine an article from Politico, which, generally, is considered a serious news outlet that publishes strong work and unearths crucial policy information straight from Capitol Hill. Then I go into an article from the New York Times to demonstrate how journalism produces anti-LGBT sentiment. Lastly, I examine an article from the Associated Press, which is a global news enterprise. The AP also consistently feeds and supplements content to both local and national newspapers, some of which include the ones previously mentioned. This means the AP reaches audiences that are outside its own readership, giving it greater power. These articles do not at all represent the full extent of LGBT coverage in the United States. But because they range in topic and outlet, they provide strong insight into the significant anti-LGBT sentiment within journalism.
On April 17, 2022, the Daily Mail ran an article centering Tim James, a candidate for the gubernatorial race in Alabama, who in a 30-second political ad made anti-trans remarks about swimming champion Lia Thomas, who is trans (Koenig, 2022). “Come on, that’s a man in a woman’s bathing suit,” he said about Thomas in the ad, per the article. “Enough of this foolishness,” James said. “I’m Tim James. Male and female – He created them. It’s time to fight back” (Koenig, 2022, n.p.). The Daily Mail characterized his ad as “controversial” and said he was “attacking” (Koenig, 2022, n.p.) Thomas in his characterization. Though that language is somewhat accurate, the criticism is watered down.
By centering James in the article, Mail is amplifying his anti-trans messages and making his comments seem newsworthy. The argument in favor of highlighting him and his comments, from a news point of view, is that voters should be informed of his actions and stances since he’s a gubernatorial candidate. A better way to have covered this could have been to interview gender experts in academia and at national nonprofits to talk about the implications of his words and explain why they’re derogatory and incorrect. If the Daily Mail had taken that route, the article instead would have acted as a form of service journalism, designed to help the public understand specific topics and ideas, instead of needless fodder that amplifies and perhaps encourages discriminatory practices.
The Daily Mail also could have also avoided covering James’ remarks in the first place. The expression “there is no such thing as bad press” is truest today. And the public eats it up. Trump, in the spirit of the expression, uses the press to disseminate his ideas and reach the largest possible audience he can (Zhang et al., 2017). A study of book reviews in the New York Times concluded, in part, that “even when a reviewer clearly pans a book, the publication of the review leads to an increase in the book’s sales” (Sorensen & Rasmussen, 2004, p.10). Likewise, in Trump’s case, the press is doing his marketing for him. He is okay knowing that there will be millions of people who hate what he says because he knows there will also be millions of people who resonate with it (Lackey, 2021). Perhaps then one ethical consideration is to either avoid covering far-right ideology in the first place or make sure readers can immediately understand the implications of what is being said as quickly as possible.
There is a compelling case to rethink coverage around James. It is not just about what’s morally right; it is also about real-life ramifications and consequences. The press fuels ideas on identity and culture and shapes biases and perceptions (Osborn, 2022; Gillig et al., 2017). Anti-trans coverage like this can give rise to actual violence carried out in real life. Anti-trans coverage breeds transphobia (Solomon & Kurtz-Costes, 2018). And transphobia results in deaths every day. It’s hard to give a specific statistic on just how much the journalism industry is responsible for anti-trans violence. But by publishing articles like this, outlets continue to normalize anti-trans rhetoric. Complete trackers quantifying violence against trans people do not exist, but research consistently shows Black and Latina trans women are most at risk for violence (Dinno, 2017). An analysis of 2016 news articles found that news outlets treated trans issues with great irregularity, from including the employment of “positive and negative depictions of victims, use of language affirming and delegitimizing transgender identities, and framing of transphobia as a systemic problem” (Osborn, 2022, p. 2034).
Another article, this time from Politico (Kruse, 2022), mocked Rep. Madison Cawthorn for a photo in which he appeared in lingerie. Politico got the scoop, meaning Politico was the outlet that obtained and verified the photo, and published the story. Soon, every other outlet followed, writing up the news of the photograph. Here I would like to offer a criticism: The mere surfacing of this photograph should not have qualified as news. Some news outlets even pushed the st. In journalism, to push content means to send out an article to various mobile and electronic devices such as phones, laptops, and tablets. In my experience, it is considered the most aggressive way to market articles because news outlets are forcing the news to appear right in front of the consumer’s face, likely as the consumer is doing something on the phone or computer. This matters because, oftentimes, a lot of people are receiving this notification. An outlet that pushes a story is normally trying an aggressive approach to grab a reader’s attention and divert it from whatever they are doing on their screen to its content. Outlets that wrote up and pushed to the Cawthorn news, therefore, decided it is vital for everyone to know about. With this context in mind, the question that comes up for me is: Who is this news about Cawthorn serving or catering to? What is it about Cawthorn appearing in a bra and panties that qualifies it as breaking news? Did Politico believe that the news was substantial enough to sway the minds of political voters? If so, what does that assumption say about the type of stuff voters find valuable — and the type of stuff media outlets responsible for keeping politicians accountable deem important enough to vote on? To me, the answers to these questions are steeped in anti-LGBT sentiment. Politico determined that the fact that a prominent, straight-passing man who works in federal government and wore lingerie was important for his own and future constituents to know about.
It is notable that Cawthorn is a Republican. Would Politico have published this if the subject were a Democrat? I argue that the answer is probably not, because what is newsworthy here, in the eyes of news outlets like Politico, is that Cawthorn, who is openly anti-LGBT, was caught in lingerie. But that sense of newsworthiness is warped because it’s not actually important that he was caught in lingerie. Perhaps Politico published this piece intending to criticize him for being hypocritical toward LGBT people. Still, the way Politico and other outlets wrote about it was degrading and misogynistic, for they promoted the spread of toxic masculinity in which men are unable to express themselves or qualify as men in “feminine” attire. The article referred to the surfacing of the two photos of Cawthorn in lingerie “the latest in a series of unflattering headlines for the freshman member of Congress in the run-up to the primary in his first re-election bid. The primary in North Carolina is May 17. Cawthorn has seven Republican opponents who see him as vulnerable” (Kruse, 2022, n.p.). In describing the photos of Cawthorn in lingerie as “unflattering” and as a potential blow to his campaign — implying that they might contribute to his vulnerability — Kruse demonstrates an aversion to the idea of a man or a person in power like a lawmaker in revealing clothing that is typically associated with women or private events within a home or elsewhere.
The effect might transverse typically feminine items like bras and panties. Some studies point out that men’s relationship with masculinity is challenged or soured when something as simple and vague as underwear becomes involved (Ourahmoune & Nyeck, 2008, p. 187), resulting in the stigmatization “of those practices as ‘effeminate’, gay, as anti-masculine.” The article, I argue, is contributing to stigmatization by enforcing stereotypes that men can only wear clothes that are deemed manly and that lingerie is something only to be worn by women. Plenty of people wear lingerie, and I argue that to punish Cawthorn for wearing it is cruel and has reverberating — even if, in the best case scenario, unintentional — effects on the LGBT community. Stories like these fuel a narrative that upholds and bolsters the gender binary and patriarchal standards governing beauty and behavior. And the fact that Politico disseminated it is important because it shows that anti-LGBT coverage is not just something perpetuated by tabloids like the Daily Mail, but also by serious publications that frequently do keep politicians and people in power accountable.
In April 2022, the New York Times ran an article examining the relationship between Disney and anti-gay legislation coming out of Florida (Barnes, 2022). The article made the argument that Disney has for decades strayed from getting involved in politics. But the recent “don’t say gay” legislation coming out of Florida prompted its participation after fans threatened to boycott the company for not taking a stand, according to the article. The article said Disney is forced to take a side on the legislation, as if the two sides — pro- and anti-LGBT rights — have equal weight. Using language that pits two sides together — regardless of weight and impact — is common in journalism. It’s a common criticism of mainstream media and some scholars argue that it has a profound negative and potentially catastrophic impact on public health (Smith, 2022). Likewise, in the case of the Disney article, both-sideism is done without any regard for the harm it causes LGBT people.
The United States is built, in part, on a history and culture of deep prejudice and violence against LGBT people. One of the most famous examples of anti-LGBT violence in U.S. history happened in 1969, after police stormed a gay bar in New York. Of course, anti-LGBT violence persisted long before the Stonewall riot, as several scholars have pointed out (Nash, 2022; Bullough, 2002; Arriola, 1995). But historian Marc Stein in his introduction to The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History argues that the event became a catalyst for social movement and is today regarded as a “symbol of resistance to oppression” (Stein, 2019, p.1). The argument that the Stonewall riot is regarded as a symbol today demonstrates its importance to the time period, as well as its relevance to contemporary affairs. Recently, there has been a wave of anti-LGBT legislation passing through the United States (Wang, et al., 2016), and the wave is not letting up. Just weeks into the new year, for example, legislators introduced over 120 anti-LGBT bills (ACLU, 2023). Therefore, a cultural pervasiveness has always fueled and continues to fuel anti-LGBT logic, so giving both sides equal weight does not make sense. But the New York Times does it, by using language throughout the article that positions both sides equally and does not take an offensive stand against the obviously more harmful side. The Times is downplaying the significance of the ramifications and implications.
The Associated Press in 2019 used he/him pronouns in an article on singer Sam Smith after they announced they are nonbinary and use they/them pronouns. Only after backlash did the AP change the pronouns and append an update to the bottom of the article in which the incorrect pronouns first appeared. What is particularly interesting about this example is that the AP adopted the gender-neutral pronoun “they” into its style guide in 2017. Given this timeframe, it’s curious that in the Smith example, the AP avoided following its own style guide, which now states that the publication as much as possible “now uses they/them/their as a way of accurately describing and representing a person who uses those pronouns for themselves” (AP Stylebook, 2022). In 2017, the AP Stylebook authorized the gender-neutral pronoun “they” (Easton, 2017), with limitations, however. The update on the bottom of the Sam Smith story does not justify the decision; rather, it only notes that the change has been made. Basic human decency aside, there is another compelling reason to use correct pronouns. A recent study notes that news outlets that used they/them pronouns for sources and subjects appropriately and correctly were considered more credible and trusted by readers (Li, 2019).
In my own experience, while working across multiple newsrooms over a period of five years as both an intern and a professional journalist, I’ve noticed that news outlets also tend to deviate from using any gender-neutral pronouns. Even the AP — which, again, enforces this rule in its own style guide — is sometimes inconsistent about following it, as illustrated in Smith example (2019). It is important to get pronouns right. There can be no assumptions made about pronouns, even if a subject is cis-presenting, because there are too many possibilities to account for. A person, for example, could be nonbinary and just use a feminine- or masculine-sounding name. A person may simply prefer they/them pronouns. When media outlets avoid using the current pronouns for trans and nonbinary people, they are sacrificing accuracy in favor of convenience and heteropatriachal traditions. Additionally, using gendered language that adheres to a rigid binary system does not serve the purpose of journalism, which is to provide news and coverage for all people. By using gendered language in accordance with a rigid binary system, journalists enforce and perpetuate archaic power dynamics that position the cis man as a neutral figure while sidelining everyone else.
It might be useful to examine how gendered language became so pervasive to better explain the ways it leaves wide groups of people out. The fight against gendered language has a history that can be traced back several decades, according to Christine Mallinson of the University of Maryland (2017). Endeavors to get the public to think about and transform the language they use to describe others first started as a women’s movement: “Since the second wave of Western feminist movements in the 1960s and 1970s, language has been of fundamental concern to feminist theorists and feminist activists” (Mallinson, 2017, p. 419). Feminist activists tried to find ways to strategically use language to elevate discussions of women’s concerns to the national level. In the 1970s, for example, women activists began to use the term “domestic violence” in hopes of propelling it into national discourse and raise awareness of how it disproportionately impacts women nationwide (Mallinson, 2017; Kimmel, 2022). Importantly, Mallinson (2017), in her attempt to trace the linguistic and cultural origins of the fight against gendered language, specifies that all language is constructed by humans and therefore reflects biases and perceptions that turn into real-life power dynamics. To illustrate this point, Mallinson in part examines how the “he” pronoun has become representative of all genders:
In 1746, in his influential and widely accepted “Eighty-Eight Grammatical Rules,” grammarian John Kirby set the “rule” that “the male gender was more comprehensive than the female”; similarly, in 1850, the (all-male) British Parliament passed a law stating, “in all acts words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females” (Miller 1994: 268). (This linguistic inheritance lingers in the androcentric wording of many laws, contracts, and policies today.) Prior to such prescriptions, it had been widely acceptable in English to use singular they (e.g., each student should pick up their test after class) to refer to male or female subjects. But English grammarians actively advised against this commonly used gender-neutral form. Their argument that masculine forms should be considered generic was picked up by grammar books, which established that masculine generics were “correct” and forms such as singular they “incorrect” (Pauwels 1998). Linguistically speaking, however, notions of acceptability and unacceptability are, at their core, social and political constructions; simply put, standardization is not an inherent characteristic of language but rather an “acquired or deliberately and artificially imposed characteristic” (Romaine 1994: 84) (p. 422).
In my years cycling through newsrooms, I’ve noticed that the “he” pronoun becomes the default used when journalists give hypothetical scenarios. Mallinson (2017) does point out that this gendered usage seems to have slowly faded away recently. It is still in use, but not nearly as widely as it used to be. Still, it is interesting to trace back the origins of the shift from the originally recognized “they” pronoun to the more standard “he” pronoun that does remain in use today. Tracing the origins of this linguistic area shows that many of these gendered language “rules” are at least decades- or sometimes centuries-old. As society evolves into new technological and cultural domains, it might be the case that language seems to be one area that is finding it hard to keep up. It might also be that newsrooms just continue to leverage language in oppressive ways, as legacy institutions cling onto tradition and fear moving past it.
A Self-Reflective Discussion of Journalistic Instruction
The biggest problem with journalistic instruction, in my experience, is that it is taught in isolation from the biggest issues of the day. That means topics like queerness and identity and gender and race are taught in separate classes in their own disciplines, rather than within every other.
As an undergrad at Baruch College, my friends who majored in journalism and I went through 30 credits of classes. Like most majors and concentrations, options were split into required and elective classes. About half the syllabus comprised required courses like an introduction to reporting, digital editing, and a course in ethics. For the second half, students chose the classes they wanted to take, and options ranged from photojournalism to narrative writing and other subsets of journalism.
Perhaps the only subset of journalism whose subject area is taught extensively is business journalism, which can often require the development of a specific knowledge base. While business itself can be broken down into different subsets, it is arguably easier to teach and grasp compared to social concepts like identity and queerness. Math and numbers are considered to be universal languages. There is no arguing that 2+2=4, for example. But questions pertaining to queerness and identity and the relevance or definition of either are entirely open to interpretation, because of individual, familial, communal, and societal values and experiences that each person learns and carries with them. Values come with qualifiers, meaning there are infinite possibilities and parameters for squishier topics like queerness. That squishiness and subjectivity might mean one might not be able to learn it as easily as something more concrete like business.
Much of journalistic instruction seems to happen outside the classroom. I learned more while working as a student journalist on The Ticker and in my various internships than I did in any of my classrooms. I learned while doing, while covering events and talking to people. And it seems that most students have a similar educational experience. In journalism classes, I was asked to think about the notions of reporting. Think about grammar and words and presentation. Think about ways to tell a story in a compelling and effective way. But we were rarely given exposure to the squishy subject areas we would potentially write about once we entered the field. In journalism, those subject areas could be called beats. Journalists have varying beats, like gender-based violence, police accountability, or real estate. Those are areas in which a journalist is more than familiar or is capable of learning the most accurate information by knowing the right people to talk to or the smartest questions to ask. So once we are out of the classroom, beats are something we have to learn about on our own. That freedom is both good and bad. It means journalists do not have to be confined to a method of learning that is deemed standard by a higher entity like an academic institution. At the same time, though, that means journalists vary in their learnings and teachings and concepts are missed or ignored either due to 1) ignorance, 2), bias, 3) misinformation, 4) lack of exposure, or 5) a combination of any of the aforementioned reasons. Because there is no standardization, there is room for astray or incomplete coverage when it comes to queerness and identity.
It is also important to point out that most journalism classes — at least in my experience as a journalism major at Baruch — were white. As a profession, journalism is overwhelmingly white (Schneider, 2020) and straight, and classrooms with mostly white and straight kids and professors do not help. Most journalism majors are white (White, 2015), so finding ways to prioritize and attract queer journalists of color to both learn and teach is important.
The experiences I described here are confined to my position as a student within a public university system in an urban setting. It is worth noting that it’s entirely possible that journalistic instruction varies depending on the school or region, but what I have laid out is true for me and should not be discounted.
The Ways in Which Journalism Is Already Suited to Serve Queer Coverage
One of the strengths of journalism — especially in the digital age — is its ability to rapidly incorporate newly changing guidance from ethicists and gender studies professors. The gender-neutral they/them pronoun, for example, is one such development that journalism — for the most part — has been trying to carefully abide by.
The other benefit is that journalism is meant to be a tool for the masses. That means journalists oftentimes — especially today — try to prioritize the person with less power to illustrate the stakes and injustice for them. So if a source who’s the victim of an anti-LGBT attack, for example, asks for anonymity, a journalist is probably likelier to grant it because there could be repercussions for them if their identity were to be known. Compare that to someone in power asking for the same thing. The stakes to receive anonymity for that person are far higher. In this way, journalistic ethics can protect and amplify the voice of a marginalized person.
Where Journalism Can Grow in the Area of Queer Coverage and Ways to Get There
Journalism is special in that it is one of those industries in which upon graduation, graduates focus on topics they never spent time actually learning about in college. Instructors often say journalists learn on the job. But in some circumstances, learning on the job may not be enough. The AP did not learn to use they/them pronouns for Sam Smith (2019), even after instituting a rule themselves advising to (Easton, 2017). So what if we reimagine journalistic instruction to be an extension of or a parallel to queer instruction? What if we bridge the two together and help journalists learn before they get to a job? Allow me to imagine a world of possibilities.
Department heads might consider, for example, requiring that journalists establish a specialization in a beat they might be interested in exploring more. This does not mean a budding journalist who, for example, picks LGBT issues as their beat will necessarily become an LGBT reporter. Rather, it means the budding journalist might instead learn how to dive deep into a topic like LGBT issues. That would ideally help establish critical thinking skills that help journalists analyze more closely and make judgment calls to identify: who is being harmed, how, what the stakes are, what the broader message is, and why it is important for the public to know.
To do successfully, department heads must employ more diverse faculty. Specifically, within the realm of journalistic instruction centered around and grounded in queerness and identity, journalistic instructors should be queer or have substantial experience engaging with queerness as a subject matter. That means department heads who are hunting for new faculty members must think about where to source such professors. A good place to start is within professional organizations that cater specifically to LGBT journalists. And, of course, if there are more queer professors teaching journalists, the chances of budding journalists examining or hoping to examine in the future queer issues in their coverage might increase. Likewise, the number of queer students engaging with journalism might increase, ideally leading to an increase in professional queer journalists upon graduation and expanded, substantive coverage around queerness.
Another method could be to expand the range of news-writing instruction. In my undergraduate classes, news writing was generally taught using event-rooted rather than human-centric examples. Events like fires and robberies dominated examples given in the classroom when it came to teaching news writing and reporting. Those types of stories likely worked well decades ago, before scholars and activists expanded the world of social and relational sciences. And while these stories always had human figures at their center (i.e. a robber or a victim), the event was the main character; the fact that the event happened was news itself. While journalists still report on fires and robberies, they are also likely to report on conflicts between people and groups and clashing ideology. So incorporating examples centered around queerness and LGBT issues, for instance, would help round out budding journalists and better prepare them to cover such issues in professional news settings.
Of course, it is impossible to expect a 30-credit major to sufficiently encompass what one needs to know about queerness and identity. There will always be a need to learn, so how do we re-teach the fundamental skill of journalism: learning? Re-teach it in a way that budding journalists who turn into professional journalists can refer back to and carry with them upon graduation? How do we help journalists develop learning methods that are effective for representative, fair, and accurate coverage? What specific ways of learning can we help journalists latch onto and rely on? And what would this look like? Perhaps a three-credit course in which they choose a topic to explore deeper and center their coverage around for a semester? Perhaps something strewn into the curriculum? Perhaps this can be implemented into internship expectations or planned skills to teach.
One of the worthwhile avenues of exploration, I propose, is to consider and revamp how students are learning journalism outside the classroom. Then the question becomes, how can we optimize our classroom experience to either complement or supplement the work we are building on outside the classroom? One problem today is that internships are selective and don’t pay. It is widely known then that many students, disproportionately students of color, do not get them. This creates and perpetuates inequity in the newsroom.
In an ideal world where internship opportunities are equitable in opportunity, pay, and expenditure in terms of time and effort, students would receive complementary dual instruction. In class, professors would teach students about the nuts and bolts of news: how it works and gets disseminated, its influence, ethical ramifications, etc. This would mean that classrooms would employ an exclusively scholarly lens through which they study and critically examine the news. Journalism departments should center coverage analysis and criticism and leave the hard skills to the internships. Of course, that would require that the parameters for securing internships change. Many journalistic internships, like entry-level jobs, require boatloads of experience before a student can even qualify to make it to one round of interviews.
At an internship, students would begin to apply what they have learned in the classroom by covering actual news. This requires that internship coordinators and department heads coordinate and collaborate — at least once on a recurring basis to determine and standardize curricula. Right now, journalistic classes try hard to approach news from both a scholarly and hands-on angle. For the most part at my internships (which ran the gamut from CNN to BuzzFeed News to New York Magazine and more), the amount and quality of reporting I did varied depending on the person who managed me. Some editors encouraged me to write as often as I could, assigning me stories to look into and cover from the very first day. Others took their time allowing me to write for the web, causing me to come away with just one or two bylines at the end of a whole semester. Think about the substantial experience budding journalists could gain if all internships committed to working with and getting them bylines. And in this way, students would be given an opportunity to frequently apply what they are learning in the classroom to the real world and understand how internships bolster their scholarly studies. Additionally, another benefit to this plan would be that students would already have the foundational understanding of journalism without having to have an internship to succeed post-graduation.
The drawback, though, is that this plan can set a higher precedent for journalistic instructors. Colleges and universities sometimes ignore arbitrary degrees and academic qualifications in favor of experience when it comes to selecting professors of journalism. Shifting journalism courses to only cover foundational knowledge through a very scholarly and not-at-all technical lens could mean that professors will be expected to have advanced degrees. And since academia is known to be disproportionately white and straight, it will likely be harder to attract and retain professors and students of color. To adjust for this, another possibility is to reverse it. Classes, run by day-of-the-mill journalists, teach the technical skills, and newsrooms lay the foundational skills. Both methods represent drastic changes to the way journalistic instruction is currently taught, and both methods come with their own limitations and challenges. I am not advocating for either of them but rather beginning to conceptualize the extent to which revamping journalistic instruction is possible.
If these changes are not feasible, there are changes that can be made at the individual level, rather than the systemic or institutional level, that can serve as a litmus test that helps prove how worthwhile it is to explore these new directions I am proposing for future journalistic instruction. Journalism students, for example, might be asked to double major or minor in a sociological or interdisciplinary field that centers identity. Journalism students might be asked to take a basic women’s studies and gender class that is woven into the journalistic curriculum (e.g. part of the 30-credit major). Simple actions that I have tried to implement as standard practice while guest-lecturing at the City University of New York are encouraging students to ask all sources for pronouns sometime during the course of an interview. Names, ages, and places of residence are common questions journalists are taught to ask. Let’s add pronouns to that mix. Doing so would help 1) normalize pronouns and 2) ensure accuracy.
Students working in student newsrooms should have access to sensitivity readers. This is a new resource that newsrooms around the nation are only just now beginning to employ. Sensitivity readers help newsrooms use representative, appropriate, and accurate language, and student newsrooms should have the same opportunity. Considering that most student newsrooms operate on a voluntary basis that qualifies as an “extracurricular” activity (when I was in undergrad, I spent upwards of 40 hours per week to fulfill my position as editor-in-chief at The Ticker, as did several of my friends and colleagues), without ideal conditions, it might not immediately be a feasible expectation for sensitivity readers to get paid for their work. But there are organizations that support student newsrooms pro bono, like attorneys who offer legal reads of student journalism to help students stay out of court and avoiding printing libel. So do those organizations or similar ones have the resources to extend other services like sensitivity reads? I can imagine a world as well in which student newsroom begin positions for sensitivity readers in house. Alternatively, do schools have the resources to pay student journalists and sensitivity readers alike? Within the same vein, can queer orgs partner with colleges and universities or at the very least student newsrooms? That could look like queer orgs inviting student journalists to LGBT conferences to learn about queerness and how they can apply it to or center it in their coverage. It could look like queer orgs being the ones to step up and offer sensitivity reads or provide resources and queer literature that a university — particularly ones that do not offer liberal studies or humanities — may not readily provide.
I entered journalism because I believe it can be an effective tool to make opportunities arise for people. It is a tool that widens the world, presenting resources and information that helps people make the best choices for themselves. It is a tool that ensures that the pawns stand a chance against the kings. As much as I love the work I do, I am just as dismayed by it every day. Journalism has a contentious history of neglect, harm, and elitism. And as much as journalists today are trying to evolve from it, the toxic past has a strong grip, which presents itself, in part, in the erasure, mockery, or minimization of queer identities.
Aside from a moral reason to care about reforming queer coverage, news outlets have a practical reason to fall back on as well: Without adequate representation, newspapers lose audience interest and falter. The way a news outlet talks about and regards civilians is important to the credibility of the news organization (Meyer, 1973). I want to go beyond thinking about the financial implications for newsrooms, though, and consider the implications to the advancement of democracy and justice. News outlets, as the fourth estate, have a responsibility to serve as a check to the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government, as well as to the private corporations and industries that affect the lives of U.S. residents every day. Without proper representation and news coverage that reflects the issues that are most pertinent to the everyday U.S. resident, news outlets cannot adequately carry out their function to act like a check on these entities. Unchecked power can lead to authoritarianism, loss of democracy and choice, and decreased quality of life. Therefore, it is important to revitalize and revamp queer coverage, as well as to address what might be the origin of contention and create strong pathways between public schools and newsrooms. It is important for news organizations to revamp the way they think about coverage and make a serious effort to hire people who come from varying backgrounds who are privy to the workings and needs of their individual and collective communities.
It is also worthwhile to remember that this papers serves as just an introduction to queer journalistic instruction. Additionally, it is important to note that journalism can be broken up into various sects, and each requires their own separate skillsets. Video journalism and photojournalism, for example, require an entirely different knowledge base. The reason I speak a lot about writing and editing is because I am a writer and editor. I focus on producing written content for the web. Scholars who want to pursue further research on and engage with the intersection between queerness, journalism, and instruction can and should explore other journalistic avenues.
To write this paper, I worked off the assumption that substantial journalistic instruction happens at the college level, which, of course, is not always true. Instruction does and should happen at all levels, including at the postgrad level and within high schools and middle schools. The approaches and new instructional methods I have proposed would likely change depending on the level, and, of course, depending on the geographic region and what is available or accessible in terms of resources, funding, and privilege.
I never intended to be a journalist. But I am glad I became one, because it gives me the credibility to speak about how journalism fails the people it most wants to serve.
Notes on Contributor
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