Media Matters convened a panel of LGBTQ journalists to discuss the impacts of a declining dedicated queer media on society and to explore solutions to support and save LGBTQ journalism in 2020. Panelists explained that the trend of closures, layoffs, and reassignments in LGBTQ journalism has resulted in a media landscape that often underreports and misreports the issues facing the LGBTQ community.
During the January 18 panel at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s annual Creating Change conference in Dallas, Texas, Media Matters LGBTQ Program Director Brennan Suen was joined by Vox’s Katelyn Burns, Dallas Morning News investigative reporter Lauren McGaughy, AdWeek diversity and inclusion reporter Mary Emily O’Hara (who was a freelance journalist at the time of the panel), and TheBody Associate Editor Mathew Rodriguez.
The panel explored the impacts of a declining queer media
The panelists began the discussion with a description of the widespread closures that LGBTQ media experienced in 2019. As Burns has previously reported in The Outline, LGBTQ-focused news sites have been decimated over the past year:
Into, an LGBTQ-focused news site owned by Grindr, shut down in January following its report detailing anti-marriage equality comments made by its own owner late last year. The LGBTQ desks at BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post have been decimated. Even ThinkProgress’ Zack Ford, one of the most reliable reporters on the queer news beat and who has a long track record of breaking anti-trans news, was reassigned by his employer to cover Trump in general.
Panelists explained that the decline of dedicated queer beats and outlets has had significant consequences for the ways LGBTQ stories are told in news media. Rodriguez said, “When a queer site closes down, there’s a lot of repurcussions, and it reverberates kind of throughout the whole media landscape.” O’Hara noted that closures have a personal impact, saying, “Almost every [LBGTQ] journalist I know and most people on this panel have experienced some sort of devastating layoff in media.” This is especially worrying given that LGBTQ people already face higher unemployment rates than the general population.
Rodriguez also noted that the closings send “a negative economic message” to advertisers, which many online outlets rely on, which in turn “makes it that much harder to have [LGBTQ] outlets that can thrive in the future.”
There are all-time high levels of LGBTQ visibility in U.S. culture, but McGaughy said that the decline of LGBTQ media is a move “in the opposite direction.” She added that though “more people are comfortable coming out,” there is a “reduction in the number of reporters everywhere but specifically in LGBTQ media and with LGBTQ reporters at legacy media.” This divergent trend has been reflected in coverage of LGBTQ issues, which Media Matters’ analyses have found are often underreported across corporate TV news and mainstream newspapers.
Without dedicated LGBTQ outlets, there will be more reliance on mainstream outlets for related issue coverage, but Rodriguez explained that “our stories are not told in the same way in mainstream publications as they are in LGBTQ publications.” He noted that when LGBTQ stories are reported in mainstream publications, they are often “reduced to like 101 type stories” that can be “extremely stigmatizing and lack the kind of nuance that a queer eye can bring to it.”
Another problem is that though there is a need for non-issue outlets to pick up their coverage of LGBTQ issues, they often don’t. Burns said, “As queer outlets sort of fold up shop, their competitors don’t try as hard to cover the [LGBTQ] news space” which creates a “cascading series of catastrophes.” McGaughy added that “the most simple way to describe what’s happening now in media in general is just that stories get skipped. They just don’t get written at all a lot of the time, so even if we’re talking about stories not getting written well or not getting written with a particular eye or, you know, in a full or robust way, you know, from my perspective the stories just don’t happen at all.” Suen explained that this lack of coverage “affects every issue. If there’s not these stories being told, if people aren’t getting the information, then we can’t address anti-trans violence, we can’t address economic injustice.”
O'Hara also discussed this sentiment, noting that without queer reporting, it is harder for advocates and nonprofits to do their work:
"In terms of the symbiotic work that we all do together, activists and nonprofits working on LGBT advocacy and then the journalists who report on your work, it makes it so much harder for us to tell your stories. So like right now I'm getting so many press releases and so many hits and tips on things from people that I used to work with on a daily basis when I had a full-time job, and I just have to be so apologetic over and over and say I'm sorry, I can't really do anything with this right now. I don't know who is going to publish this story. ... The effects kind of, you know, they ripple outward."
Moreover, Burns added, “Without having queer voices in the newsroom, you end up ceding the narrative to the right that they can just dictate these issues. So instead of talking about trans women of color who are being murdered again right here in Dallas, … we’re talking about athletes and children, which are still important issues. But we don’t have control over telling people what is most important to us when we’re not even in the room.”
She remarked specifically on how “Republicans on the right have chosen to try to wedge voters with” trans athletes and transition care for minors, turning those issues into “the most recent and immediate threats politically to LGBTQ rights.” According to Burns, those issues grew “out of right-wing media narratives. If you look at Fox News, if you look at some of the smaller sites, ... they’ve been obsessed with trans people in sports and transition care for minors." She added, “The bills that we’re seeing now are directly because of these issues that the right is pushing.” In fact, a dangerous anti-trans bill to pass out of South Dakota’s House can be traced directly back to right-wing websites like Daily Wire and LifeSiteNews.
Not only are right-wing media determining what LGBTQ-related topics are breaking through, their coverage also gets some of the highest engagement rates. Using the CrowdTangle Google Chrome Extension, a Media Matters analysis found that content about trans athletes by right-wing media or extreme anti-LGBTQ groups consistently ranked among the top content about all trans-related issues on Facebook in 2019. These stories drum up misplaced outrage about trans athletes as fodder for social engagement and, like Burns said, obfuscate other issues trans people face, such as access to employment and the threat of violence.
LGBTQ journalists face unique barriers in their work
The panel also discussed the specific challenges LGBTQ journalists have faced as they report on deeply personal topics both when on the beat and while writing about other topics as dedicated queer media outlets decline.
Rodriguez said that as a queer journalist of color, when he has reported on racism in the LGBTQ community, some editors felt “like what I reported on was not really an important story and that people didn’t care about racism in the gay community,” adding that they did “not see the connection between Black Lives Matter and queer Black lives.”
Burns reflected on the challenges facing trans journalists as they navigate structural barriers in a media landscape that assumes audiences and reporters are cisgender. She said, “As a reporter, I get pigeon-holed. And what ends up happening is I’ll go and I’ll apply for full-time reporting jobs at other mainstream sites that are not LGBT news sites, and they look at me, and they say,‘Oh she’s the trans reporter. She reports on trans issues. That’s all she does.’ Even though that’s not true. And I think this is part of the problem. As queer media outlets start to go away, you’re going to have all these people with extensive LGBT reporting experience” but outlets will just consider them specialists and not give them general news assignment positions. Similarly, Rodriguez noted that LGBTQ journalists’ work is often “devalued” as they “encountered that attitude of ‘well you’re not being a reporter, you’re being an activist right now.’”
McGaughy also highlighted the importance of media outlets including intersectional voices beyond cisgender and white queer people. She noted that as someone who “only recently started being thought of in the newspaper as like the queer reporter, … I have to educate myself on parts of the community that I’m not a part of.” She continued, “Sometimes, I need to remind people that I don’t speak for other people in the community and that I can’t say that this is what this means or this is how those people feel.” She offered solutions to this problem, saying that “sometimes it’s just reminding people I’m not going to have all the answers but at the same time maybe being able to funnel them to someone who does or a good article from someone on an issue.”
Panelists outlined strategies to support LGBTQ journalism in 2020 and beyond
Considering that LGBTQ reporting is one piece of a larger media field that is facing industry-wide layoffs, the necessary solutions are complex and manifold.
All of the panelists emphasized the need to secure reliable funding for LGBTQ journalism. O’Hara put it simply: “It just comes down to money and resources.” They noted that “if the big media companies don’t want to put money and resources behind LGBTQ coverage,” then the solution may be “nonprofit newsrooms” or to “convince advertisers that we are a worthy market,” especially when outlets are more niche and not tied to established media companies.
Aside from changing corporate behaviors, Burns noted that the audience could also make strides to support LGBTQ journalism, encouraging them to “subscribe to queer sites, get their newsletters,” saying, “Those are more important than you think.” She added that when “an important, big story breaks, look for the queer reporters who are writing about it and share their work” instead of articles at legacy media outlets written by non-LGBTQ journalists. Additionally, McGaughy echoed that the audience should “pay for your journalism” and share local original reporting instead of the national aggregated stories.
Rodriguez also explained that LGBTQ people can find ways to communicate their lives outside of journalism, saying that though stories about the LGBTQ experience “may not be valued” by media companies, “there are avenues for queer storytelling. And at the end of the day, whether you’re a journalist or an influencer or you want to dance on TikTok, there are ways for your stories to be told. And I just think that the number one thing I can say to you is find the avenue to tell the story that you need to tell, and if it's not on the web or in column pitches, it’s somewhere else.”
O’Hara also stressed that “LGBT news is a beat,” and “it should be a beat that every newspaper and every outlet has regardless of who's doing the beat as a reporter.” They specifically noted that NBC Out, an online NBC News vertical that is dedicated to LGBTQ issues, has been one example of how corporate media can consistently cover the LGBTQ beat.
McGaughy remarked on the importance of covering “happy LGBTQ stories” to more accurately portray “out and proud” LGBTQ people who are living “happy, full lives.” She specifically pointed to coverage of the Black trans community, noting that journalists shouldn’t cover them only when they are being killed. This sentiment has been shared by other LGBTQ reporters.
O’Hara responded that “one thing that I feel like really does transform” reporting beyond murders and homophobia “is to have dedicated LGBTQ outlets because when I’ve worked in mainstream media and I’m telling LGBT stories, they do tend to have to be more politics focused or some big news thing that’s considered sort of traditional news like crime or courts.” They explained that the outlets that cover stories of LGBTQ success “are the dedicated LGBT newspapers, the community sites” like the Washington Blade and AutoStraddle that “elevate it to newsworthy status because it’s happening in the community.” Suen also highlighted the importance of “making queer culture normal and easily accessible to people who might not have it or have access to it where they live.”
The panel made it clear that queer media is in crisis. This decline comes at a time when there is a crucial need to document and report on LGBTQ issues considering that anti-LGBTQ violence is on the rise and the Trump-Pence administration continues to roll back protections for LGBTQ people across the federal government. To overcome this struggle, journalists and the public will have to continue to find creative and innovative ways to tell LGBTQ stories.