The Case of Gay Rights, by Darrell West

Key concepts: mainstreaming press coverage

Key names and events: Ryan White, Ellen Degeneres

Case Study of Gay Rights Issue

-what coverage in this area tells us about contemporary media

-interesting exception to some of earlier arguments

Two Things

1) history

2) contemporary situation

History of Media Coverage of the Gay and Lesbian Community
Last 50 years reflects extensive stereotyping and bias in coverage of gay and lesbian community
1) Lisa Bennett study based on 50 years of coverage by Time and Newsweek reveals that historically, news magazine coverage relied on "contemptuous labels" of gays and use of negative allegations such as "gays and lesbians are more likely to molest children or to be sexually predatory than heterosexuals."
-her decade by decade review finds the following common themes in news coverage of gays of various decades:

a) homosexuals as problems (1940s and 1950s),

b) homosexuals: to punish or to pity (1960s),

c) opposition to the gay and lesbian movement (1970s),

d) AIDS and the promiscuous gay lifestyle (1980s),

e) gays and lesbians in the military (1990s).

2) Edward Alwood book, Straight News, documents problems in this area: exclusion from coverage, prejudicial coverage, close press ties with law enforcement community against gays, the myth of neutrality and objectivity, and the susceptibility of newsrooms to outside pressures on gay issues
More Recent History

-Ryan White example of altering stereotype of AIDS as gay disease

-earlier lecture emphasized persistence of stereotypes and difficulty of change

-Alwood ends his analysis with an optimistic view of media coverage of gay issues, writing that "In 1996 gays and lesbians appear in the news almost routinely--nearly as routinely as they were excluded fifty years ago. The news media often go beyond the once-prevalent stereotypes to tackle many core issues facing gays and lesbians. As a result the American public sees and hears more about the wants and concerns of the gay community today than ever before." (p. 315)
-according to him, media also are more likely to call attention to discrimination against gays and to practice "mainstreaming" press coverage (instead of marginalizing gay issues)
-but he claims there still is bias against gays in press coverage

Video, "The Real Ellen Story"
This video aired April 30, 1997 and it recounts the story between the decision of television star Ellen DeGeneres to come out as a lesbian on her TV show "Ellen" as well as in real life (the episode was watched by 42 million viewers). It features interviews with Ellen DeGeneres, Anne Heche, Oprah Winfrey, Melissa Etheridge, Laura Dern, Diane Sawyer, and former executives at ABC and Disney, the network which hosted the show. The interviews present a behind-the-scenes look at the thinking that went into this show and how network audiences responded.

Lessons of Ellen

-Southern Baptist boycott

-corporate power over entertainment and network clearance of plots

-role of Internet in disseminating information

-documentary use of re-enactments

-intersection of politics and entertainment

-Ellen's drop in TV ratings

Aftermath of Ellen

-in 1999-2000 television season, there were 17 gay characters on the four major networks (equal to number of black, Asian, and Latinos combined)(LA Times, July 21, 1999)

-examples include Dawson's Creek, Felicity, and Friends, among others

-fallout from turmoil of Ellen show


1) greater political tolerance

2) impact of media fragmentation and narrowcasting

3) market power of consumers

Central Questions
1) why did the Ellen "coming out" story attract so much attention?

-Novelty, conflict, secrecy
2) how do you evaluate the way ABC and Disney handled this episode?

-Look at dimensions such as fairness, bias, commercial interests
3) What about the role of the tabloids and the Hollywood Reporter, which broke the story, in framing the story?

-Story originated with tabloid press.

-Shows how core no longer dominates periphery.

-Anyone can break major news stories and then see story spread to mainstream press.

4) what does the Baptist boycott of Disney and the show, the cancellation of the episode by one Southern affiliate, and the bomb threats reveal about public thinking on gay rights issues?

-shows conflictual nature of prominent social issues

-regional variations in how social conflict plays out

-question of how media should cover conflicts such as this where there are divisions among the population?

-case shows limits of media versus friends, families, schools, and religious organizations in determining how people feel about gay rights issues

-power of pre-existing attitudes on forming people's reactions

Impact of the Internet on Coverage of Social Policy

-will the Internet improve portraits of gays and lesbians or create new kinds of problems?
-role of Internet in breaking up power of media monopolies
-may undermine power of establishment press

Recommendations for Future Coverage

-Bennett recommendations for future reporting, she recommends the following steps: question derogatory comments, insist upon evidence, challenge powerful sources

Additional Reading

Lisa Bennett, "The Perpetuation of Prejudice in Reporting on Gays and Lesbians: Time and Newsweek, the First Fifty Years," Research Paper R-21, Harvard University Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics, and Policy, September, 1998

Martin Duberman, Stonewall, Penguin Books, 1993

Neil Miller, Out of the Past, Vintage Books, 1995

Randy Shilts, And The Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, St. Martins Press, 1987