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Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Diversity Toolbox

Do your homework for pride festival coverage

By Jeremy Steele

It's here: summer festival season. It can be a great time for a young journalist — and even the veterans now getting roped into weekend shifts with more frequency — to learn about local neighborhoods and cultural groups. But these seemingly easy events to cover carry risks for reporters, photographers and editors who don’t do their homework before Saturday comes around.

Gay pride is among the first summer events many newsrooms will cover. On various weekends throughout June, you’ll find speeches, marches, parades, community fairs and other events around the country advocating equal rights and celebrating the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. As with any other event, it’s important to pay special attention to the words and images journalists use to cover gay pride. Here are a few tips to help you prepare:

KNOW THE LANGUAGE

The Associated Press Stylebook and your media outlet’s own style guides are a great place to start, but they may not cover the terminology you need to cover a pride event. Fortunately, the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association publishes a free stylebook for LGBT terms on its website, nlgja.org. The NLGJA’s Stylebook Supplement on LGBT terminology does a great job of flagging words and phrases to watch. It explains why some terms are preferred over others — for instance, the more politically neutral “sexual orientation” is preferred over the politically charged “sexual preference” because the latter term indicates a choice in whether someone is gay. The guide also explains the correct usage of the terms “transsexual,” “transgender” and “cross-dresser,” which are often used incorrectly.

DON’T JUST COVER AN EVENT; COVER A STORY

Check out the clip files for past coverage and read up on current events to get an idea of what participants may be talking about this year. Figure out which events throughout the day seem to be the most topical or most significant. If you don’t do this kind of research ahead of time, you risk putting together a forgettable story that may even misrepresent the event.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should be rigid in your approach. Your research may indicate marriage as the best angle for a story, but events on the ground may focus on a different topic, such as bullying.

UNDERSTAND THE RISKS OF OUTING

Disclosing an individual’s sexual orientation remains a sensitive issue, even at pride. On one hand, pride events often happen in public places. But it’s important for journalists to understand that some participants may not be out to their families, friends and co-workers.

The SPJ Code of Ethics urges journalists to minimize harm. In this case, especially when dealing with private figures, it’s important to make clear to sources how you will use their information. If they seem uncomfortable being quoted or photographed, take a different photo or find a source willing to go on the record.

AVOID STEREOTYPING

Pride events are very diverse, in both people and issues. Your challenge is to report on this diverse community without casting any single member as representative of the larger group.

Pride’s roots date to the Stonewall Inn riot of 1969, when people protested police raids targeting bars and establishments frequented by the LGBT community. In later years, pride festivals highlighted employment discrimination, marriage, gender identity discrimination, adoption issues and more. Pride participants include gay men, lesbians, transgender people, drag queens, conservative and liberal political groups, straight allies (including parents, children, siblings and friends) and more.

This can be especially challenging for journalists. Photographers, for instance, may be attracted to the vivid colors and costumes of drag queens in a gay pride march. But is that image truly representative of an event that also features a growing number of families with children, or gay Republicans?

BE FAIR AND ACCURATE

Many pride celebrations also attract protesters who oppose equal rights for LGBT individuals. It’s natural for journalists to want to cover such protests to get “both sides of the story.” But it’s just as important to put such protests into context.

SPJ’s Code of Ethics coaches us on the importance of accuracy. If a protest is small or uneventful, it paints an inaccurate image to portray it as a significant part of a pride event. Consider whether you would cover a couple of protesters at a Fourth of July parade or whether you report on every critical public comment at school board meetings.

Many reporters go back to the same opponents of equal rights for the LGBT community. One person can’t possibly encompass the views of everyone in the community, and numerous polls show Americans’ views on these issues are evolving. Diversify your source list now, and be ready for the next event you may be assigned to cover in your community.

Jeremy W. Steele is a member of SPJ’s Diversity Committee. He practices public relations in Lansing, Mich., and teaches at the Michigan State University School of Journalism. Reach him at jeremywsteele@gmail.com.

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