by Emily Frost
This month, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) released a report, “Missing Voices,” on how the mainstream news media uses religious voices in its stories to frame issues of LGBT equality. GLAAD commissioned researchers at the University of Missouri to look at a three-year sample of media coverage of LGBT issues. Their findings paint a bleak picture of a mainstream media culpable of reproducing biases and distortions — such as the false dichotomy of “the gay community versus the religious community” — by quoting only religious voices that are opposed to the promotion of LBGT rights and social equality.
GLAAD's analysis showed that three out of four of the religious messages (including official statements and quotations from sources) were from people “affiliated with faith groups that have formal church policy, religious decrees or traditions opposing equality for LGBT people,” according to the report.
The speed at which we now expect to get the news means that reporters must usually rush to find sources and frame stories using whatever narrative material they can obtain on a tight deadline. Thus part of the reason journalists have overwhelmingly turned to evangelical voices — instead of mainline Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, atheist or humanist sources — is that evangelicals make themselves more readily available to the media. Not only that, they're “good talkers,” having been trained to speak in sound bites and to spice up a story by adding conflict. When an editor says, “quick, get the other side!” the conservative evangelical community is the default. Then there's not enough time or space to delve into how representative that voice for “the other side” actually is.
Consequently, the media tend to misrepresent the beliefs of other groups by allowing conservative evangelicals to shape media depictions of all believers. This distorts the degree of support for LGBT people in the American Roman Catholic community, for example. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, 71 percent of American Catholics support marriage equality, and 73 percent support anti-discrimination laws for LGBT people. And yet, in the coverage examined in the “Missing Voices” project, more than half of the Roman Catholic voices quoted made negative statements about LGBT-related political issues.
This suggest that, far from simply getting religion wrong, the media is distorting the representation of large numbers of believers and allowing conservative sources to shape coverage of contentious social issues.
Another narrative tendency that serves to perpetuate the “gays versus religion” frame is that when journalists quote LGBT people, they rarely highlight their sources' religious affiliations. LGBT people as a whole are then perceived as non-religious or even amoral, which serves the ends of other sources who militate against acceptance and equality for the LGBT community. Furthermore, supportive messages in the articles that GLAAD analyzed often came from people whose religious affiliation was not stated.
If journalists can start thinking about religion in America in ways that upend the false “us vs. them” dichotomy, they will do much to promote tolerance, not just for LGBT people but others as well. In an age deeply shaped by conflict, that's a valuable public service.
Emily Frost is a radio reporter and online journalist. She is an Annenberg Fellow at USC's Annenberg Graduate School for Journalism and a host and the Executive Producer at Annenberg Radio News. She is currently interning at KPCC's “The Madeleine Brand Show.” Previously, Frost worked in online media, radio, and documentary film in New York City. She is a graduate of Wesleyan University.