- A recent radio talk show discussed some of the terms used to describe gay and lesbian people in South Africa, and, rightfully so, invited a prominent gay presenter to talk about what he thought of the way that media represented non-heterosexual communities. "Unfortunately, this type of balanced media coverage of non-heterosexual communities is rare," activists hold.
Rather, the norm when reporting on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities in South African media is often negative. Recent research conducted by the Gay and Lesbian Archives (GALA) of South Africa and the Community Media for Development (CMFD) found that media usually "sensationalises" and gives "an unfair reflection" of the LGBTI sector.
As South Africa's landscape changes and develops, there is increasing awareness of the need to ensure diversity of stories covered, voices heard, and access to the media. Funded by the Media Development and Diversity Agency, the 'Out in the Media?' research set out to identify issues, gaps and possible solutions related to reporting on LGBTI issues.
Media are known to reflect society but also play a part in shaping how society views certain topics or communities. Media thus are seen as very influential, and how media portray groups such as the LGBTI sector influences what society thinks. Coverage that is negative, stereotypical or even non-existent, affects how society views these communities, analysts emphasise.
Christine Davies, one of the respondents interviewed for the research, agreed that South African "media tends to sensationalise or demonise homosexuality. Very few reports are celebratory in nature. Specifically headlines will refer to sexuality in criminal cases."
It was found that media are always quick to point out sexuality in news, even if it unrelated to the crime - creating a sense of "otherness", that the community is not part of the rest of society. Headlines such as "Lesbian rapes old granny" insinuate that the lesbian's sexuality is reason for her actions. There are more reports of men raping women but we would never see headline that says "Heterosexual man rapes young girl", the analysts pointed out.
However, a number of journalists also feel that the LGBTI sector is not easy to access. One the journalist said, "LGBTI people should get more involved, stop avoiding and closing doors but rather sit down and learn to trust, and give way to promoting better image of LGBTI people, including experts. Avoiding means journalists go to wrong people for a story."
LGBTI organisations themselves are mostly reactive when it comes to working with the media, mainly responding to bad coverage or issuing press releases only at certain moments. Few organisations indicated that they maintain ongoing relationships with journalists, keep media databases, interact with editor's forums or journalism schools.
Even fewer are undertaking projects that build the capacity of journalists or the sector to create better media. Doing so would serve to help support good media, experts hold.
LGBTI organisations do give credit where due and said that some journalists and media houses report fairly on their issues and events. However, many more journalists and media houses do not respond to information sent out or contact the organisation for information before doing a story, it was found.
In practical terms, the picture however may be more differentiated. Looking at South African newspapers, there are indeed a number of fair articles. Yet, one also sees offensive headlines and editorials. "We would not accept these when it comes to race, or any ethnic group, so why do we accept them about sexuality," activists ask.
As the research suggests, there are a number of ways to help narrow the gap between journalists and the LGBTI organisations, so one can see better coverage. Education and training were said to be the main tools to bring about change. Information and skill sharing would bridge the communication gap, while editorial policies could help ensure fair reporting.
As Mashilo Mnisi, a journalist at 'Behind the Mask', pointed out, "Mainstream media can be more viable and join forces with LGBTI organisations to gain a better insight of the issues."
Just as journalists and media have learned and committed themselves to covering issues of race using sensitive terms where necessary, and not revealing a persons race when it is not necessary, journalists may soon learn to do the same for sexuality issues, activists hope.
By Nosimilo Ndlovu Nosimilo Ndlovu works with Community Media for Development and was a researcher/writer for 'Out in the Media?'
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