And as is the case with so much online, this is a problem that begins with outrage.
I stopped following the news on March 23, 2015. The Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of marriage equality was still a few months away, and the conversation surrounding LGBTQ rights was hot. But in article after article, instead of reading about this issue with any sort of nuance, I was forced to confront thoughtless, divisive, offensive headlines like The Guardian’s “California lawyer seeks to put ‘shoot the gays’ proposal on 2016 ballot.”
In that story, a particularly inflammatory line was used as the opener: “A California lawyer says he wants to legalize the execution of gay people, and there may be nothing the state’s attorney general can do to stop the proposal from moving forward.” There is no way this bill would ever make it to a vote, but by insinuating it could with a line designed to push buttons, The Guardian loaded the anger cannon and fired straight into the anger machine — aka, the internet.
At first glance, a story by a Columbus, Ohio, NBC affiliate — “Ohio lawmakers to consider controversial bathroom bill” — seems less salacious, but it, too, taps into outrage with its sub-heading: “Representative John Becker says legislation is needed to keep predators from victimizing women and children.” This presentation preys on pro-LGBTQ outrage over gender policing bathrooms, while tapping into bigots’ fear by implying the bill protects against “predators.”
This method of news coverage, especially common in mainstream media, may make an article especially clickable, but focusing on virality through outrageous, sensational coverage causes damage to the LGBTQ community on many levels. Not only does it turn actual people into voiceless two-dimensional objects, it also minimizes LGBTQ struggles and ignores larger issues facing the community. It’s a cycle that achieves nothing — and is ultimately exhausting for those in the LGBTQ community.
And as is the case with so much online, it’s a problem that begins with outrage.
There’s a reason so many media outlets tap into divisive anger when covering LGBTQ issues (not to mention any number of other topics handled in a similarly pot-stirring way). In a 2010 study on virality at the University of Pennsylvania, Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman discovered “content that evokes more [high arousal emotions such as] anxiety or anger is actually more viral.”
The media has been inciting these high-arousal reactions by covering outrageous anti-LGBTQ stories all but guaranteed to provoke strong reactions on both sides, including that aforementioned “shoot the gays” bill; the Duck Dynasty, Chil-Fil-A, and Barillo homophobes; the Westboro Baptist Church’s boycott of any rainbow flag; the anti-gay wedding cake of 2014; Indiana’s anti-gay pizza catering; and, most recently, North Carolina’s discrimination bill and Georgia’s vetoed religious liberty bill.
In presenting these stories of blatant homophobia, the media has relied on a simple either-or paradigm: You are either for LGBTQ people or for the homophobes. In recent bathroom bill coverage, for example, only opinions for and against the legislation are included. Absent are transgender voices, or narratives that might complicate this binary view of the law. Stories involving more nuance and discussion don’t fit this outrage model, so instead, real LGBTQ people are used as objects in a heated debate they rarely have a voice in — all in exchange for clicks, shares, and likes.
“[The media] aren’t really picking stories based on what’s actually important to LGBTQ people. And they think they’re doing a good job just because they’re writing about us at all,” says Riese Bernard, CEO and editor-in-chief of the popular queer website, Autostraddle.
Bernard adds that at the very least, viral coverage “gives straight people the impression that we are still being constantly persecuted, which is good, because we are. Just because we have marriage equality in America doesn’t mean our problems are over.”
But using LGBTQ issues to fuel a viral fire rarely has a meaningful impact on the LGBTQ community, as outrage does little to change the lives of real LGBTQ people. Moreover, this kind of deliberately divisive coverage causes bigots to double down on their homophobic rhetoric.
Meanwhile, religious liberty bills in Indiana, North Carolina, and Georgia do have real-world impact on the LGBTQ community. However, it’s hard to pick their importance out of the news lineup because outrageous one-off incidents, like an egregious Duck Dynasty comment or single homophobic lawyer, end up with just as much, if not more, news coverage. Virality obfuscates real threats to LGBTQ people.
The Guardian’s “shoot the gays” coverage, for example, prompted 31,000 shares and 701 comments in the now-closed thread. Though obvious the bill would die, the audacious and sensational nature of the proposed law was prime to go viral. It got more attention than North Carolina’s recent and devastating bill blocking local anti-discrimination laws. (The Guardian’s coverage on North Carolina has garnered fewer than 500 shares so far.)
As Bernard puts it:
“I think for people who aren’t familiar with the issues, who are just surveying the news landscape, there’s no real clear way to differentiate between legislations and initiatives that are genuine threats to our community and those that just sound really crazy and therefore could become a Facebook trending topic. It’s hard to find the things that matter when everything is reported on in the same way, including things that really don’t matter. … It belittles our struggles in general. … The small sensational stories become the ones that entire communities are judged by.”
“The problem with the mainstream media is that an LGBTQ issue isn’t important unless it can either be turned into a reality show or a ratings grabber,” seconds Ashley Steves, a New York-based freelance writer who has covered LGBTQ issues. “There are so many issues relevant to our community that rarely or never get the spotlight: homeless LGBTQ youth, health care, employment discrimination, an increase in violence against the community, poverty, anti-bullying in schools, trans suicide, racial justice for LGBTQ people of color, biphobia and transphobia within the community. Those issues aren’t shiny enough for the mainstream.”
Here’s the reality: Nearly 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. A reported 47% of trans people are “fired, not hired, or denied a promotion because of being transgender or gender non-conforming.” More than 30% of bisexual women live in poverty, and trans people are four times more likely than the general population to live in extreme poverty. Yet important issues such as these rarely make it into mainstream news stories.
The absence of these issues renders entire swaths of the LGBTQ community invisible and sinking without a lifeline. These larger issues need news coverage so the general public is aware that the fight for true equality is far from over. In some cases, in fact, that fight is just beginning. The struggle to get these issues on the radar of the mainstream press is but one step among many that we as a society need to take to lift up the entire LGBTQ community.
Of course, this takes tireless effort. And particularly when dealing with the abundance of outraged viral news, it’s exhausting to everyone involved.
“There might be all this press, but you’re still not getting ahead,” says Chicago-based LGBTQ local news writer Liz Baudler. “It strikes me as more of an echo chamber. And the constant echoing is draining.”
“The outrage cycle sucks up a ton of energy from people,” Bernard says. “I think at the end of the day, the impact is that when it’s time to talk about real issues, people are tired of fighting [on Facebook] with some guy they went to high school with all day about some vaguely homophobic thing a comedian said.”
Allison Moon, author of the sex-education book Girl Sex 101, adds, “My resolution this year was to read fewer think pieces, particularly those which ‘respond to the response’ or ‘comment on the commentary.’ I chose to do that because each daily outrage took its toll on my emotional health.”
“We forbid writing articles about articles five years ago at Autostraddle because it was getting so exhausting,” Bernard adds. “So much energy is sucked up by people criticizing pronouns that are being used, the way that a lesbian is depicted, or these kinds of issues.”
Virality only serves to minimize and erase real struggles LGBTQ people face daily, and exhausts everyone in the process. On the other end of those outraged, angry bigot-baiting headlines are real people with real lives, friends, and family. The LGBTQ community deserves to be more than objects of an outraged virality storm. We deserve to be treated as the complex, important people we are, in the news and in the real world.
Mainstream media has the power to help make this a reality — but only if they abandon the goal of virality.