By Antonio Zappulla
‘Filthy’, ‘diseased’, ‘devil worshipper’, ‘disgusting’, ‘abnormal’, ‘paedophile’. These were real words used by some media outlets around the world this year when reporting on LGBT+ people.
This might sound shocking. After all, we are more accustomed to the media reporting on victories for marriage equality, on growing corporate support for LGBT+ inclusion and on the increased visibility of trans people.
But this is a narrative which mostly belongs to the ‘progressive’ West, and one which has only emerged in the past two decades. Recently, an older friend shared with me an article from 1981 which described the opening of a London gay club in terms that today would solicit an investigation by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.
So much has changed since then. People’s hearts and minds have opened towards greater acceptance of LGBT+ people. The media has played a key role in making this shift happen, gradually moving away from a witch-hunt narrative in favour of more factual and fair reporting.
Sadly, in many countries around the world, such a shift has yet to occur.
In Uganda, a national newspaper published a front page story with the headline ‘Top Homos’, ‘Hang them’. The article argues that gay men in Uganda have set a target to ‘recruit one million children’.
In Jamaica, a recent article headlined ‘Homo Thugs!’ claimed that ‘gun-toting gays’ were terrorising local communities. The story argued that many gangsters and criminals were directly linked to the gay community through a network of male escorts.
In Russia, where the 2013 anti-gay propaganda law forbids the promotion of attitudes and behaviours that contradict ‘traditional family values’, popular media has shifted towards a narrative which portrays LGBT+ people as paedophiles.
The ‘Occupy Paedophilia’ vigilantes movement openly targets gay men. After entrapping them through dating apps, supporters of the group savagely beat their victims, posting their ‘victories’ online, where – unchallenged by the authorities – talk of ‘hunting season’ incites others to do the same.
Now, imagine for a second that you are on the receiving end of such public and vicious abuse. How would this impact your safety, your personal life and your career?
For millions of people around the world, the media actually constitutes a threat to life, a dangerous amplifier of stereotype, prejudice and hatred. When this happens, nobody wins.
There is a strong correlation between inclusion towards LGBT+ people and better performing economies, a study by USAID and the Williams Institute at UCLAfound. It is quantified by approximately 3% of GDP for each additional policy spearheading LGBT+ acceptance that is implemented.
On a similar note, the World Bank estimates that India is losing $32 billion in economic output every year because of widespread discrimination against LGBT people.
The latest study by Open for Business goes even further, making a direct correlation between LGBT+ inclusion and the competitive advantage of cities. The analysis argues that cities that are LGBT+ inclusive perform better than others in three main areas: talent attraction, innovation and overall quality of living.
The media plays a fundamental role in shaping attitudes towards social and political issues. This has always been the case. “The medium is the message”, Marshall McLuhan famously argued. And even in the current ‘post-truth’ era, the media retains the ultimate power to influence the public’s beliefs profoundly.
To be clear, I am not arguing that the media should have a pro-LGBT agenda. I am calling for good journalism – impartial, fair and accurate. Journalism that sticks to the facts, leaves prejudice behind and is bound by truth-telling alone. This journalism still exists.
Today, we are launching Openly, a global LGBT+ news and information platform powered by the journalism of the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Openly aims to become the ultimate source of LGBT+ news in an environment where the topic remains largely under-reported, confined to niche outlets with a regional focus, and geared towards a predominantly LGBT+ and often male audience.
Openly aims to fill a critical gap in the market, bringing high-quality LGBT+ news to the widest possible audience, one which includes non-LGBT+ readers. Thanks to a powerful distribution model, our stories will be published on a dedicated digital portal openlynews.com, as well as reaching all Reuters media clients – a daily audience of 1 billion.
Authoritative, impartial, non-advocacy journalism plays a significant role in advancing human rights. By shedding light on the many and important issues affecting LGBT+ people around the world we can affect powerful change. When we reported about a discriminatory sex education campaign run by the government of Malaysia a few months ago, the media pressure resulting from our story prompted the Malaysian Health Ministry to amend the contest, dropping the “gender identity disorder” category they had initially included.
LGBT+ rights are human rights. In the words of the UN, they are “a development imperative”. At a time when the Sustainable Development Goals commit all of us to “leave no one behind”, the power of the media can help us ensure these goals are met. When trusted, factual journalism thrives, society is always in better shape.
Antonio Zappulla is Chief Operating Officer at the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
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