A year ago, in the middle of a national presidential campaign, a group of students and faculty from the Medill School of Journalism stepped up to an invaluable opportunity and an immense challenge. As the Medill Equal Media Project, the first project of its kind at Northwestern or, as far as we know, any journalism school, we set out during the prime of election season to tell untold stories from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities across the country. Weeks before the election, we shared those stories and built out a site, striving to examine the actual effects of the changing political climate on real people.
In assigning, reporting, and editing these stories, we reflected on how our own work fit into a greater media landscape, one in which the issues facing LGBT communities began to fill newsprint and newsfeeds more often than they ever have. As the terrain shifted beneath our feet, we adapted to new conditions.
Over the course of several months, our writers and editors pushed beyond their comfort zones to ask difficult questions in uncharted territory. Early on, students pushed back against a public challenge to their objectivity. We held an all-staff discussion about the differences between journalism as a form of activism versus our project, which was an effort to model more refined coverage of minority communities.
One of our writers, Rachel Janik, earned national recognition in this year’s Hearst Foundation Journalism Awards Program. Her feature articleabout a Minnesota school district’s response to numerous LGBT student suicides was named the best submission of the contest’s more than 500 entries, winning the title “Article of the Year.”
Building off the experience of this project, which ran through the summer and fall of 2012, we took the next step this past spring, when Medill offered, for the first time, a 10-week course for journalism and non-journalism students alike about how to cover gender and sexual minorities fairly and accurately.
The editors and advisers of the Equal Media Project compiled model examples of excellent LGBT-focused journalism from the last 40 years, and helped guide students in their own efforts. Among other things, we took into account appropriate changes in language, emerging ethical questions, debates about standard reporting practices and the effect of newsroom diversity (or the lack of it) over the decades.
Students analyzed contemporary coverage and identified holes in the most pressing stories of the day, in preparation for setting out to write pieces of their own. In discussions and debates in the classroom, they tested ideas about how to cover transgender and gender-fluid individuals, incorporate the increasingly important voices of LGBT youth without compromising privacy, and balance conventions of journalistic style with a growing vocabulary of sexual and gender identity categories, among other things.
The spring class unfolded during a monumentally important period in LGBT history, of course. We proposed it under the impression that media coverage of these minority communities would be noticeably sparse and less nuanced than desired. In the span of 10 weeks, it’s fair to say, the coverage improved – both in quantity and quality.
Cover stories for the likes of TIME magazine and The Atlantic offered extensive coverage of marriage equality in light of the coming Supreme Court rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8. Major newspapers covered the growing prevalence of homeless gay teens and transgender children. On the cover of Sports Illustrated, Jason Collins, the first professional male athlete to come out as openly gay, received respectful, even celebratory, treatment. We saw a spike in LGBT coverage in Chicago-area publications, too, in light of the state’s battle over a yet-to-be-passed marriage equality law.
As big media fixed its attention on the immediate fight over marriage rights, the students found ways to complement, challenge, or extend coverage of LGBT communities. Our class of 25 students produced work on a range of cultural and political topics, including the complicated road ahead for same-sex couples starting their families, new work from queer circles in Chicago theater, literature and sporting scenes, and the factors that presuppose hardships like youth homelessness. Where our first batch of pieces hinged on the turning point of an election in which social issues played a crucial role, these new stories look beyond politics to address LGBT representation and inclusion as it functions in everyday culture and expression. We’ve chosen the most compelling and cohesive pieces to share with you here.
In a series of short question-and-answer pieces, our collaborators identified the movers and shakers who have brought change to LGBT communities in Chicago. These pieces frame the political stories of the present through the eyes of those people calling most ardently for change, among them activists of dual identities who are fighting multiple parallel battles for marriage equality, immigration rights, and safe spaces for youth.
In long-form feature stories, writers immersed themselves in cultural issues that are often swept away in the political current of LGBT coverage. They asked subtle questions about what comes after legal equality is achieved. Our contributors explored the implications of LGBT inclusion in institutions from universities to major league sports, across racial, gender and even historical lines, all situated within the diverse neighborhoods of Chicago.
Our ultimate ambition? We’d like to see the Equal Media Project evolve beyond yearly updates to produce regular and consistent coverage on these topics. Under the leadership of the students organizing Northwestern’s National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association chapter, we plan to extend the opportunity to other students to contribute LGBT-focused work from other courses. Above all, we’d like to see proper coverage of LGBT issues addressed in every journalism class, not simply the one we’ve created.
For now, though, we’re proud to have continued the conversation beyond the months of the election. As always, we invite you to share our work and help us pave the way for what comes next.
Camille Beredjick, Editor
Douglas Foster and Karen Springen, Faculty Advisers
Original Letter, July 2012
To our readers:
When a group of students from the Medill School of Journalism set off a few months ago on this national reporting project, it was with a simple proposition in mind: The presidential campaign of 2012, we thought, would provide an important opportunity to explore the effects of the changing attitudes of voters towards the demands of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people for equal treatment under the law.
National elections often produce a kind of snapshot of the hot button issues that electrify political debate and most sharply divide the electorate. But since there has been a kind of turning point on LGBT issues in American life – with a narrow majority of those polled now in favor of same sex marriage for the first time – the matter of gay equality faded in the general election contest. But fading national attention on LGBT equality, however, did not convince us that the topic deserved short shrift.
In the first televised debate between the president and his challenger on October 3, there was a single parenthetical reference to allowing lesbians and gay men to serve in the military from President Barack Obama, the first incumbent, and first major party nominee, to embrace marriage rights for people of the same sex. But across the country, a state-by-state struggle has been underway on this issue. Increasingly, LGBT people live in two countries – the states with marriage equality, civil union status, and domestic partner policies, on the one hand, and the rest of the country, where same-sex marriage is contested or banned.
In the light of these changing circumstances, a dozen graduate students and undergraduates fanned out across the country this summer and fall to complement media coverage in both mainstream and niched outlets by capturing the lived experiences of people in LGBT communities. They were out to portray the environment for LGBT people and their families in battleground states, like Virginia, and in places where the debate about these issues got little coverage, like in Michigan or California, where the ongoing conversation about gay rights was rich, contentious, and changing.
The student reporters also spent time with analysts, officials, activists, and an array of neighbors, parents and pastors in the midst of thinking through their changing attitudes. From the pastor of an African-American church in Detroit, shaken by the announcement of President Obama that he would support full marriage equality for LGBT people, to an on-duty military officer in North Carolina forced to consider where she might move if her partner is killed in combat, the reporters placed the discussion of local, state, and national policy into the context that matters most – how real people feel their effects in daily lives.
The students and faculty who launched the Medill Equal Media Project have learned big lessons about how to build on this inaugural run. We’re grateful to the many sources, official and unofficial, who gave us their time and offered their views. We owe the germ of the idea to the Northwestern University student chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, where the idea of such a project was first broached. The momentum was sustained by students who dedicated long hours of reporting, writing, fact-checking, design, and production energy to take us there. Also, of course, we owe a debt to David Freedman, a Medill alum whose generous contribution made it possible for us to get out of the classroom and report on the scene.
Please let us know what you think of the stories. Spread the word about this effort. Point us in the direction of similar projects. And build on what we’ve done.
Camille Beredjick, Editor
Douglas Foster and Karen Springen, Faculty Advisers