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The Kansas City Star Readers’ Representative plays devil’s advocate

Timothy Kincaid

June 29th, 2010

When the Kansas City Star ran a web article about NY gay pride accompanied by a photo of a nude man on a bike in San Francisco, I wrote to the Star to express my discontent. Derek Donovan, the Readers’ Representative responded to clarify how the picture came to be and to give me a little lesson about what is an appropriate illustration for gay pride.

I did not agree.

Here is my less-than-friendly original comment:

Really, KC Star?

The best possible picture to accompany a story about this year’s gay pride parade in New York City was a picture of a nude guy on a bike from last year’s pride in San Francisco? What kind of irresponsible hateful jerk decided to try and trash gay people universally by tying this picture to the entire community? I’m sure he’s really proud of his little homphobic effort

Here is Mr. Donovan’s much-more-polite response:

Dear Mr. Kincaid,

The letters editor shared your note with me, since it pertains to how The Star covers the news. That photo came directly from The Associated Press, where it was posted online automatically. When a Web editor at KansasCity.com noticed it, he removed it. Wire content rotates in and out of KansasCity.com automatically every day without an editor’s hand, as it does on many news sites.

However, I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. That man in the photo was indeed a participant in the pride parade, as were a number of others in skimpy and outlandish costumes. It’s the journalist’s job to document what goes on — and that includes images that some people don’t want to see. A column from the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association says:

“Some photojournalists may feel like ignoring the femme boys, the butch girls and all those drag queens on Rollerblades. That’s just as wrong as making them the entire focus of coverage.”

Full column:

http://www.nlgja.org/publications/articles/dotinga_pride.htm

Some gay people love pride events, and others disdain them. Some are ambivalent. The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics says to “Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.”

The bottom line (no pun intended) is that the man in the photo chose to appear nude in the parade. And again, an editor removed the image when he saw it. I don’t really think the word “homophobic” is applicable here, but I will include your comments in my weekly report to the publisher, vice presidents and the entire newsroom.

Best wishes,
Derek Donovan
Readers’ representative
The Kansas City Star

And this is my rebuttal

Derek,

Thank you for your response. And let me state up front that I am appreciative of the Star’s decision to remove the deceptive picture from accompanying and illustrating your article.

However, in playing devil’s advocate, I think you failed to closely read your own position or apply it to the situation.

Yes, the NGLJA does advise:

“Some photojournalists may feel like ignoring the femme boys, the butch girls and all those drag queens on Rollerblades. That’s just as wrong as making them the entire focus of coverage.”

In other words, don’t color the story to portray a false impression. The man on the bike, as the only picture provided, became the entire focus of coverage. He became the sole image of Gay Pride, regardless of the fact that the article was about the New York gay pride parade – and he was from an entirely different type of gay pride parade 3,000 miles away (New York and San Francisco have sharply different gay cultures and their parades have both different messages and different meaning).

And NGLJA follows that advice with this:

“Photos that only show stereotypical images of gays and lesbians without reflecting the diversity of our community have rightly caused anger for many years,” Poller said. “But at the same time, it’s good to remember what the day is about, what the event feels like. Pride is loud and boisterous and fun, and the published photos should reflect that.”

Was that picture loud, boisterous or fun? No. Only to the person who got a chuckle from tying this image to the gay community as a whole.

And was it honest, true or a fair representation of pride? Again, no.

Readers had no way to know that this man on his bike was extremely atypical for gay pride parades. Indeed, he would not have been allowed to ride nude in the vast overwhelming number of pride parades, including the subject of your article.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics says to “Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.”

This picture did not tell the story of diversity and magnitude. This was not an inclusive photograph showing several floats, a marching band or two, some drag queens, and a few go-go dancers. Rather this was a picture that focused on a single individual and, by default, portrayed him as representative.

Based on the criteria you stated, the AP – and the Star – failed miserably.

And I’m troubled by your failure to see the problem with the decision to use this photograph. This was not an accidental happenstance.

Yes, the man in the photo chose to appear nude in the parade. But someone else chose to photograph him, to put him on the wire, and to allow the picture to represent gay pride.

To understand my point, ask yourself this question: would you not feel shame for accompanying a story about the MLK march or Saint Patrick’s Day parade or the Lotus festival with a picture that sought to stereotype the participants in a negative way? Would you not be embarrassed if the coverage of a Tea Party rally deliberately pictured a person who, say, was missing teeth?

We would recognize these images as attempts to demean. And they would be.

So let’s not pretend that there was no intent on someone’s part to portray gay people and gay pride parades in as outlandish a way as possible. To do so discredits an otherwise credible response.

Again, thank you for your reply. I am taking the liberty of sharing it with my readers.

Timothy Kincaid

Comments

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Paul F
June 29th, 2010 | LINK

Well written Timothy. Please share with us any response you get. (Although I doubt Mr. Donovan will dare follow up after being so thoroughly put in his place.)

TampaZeke
June 29th, 2010 | LINK

It never ceases to amaze me how clueless non-gay people are when it comes to issues of GLBT concerns. I get so tired of having to make analogies to other minority struggles to get otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people to understand why things like this are offensive and unacceptable from a respected news outlet.

Excellent response to the clueless apologist.

Fan of BTB
June 29th, 2010 | LINK

It’s The Kansas CITY Star, based in Kansas City, Missouri, not “Kansas Star.”

Anyway — excellent work on this.

Timothy Kincaid
June 29th, 2010 | LINK

Ooops. Thanks, fan. It’s fixed now.

Rick
June 29th, 2010 | LINK

Well done, Timothy. You’ve hit the nail on the head yet again. Your points are extremely well made. Thank you for your advocacy on behalf of our community.

Ray
June 29th, 2010 | LINK

Not substantively different from the letter to the editor I wrote to the Kansas City Star. Far more eloquent, however.

Damage done, however, by a show of hand, does anyone believe the KCS will ran a retraction, reform their methods?

I thought not. My very own Desert Sun in Palm Springs, CA is just as loose and irresponsible with photos and facts.

Ryan
June 29th, 2010 | LINK

Excellent response. Somehow you kept your anger in check; I sure as hell wouldn’t have been able to. I wonder if you’ll reach him?

Fred in the UK
June 30th, 2010 | LINK

Is it too much to ask that pictures are checked by the web editor before they are posted rather than after?

Paul in Canada
June 30th, 2010 | LINK

Thanks for taking this on, Timothy. Well said and well done!

real Fred in the UK
June 30th, 2010 | LINK

Glad to see someone was so impressed with my monica they’ve actually stolen it. Some time ago in fact.

Blossom
June 30th, 2010 | LINK

Yes, because you are THE one and ONLY person in the UK named Fred, obviously “Fred in the UK” was stolen from you. And because no one else could possibly come up with such a clever and unusual handle. hehehe

But back to topic… nicely done, Timothy, you made your points quite well.

Jerry Sloan
June 30th, 2010 | LINK

Several years ago The Sacramento Bee, a McClatchy paper like the KCS, had the habit of running the most outlandish picture of drag queens they could find in the San Francisco parade.

They ran a picture of a man identified as a drag queen who had a full beard and glitter on his face.

I contacted the Bee’s ombudsperson to inform him the man had been misidentified as he was not a drag queen but in what we call genderfuck and he should have been identified as such.

The ombudsperson got a big kick out of the mistake and made a report to Bee management and since then the Bee has not run a picture of a drag queen but pictures representing more of the majority of the people in the parade both in SF and Sacramento pride celebrations.

Other Fred in the UK
June 30th, 2010 | LINK

My apologies for using your name, I was totally unaware of your existence until now. I would post simply as Fred, but on this site I would likely be assumed to be from somewhere in the U.S. Adding “in the UK” seemed a logical way of preventing this.

I had no intention, or desire, to steal your name or pose as you. My apologies for any annoyance or confusion I have inadvertently caused, both to the real original Fred in the UK and to other commentators. In future I will be posting using this alternative moniker.

CLS
June 30th, 2010 | LINK

I too wrote Mr. Donovan because his answer tended to avoid admitting that the photo was from a year ago. Using an old photo, from a different parade, to illustrate this year’s parade in New York, is questionable ethically.

Surely they had photos from this year and from the same parade, that they could have used.

That said, the media always does this with stories and photos. They pick what will attract attention for them, which means readers and ad revenue. They don’t necessarily pick what is accurate and most news worthy. This is why we get hysterical stories on a regular basis about every possible “fear mongering” campaign you can imagine. Lobby groups know this and use it to their advantage: from Greens shrieking about the melting of the Himalayas to fundies screaming about the dangers of porn to hysterical mothers overstating the “stranger danger” risk.

tina
June 30th, 2010 | LINK

excellent job

Benton Quest
July 1st, 2010 | LINK

I appreciate the “Tea Party” illustration. I look for something that would be illustrative that is not necessarily racial. This is great.

Also, thank you for a well written letter. Sometimes editors need to realize that there are intelligent people who read papers and not assume we can all be dazzled or baffled.

a nony mouse
July 14th, 2010 | LINK

Hi, I actually work for The Star’s web site. No Star editor chose to use that photo — it was added automatically by an Associated Press wire feed. (And for the person who asked, yes, it is too much to ask that photos are checked by beforehand the web editor. We usually have one web editor on duty, and hundreds of photos and stories a day are posted on our site automatically from the wire feed.) The photo was removed the very instant someone here saw it, for the reasons you point out. One photo of a naked dude isn’t a fair representation of the parade, especially since it was a year old. Why a year-old photo got sent out with the story is a complete mystery. You’d have to take that up with The Associated Press.

Also, it doesn’t seem to me that Derek was defending using the photo. That would be absurd, since, again, it wasn’t even from that parade. I think he was just pointing out that there is some division on this within the gay community. (Of which I am a member.) I’ve worked here for a long time, and I can’t remember ever seeing us run a photo of a drag queen in a boa (or something similar) in our local pride coverage. Some people would say that’s a good thing, and some would say it goes too far in an attempt at fair representation.

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