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Posts for June, 2010

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