Last week, NPR featured a story that discussed gay conversion therapy. NPR’s presentation of the therapy earned a lot of heated feedback from listeners, due to its unsuccessful attempt at showing the therapy in a “balanced” fashion.
The problem with NPR’s story is that the reporter tried to take a so-called “balanced” approach to the fringe and extremist nature of gay conversion therapy. Respected authorities on physical and mental health, such as the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association, soundly reject the practice. The therapy is not a mainstream, normal or widely practiced, and doctors and psychologists say it can do irreparable psychological harm.
NPR is not unusual in its treatment of anti-LGBT organizations and practices. Often, mainstream media will quote extremist organizations, like the American Family Association, to balance out progressive views in a story, especially if the story involves LGBT equality. While these same news organizations shy away from giving platforms to white supremacy groups or the Westboro Baptist Church, they somehow think it’s OK to call up hateful organizations like the AFA and ask for a quote.
NPR’s listeners let the news organization know that they were unhappy – one listener (rather hilariously) asked if it would next feature a story debating women’s right to vote. NPR defended itself by saying that it didn’t feel the need to point out how extreme the practice of gay conversion therapy is. But by downplaying the extremist nature of the practice, NPR skirted the real issue at stake. The story gave equal air time to two men who had undergone the therapy – one who claimed it was successful and the other who did not – and reported as if the issue was still currently up for debate in mainstream circles. The story presented the fact that the vast majority of people who have ever undertaken such extremist therapy have not been magically converted into heterosexuals as merely a viewpoint. We are in troubling times when facts are considered opinions.
NPR’s problem is the same as many other mainstream news organizations: A problem of authority. NPR clearly did not feel it had the authority to label such extremism what it was: extreme.
The field of journalism is undergoing a hurricane of change right now. Journalists are no longer the authority of information, because information is available everywhere. At the moment, extremist news organizations – like right-wing Fox News – are the authority in the field, not because their product is worthwhile, but because they have the highest ratings. The days of sitting at the dinner table and watching a trusted male news anchor deliver the news – and a reasonable judgment on what it all meant – are long gone. Today’s news networks know that the more emotional and illogical the content, the higher the ratings. Fox, who is excellent at selling emotionalism masquerading as news, has gone out of its way to attack other news organizations for being too liberal. As a result, news organizations have cowered. They are afraid to be too authoritative with their news stories, lest they be accused of bias.
This problem isn’t going to change anytime soon. We hope you feel empowered to ask journalists why anti-LGBT extremists are OK to quote but other extremists clearly aren’t. Journalists should never be afraid to point out that equality is always a mainstream ideal.