âSex,â Katherine Franke, a law professor at Columbia University,Â toldÂ theÂ New York Times, âis a confounding term in our culture, in our language and certainly in the law.â As the Supreme Court opens a new session, its justices are set to tackle the conundrum of defining âsex.â At issue is whetherÂ Title VIIÂ of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employment discrimination âbecause of sex,â applies to gay, lesbian, and transgender employees.
There areÂ many reasonsÂ why LGBTQ Americans deserve federal protection against employment and workplace discrimination. Simplest and most glaring:Â In a majority of states, it is perfectly legal for an employer to refuse to hire someone, or to fire them, simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In its preview ofÂ Bostock v. Clayton County,Â Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda, andÂ Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC,Â SCOTUSBlogÂ describedÂ the trio of cases as âsome of the biggestâ of the Courtâs forthcoming term. The Courtâs decisions will be consequential forÂ how secure all workersâwhether straight or queer; transgender, cisgender, or nonbinaryâare in their jobs, because the cases will also test a 30-year-old decision thatÂ established gender stereotypingÂ as a form of sex discrimination.
It is distressing that corporate news media have not deemed employment protections for LGBTQ workers to be newsworthy until the Supreme Court decided to hear these cases, but it is no surprise to us. The inadequate news coverage fits a pattern we found in a study of several hundred news reports on LGBTQ issues published by four major newspapers between January 2016 and November 2018. The study, âStonewalled: Establishment Mediaâs Silence on the Trump Administrationâs Crusade against LGBTQ People,â appears inÂ Censored 2020: Through the Looking GlassÂ (Seven Stories Press, 2019).
Our study concluded that, during that period, corporate news media consistently muted, marginalizedÂ or ignored the steady rollback of LGTBQ protections and rights under the Trump administration. Another recent study, focused on television news coverage, reachedÂ similar conclusions: Since Trump became president, news coverage of LGBTQ issues has âall but disappeared.â
From the 2016 presidential campaign through the midterm elections of 2018, we found that corporate news coverage of LGBTQ issues focused on two main issues: the presidentâs proposal to ban transgender people from military service and so-called âbathroom bills.â Together these two topics accounted for more than forty percent of all LGBTQ-focused news articles in theÂ New York Times,Â Washington Post,Â Los Angeles TimesÂ andÂ Wall Street Journal. By contrast, during the same time period, the independent news outlets in our study covered a much wider range of issues facing LGBTQ Americans, devoting less than 10% of their coverage to the proposed transgender military ban and âbathroom bills.â
Based on the findings from our study, we forecast three trends in news coverage of the Supreme Courtâs hearing of the Title VII anti-discrimination cases. The first pattern we expect to hold is a positive, encouraging one; the remainder are causes for concern.
News coverage will center LGBTQ voices.
LGBTQ peopleâincluding spokespersons for leading LGBTQ rights organizations, such as Human Rights Campaign, Lambda LegalÂ and the National Center for Transgender Equalityâwill achieve what sociologist William Gamson calls âmedia standing.âÂ Standing, in Gamsonâs use of the term, goes beyond being covered or mentioned in the news; the figures that journalists quote directly are positioned as agents whose insights and actions matter.
In our study, we found that at least 7.5% of quoted sources identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Although the actual numbers of LGBTQ people in the United States are difficult to determine, that figure isÂ higher thanÂ recent estimatesÂ of the nationâs adult population indicate, suggesting that journalists are making good faith efforts to represent âthe diversity of opinion and experience within the LGBTQ community,â as recommended by Sarah Kate Ellis in her introduction to theÂ GLAAD Media Reference Guide.
This point about the inclusion of LGBTQ voices may seem obvious, even trivial, but a long history of systemic prejudice against LGBTQ people by the nationâs most prominent news outlets makes the achievement of media standing by LGBTQ people noteworthy. As recently as 1996, for example, Edward Alwood, author ofÂ Straight News, concluded that U.S. news media ârarely focusâ on the leaders of gay and lesbian rights organizations.
As coverage of the LGBTQ cases argued before the Supreme Court will show, in 2019 news organizations have improved in this regard.
Corporate news will provide limited historical context for understanding these cases.
News stories are geared toward current events and journalists often fail to provide the long-term historical view necessary to fully understand those events.
If news coverage frames theÂ Bostock,Â Altitude ExpressÂ andÂ Harris Funeral HomesÂ cases in terms of the history of civil liberties in the United States, this will be due to the advocacy of civil liberties organizations and their allies.
In October 2018, for example, the Trump administration proposed toÂ define gender as a biological fact, determined at birth. In our data, we found that spokespeople for civil liberties groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, articulated their opposition by linking protections of and inclusion for LGBTQ people to the history of the civil rights movement, including the racial integration of the military by President Truman in 1948, and the desegregation of schools, as mandated byÂ Brown v. Board of EducationÂ in 1954.
Had the newspaper articles in our study not included the voices of civil liberties advocates, readers would have had no historical context with which to make sense of the Trump administrationâs audacious proposal.
To what extent will news coverage of the Supreme Court cases on employment discrimination be enhanced by historical perspective? Our study suggests that the answer to this question depends on whether that coverage features the voices of civil liberties organizations.
Corporate news coverage will whitewash anti-LGBTQ advocatesâ most virulent positions.
In our study, establishment newspapers frequently quoted Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, as a newsworthy opponent of state laws and ordinances that would prohibit LGBTQ discrimination.
Quotations published by theÂ New York TimesÂ andÂ Wall Street Journal, for example, portrayed Perkins as a fair partisan, engaged in legitimate debate, but failed to inform readers of PerkinsâÂ more virulent anti-LGBTQ statementsÂ or that, in 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center listed theÂ Family Research CouncilÂ as anÂ anti-gay hate group.
Similarly,Â Media MattersÂ has documentedÂ how establishment media outlets have highlighted Mike Penceâs civility with gay men in public and professional meetings while downplaying his long record of anti-LGBTQ positions, first in Congress, then as Governor of Indiana, and now as Vice President.
Numerous studies show thatÂ hate crimes against LGBTQ peopleâincluding violence that is oftenÂ deadlyâis on the rise, while acceptance of LGBTQ people in everyday situations isÂ eroding. But corporate news coverage of the trio of Supreme Court cases is likely to downplay these realities, in part by depicting the opponents of employment protections for LGBTQ Americans as reasonable and principled figuresâeven when they have taken virulent homophobic or transphobic positions in the past. Call it the Tony Perkins Syndrome.
At its best, journalism provides insights into complex issues, puts news into context, and highlights abuses of authority. We would be happy for establishment news outlets to report on the Supreme Courtâs LGBTQ cases in ways that prove our critical predictions wrong. But, based on our study of recent news coverage, we expect otherwise.
The Supreme Court is not likely to rule on the trio of LGBTQ employment cases until June 2020. We do not have to wait until then to judge the establishment mediaâs coverage of crucial LGBTQ issues, or to hold news organizations accountable when they fail to provide the kind of coverage we need to act as informed members of our communities.
This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on October 8, 2019. Reprinted with permission.