By Mark F. Johnson, Media Director, NGLTF
The headlines titillated us from news stands, while the daily news clips and sound bites lured us to our televisions every night.
Often, based on the headlines or sound bites associated with news reports, one would think that alleged serial killer Andrew Cunanan, committed the murders because he was gay.
Gay Serial Killer one headline dubbed him. Several others suggested that the alleged killer was on a "revenge binge" because of a possible HIV-positive status. Then there were the stories that "warned" that he might be dressing as a woman to elude capture. Nearly every conceivable gay stereotype came out of the closet and onto the front pages or television news during media coverage of Cunanan's run from the law. So far about the only negative gay stereotype that hasn't been pegged to Cunanan is that he was a child molester.
Clearly, the press still has much to learn about reporting on the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community.
But, were reporters wrong to point out the fact that Andrew Cunanan was gay? Should they have de-emphasized the fact that he was apparently supported by wealthy older men? Was it improper for them to seek out representatives of the LGBT community to give the "gay perspective" on the story? Was it in bad taste for the media to offer a "glimpse" into the gay world as a backdrop to news reports?
The answer to all these questions is a qualified "no." The fact that Cunanan was gay and was a well-known "party boy" were factors that were important to the story. The press rightfully acknowledged this.
It was appropriate and even fair for the media to come to members of the LGBT community as they researched the story or looked for commentary and reaction. It was also appropriate for the media to put the story in some kind of context for most of mainstream America to better understand it. The media was doing its job.
But many times the media was faulty in doing its job or simply overdid it. For example, the press often pandered to many stereotypes of gay men in attempts to "analyze" his motives or offer a "peek into" the gay community. Also, the press focused too much on the LGBT community and how it reacted to the killings---even after it was clear that not all the murders were of gay people and that anybody could be at risk. There was too strong an association with Cunanan's alleged crimes and the gay world.
An example of the press at its worst? The media went too far in its efforts to determine Cunanan's HIV status. Instead of letting the issue drop with his death, one paper leaked the results of an HIV test done on Cunanan after an autopsy. So now that the "HIV revenge binge" theory has been torpedoed, what will an inquiring press turn to next in their quest to find a motive?
The media missed an opportunity to raise the consciousness of the public around issues concerning the LGBT community to a new level. Violence against members of our community is unfortunately a routine thing. Most of these stories never make the news. Many of them have resulted in death. Currently, there are at least five serial killers of gay men still at-large.
Members of the press could have demonstrated that they had finally learned the lesson that lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered persons are just as good or bad, talented or incapable, responsible or irresponsible, beautiful or ugly as anybody else. Instead, they showed that they either know very little about us or that they're too willing to give into the sordid, lurid, titillating images that remain prevalent.
I wasn't surprised that the media took this route. This story had all the elements of a highly-spiced hard-boiled drama thriller. It was guaranteed to capture the interest of most Americans and certainly the media, which would play it for all that it could. Even if the central characters in this drama had been straight the story would still have an element of titillation--perhaps the media would have looked for a drug connection or a Mafia tie-in. But there would be fewer negative stereotypes associated with the story and the type of speculation and innuendo raised in the reporting would never have been broached if we were not talking about so many gay people.
The LGBT community must realize that the media is a business. They have a product to sell and they will sell it by making us all repeat customers. This is best done by keeping people "hooked." At the same time, members of the LGBT community must make sure that when the story relates to us, the media holds itself to the same standards it would if the adjective gay were replaced with any other. They must be careful not to link things that should not be linked.
Gay people aren't alleged to have committed the murders, Andrew Cunanan is. That he was gay is only important insofar as most of the alleged victims were gay. Otherwise, that fact should not have taken on a life of its own.
Mediacracy is a monthly column that analyzes and discusses the reporting of gay-related news stories in the national media. The column is written by Mark F. Johnson, Media Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.