I like to think of myself as a responsible journalist. I choose words carefully, with an analytical awareness of the power they carry. So why would I write such a headline for this blog post? I am following the example set by the Jamaica media to illustrate just how irresponsible it is when it comes to reporting on sensitive topics.
Journalists write the first draft of history (I forget who said that, either Heidegger or Max Weber), so time is of the essence. Especially in a 24/7 news cycle. We are going to make mistakes. We are going to select the wrong word or misspell someone’s name or create an inflammatory story, even with the best of intentions. But even under the pressure of deadlines, we must be governed by a set of ethics and standards that respect the people and situations we write about.
Here in Jamaica, however, editors at both of the main newspapers appear to disregard this responsibility when it comes to writing about issues relating to homosexuals, all-sexuals and transgender people. The situation is so egregious that a lawyer and human rights activist is taking legal action against the Jamaica Observer.
Reporters routinely write about a group of “miscreant” gays who, in their eyes, cause havoc and harm in the corporate area. It is a fact that a group of marginalized (many of whom are homeless and victims themselves) people at times harass others, however, the way in which the newspapers cover this issue is sensational, disrespectful and inflammatory.
On Sunday, as people reveled at Bacchanal (a road march with floats, soca music, costumes and dancing) a group of individuals were dancing. The Observer referred to them as “cross-dressers”, the Gleaner as “alleged gays.” Even as everyone enjoyed themselves, this situation devolved so much that the police had to fire shots to break up the crowd, a store was damaged and a few people were injured.
This was clearly a serious, dangerous situation. However, we do not know the facts other than what the reporters delivered. The story was portrayed such that a group of men, possibly gay and possibly dressed in what people would traditionally regard as women’s clothing, were dancing provocatively. Apparently, this bothered other celebrants, despite the fact that this is what you do at Bacchanal. In other words, this group was behaving like every other person there. However, it seems some people took issue with what this particular group of men were doing and started harassing them. We don’t have enough factual accuracy to know who is to blame. Probably both sides are, to different degrees, but dancing provocatively does not seem to be enough of an affront to deserve a violent confrontation.
At issue is not only the unnecessary violence, but also the way in which reporters portrayed the incident. Do the reporters know for a fact that these men are gay? Do they know for a fact that they are cross-dressers? I suspect not. Does this even matter? Why are these facts relevant? I argue that the facts, once verified, are indeed relevant, given the level of homophobia in Jamaica. But if these facts are reported free of context and sensitivity, they become dangerous in that they heighten the tension and reinforce stereotypes.
Witness the Observer’s statement: “The melée was sparked by the actions of the gay men who — mostly dressed in skimpy, tight-fitting outfits — gyrated to the soca music blasting from music trucks while showing off acrobatic moves.” No. In fact, the “melee’ was sparked by the first individual who threw something.
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