LGBTQ people make up 4.5% of the population, according to Gallup. But are 4.5% of TV news stories devoted to queer and transgender lives?
As the LGBTQ community celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, NewNowNext partnered with Media Matters for America to survey Pride Month coverage at broadcast and cable news networks. In a survey spanning from June 1 to June 14, the progressive research center found that even the most LGBTQ-inclusive television networks would need to more than double their coverage to adequately reflect the community.
To wit, major news broadcasters like CNN and MSNBC would have to increase their reporting LGBTQ issues more than fivefold to boast equal representation. NBC and Fox News would need between 11 to 15 times as much coverage on queer and trans people to achieve parity.
In compiling the report, Laura Keiter, communications director for Media Matters, says that TV news coverage of LGBTQ Pride Month was “sparse and shallow.”
For example, the handful of stories covered over the two-week survey period included a May 30 attack on a lesbian couple while riding a London bus and the Trump administration’s decision to ban U.S. embassies from flying Pride flags during the month of June. However, the murders of black trans women like Chynal Lindsey, Chanel Scurlock, Zoe Spears, and Brooklyn Lindsey were virtually ignored.
“Paired with a dearth of LGBTQ representation in media, this behavior makes TV news complicit in the right-wing effort to erase LGBTQ people and roll back hard-won protections for the community,” Keiter tells NewNowNext.
Media Matters expressed some caveats in its findings. When calculating total broadcast hours—for both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ news coverage—those estimates may include some reaired segments, as well as preempted programming. An example of the latter could include the U.S. French Open airing instead of NBC’s Meet the Press. It, thus, cautions that overall programming estimates are somewhat approximate.
Let’s take a closer look at the numbers.
How did cable news do?
While CNN scheduled more than 264 hours of programming between those dates, just over an hour and 20 minutes of its coverage touched on LGBTQ issues. If research shows that commercials comprise around 15 minutes of every broadcast hour, around 0.6% of CNN’s airtime acknowledged the realities facing LGBTQ Americans today. If the network hopes to accurately reflect America’s queer and trans population, it needs to increase its coverage by a more than sevenfold margin.
Of cable networks surveyed, not a single channel topped the 1% mark.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fox News claimed the least amount of LGBTQ coverage of all cable networks. Just under 45 minutes of its 258 broadcast hours (or about 0.3% of on-air reporting) concerned LGBTQ news. MSNBC fared a bit better in the Media Matters audit. Around an hour and 35 minutes of MSNBC’s airtime, which totaled 248 hours over the period surveyed, mentioned queer and trans topics. That’s roughly 0.8% of its overall news coverage.
Here’s the overall breakdown:
LGBTQ coverage: 80 minutes
Overall reporting: 11,880 minutes (excluding commercials)
Estimate: 0.6% of all coverage
LGBTQ coverage: 95 minutes
Overall reporting: 11,160 minutes (excluding commercials)
Estimate: 0.8% of all coverage
LGBTQ coverage: 45 minutes
Overall reporting: 11,610 minutes (excluding commercials)
Estimate: 0.3% of all coverage
What about broadcast news networks?
The big four news networks varied widely in their coverage of LGBTQ news. ABC boasted the most robust reportage of any network surveyed, with about 1.6% of broadcast hours touching on LGBTQ subjects. CBS followed closely behind at 1.3%.
What’s notable about these broadcasters is that they only aired about 47 minutes of queer and trans coverage between the two of them: ABC with 24 minutes of LGBTQ reporting and CBS with 23 minutes. However, they also air far less programming than a 24-hour cable channel. Combined, CBS and ABC aired 70 hours of news coverage, as opposed to the 512 hours broadcast on CNN and MSNBC.
But even with the fewer broadcast hours devoted to news coverage on the big four networks, some channels still lagged behind the pack. At NBC, just 10 minutes of its 45 overall hours of news coverage dealt with news items specifically affecting queer and trans people. Accounting for commercial breaks, that’s just 0.4%.
FOX aired no LGBTQ coverage at all during the two weeks surveyed. However, Media Matters notes that only Fox News Sunday was eligible for its audit, so it was not formally included in this report.
Overall, no broadcast network aired more than a half hour of LGBTQ news coverage.
Here’s the full breakdown:
LGBTQ coverage: 24 minutes
Overall reporting: 1,485 minutes (excluding commercials)
Estimate: 1.6% of all coverage
LGBTQ coverage: 23 minutes
Overall reporting: 1,665 minutes (excluding commercials)
Estimate: 1.3% of all coverage
LGBTQ coverage: 10 minutes
Overall reporting: 2,025 minutes (excluding commercials)
Estimate: 0.4% of all coverage
And public television?
PBS was at something of a disadvantage compared to its competition. The public broadcaster aired significantly less news programming than either CBS, ABC, or NBC, with just 12 hours of coverage available to survey.
But even with far fewer broadcast hours all but one of the big four networks, it fell solidly in the middle of the pack in Media Matters’ report. Only 4 minutes and 45 seconds of news reporting between June 1 and June 15 addressed the LGBTQ community. Again assuming that 15 minutes of every broadcast hour is commercials, that comes out to around 0.8%. PBS would need almost six times the amount of LGBTQ coverage to reflect the size of America’s queer and trans population.
Here’s the breakdown:
LGBTQ coverage: 4 minutes and 45 seconds
Overall reporting: 450 minutes (excluding commercials)
Estimate: 0.8% of all coverage
According to Media Matters, broadcast and news networks had “ample opportunity to produce meaningful coverage of the issues facing the LGBTQ community” during Pride Month.
During the same two-week period, several pivotal news stories went underreported by major TV broadcasters. A court in Botswana decriminalized sodomy in a historic ruling which could have profound implications for other African nations that take up the issue of whether it should be illegal to be LGBTQ. Layleen Polanco, a black transgender woman, was found dead in her cell two months after she was sent to Rikers Island because she couldn’t post a $200 bail bond.
As Media Matters claimed in an earlier report, broadcast and cable news also neglected to cover the rollbacks of LGBTQ rights under President Donald Trump. Between May 22 to May 31, nearly every single network failed to cover proposed policies from the Trump administration allowing homeless shelters to reject trans women and foster care and adoption agencies to turn away same-sex couples.
Only CNN and Fox News covered those proposals, devoting less than 11 minutes of airtime to those stories in total.
“Media outlets have a responsibility to properly cover the administration’s attacks on LGBTQ rights and to educate their audiences on the detrimental impacts these proposed rules will have on an already vulnerable community,” wrote Alex Paterson, a researcher for the LGBTQ program at Media Matters, at the time.
LGBTQ journalists say the lack of dedicated coverage by major news networks is unacceptable yet also the norm.
“I do not recall a time in my past 35 years in LGBTQ media where the mainstream media, especially broadcast and cable, has done a good job covering the community on an equitable and consistent basis,” Tracy Baim, publisher of the Chicago Reader and co-founder of Windy City News, tells NewNowNext. “Prior to 1984, most media, especially broadcast media, either ignored the community or we wished they would have, because almost all coverage was stereotyped, token, or horrible.”
Although acceptance of the LGBTQ community has grown in recent years, Baim says coverage of queer and trans lives has “never been consistently equitable.” She cites the reduced resources to report on marginalized communities as newsrooms—whether TV, radio, print, or digital—cut staff across the country.
LGBTQ media has been hit particularly hard amid mass layoffs. BuzzFeed’s LGBTQ section is down to one sole editor. Grindr shut down its news site, INTO, in January after just 17 months. OUT has struggled to pay freelancers.
In a widely read piece published in The Outline earlier this month, writer Katelyn Burns claimed she “can count on one hand the number of openly transgender reporters covering the administration for national-level publications,” adding that many journalists (such as herself and The Daily Beast’s Samantha Allen) have “recently parted ways with full-time jobs on the beat.”
While Media Matters did note that coverage of LGBTQ issues did increase somewhat during Pride Month, Joseph Fenity, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association of LGBTQ Journalists (NLGJA), says broadcast and cable networks have an opportunity to play a key role in addressing the lack of dedicated reporting on queer and trans lives. They can do so, he says, by covering the community fairly, equity, and responsibly all year round.
“It’s time for American media to continue expanding LGBTQ coverage beyond Pride Month,” he tells NewNowNext. “There are still countless stories to be told; the focus needs to be more than temporary.”