Portraying gays, lesbians and bisexuals

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The problem with statistical reports is that there's usually too many numbers in them. That's possibly why my initial eagerness quickly wanes soon after I start ploughing through them.

From a journalistic perspective, that's possibly a foolhardy admission, but it is transparent and it's authentic. Two of the key words which emerge from my reading of the BBC's survey into the portrayal of lesbians, gays and bisexuals.

The subject area isn't boring necessarily. It is of personal interest to me. I am a member of that 'community' myself. The cause of my declining enthusiasm, however, might be that finding a headline message is so very difficult - just as it is unfair to treat such an audience 'group' as a homogenous community (a point the report stresses).

The BBC's reporting on the survey investigating portrayal sought the responses of 11,400 adults. The study also included 126 hours of UK television across various networks. Thirty-seven per cent of respondents said that homosexuality on the BBC was "honest, fair and reflected real life". A high 25% flagged up the continued use of stereotypes in portrayal across genres.

It's interesting to see how the press has covered it. The Guardian leads on how "one in five are uncomfortable" with the portrayal of lesbians, gays and bisexuals. The Mirror goes for the inclusive and benign aspiration that the "BBC should show gays positively". In contrast, the Daily Mail reckons the BBC has been told to "produce more gay scenes and stop using stereotypes" - and juxtaposes the opening paragraph of the story with a picture of John Inman playing Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served?; a character not seen on television for at least 15 years.

The latter headline isn't completely accurate. The report - the first of its kind to assess the BBC's contribution amongst other broadcasters' output - underlines some important points about portrayal, not least the importance of context. On the use of stereotypes, respondents registered that they were acceptable in genres such as comedy so long as the intent was clear and that across the output as a whole balance was provided by depicting lesbians, gays and bisexuals in a non-stereotypical way. Which is - no disrespect to anyone on the working group given their eight months effort - hardly surprising given the BBC's keenness on balance.

The report provides other pointers - or at least a good primer - into audience reactions to portrayal on air and online, but what about news specifically?

Unsurprisingly, audience expectations are clearer, making editorial and production decisions easier in some respects. On news and current affairs, the report concludes:

"The particular issues in this respect centre on the need for careful and consistent use of language, tone and context-setting, to ensure impartiality and avoid negative inference."

Impartiality - the overriding message here - underlines one of BBC journalism's key values; with a reminder of the importance of authenticity. In other words, don't include a story in the running order purely because it's a 'gay story' (whatever that is exactly). And, assuming the story makes it past that check, make sure the depiction is fair, authentic and balanced. You know, a bit like news as a whole really. Audiences can spot quotas and cliches a mile off. So avoid them.

What hasn't been picked up by the press - almost certainly because it isn't easily translatable into a headline - is the contribution positive role models play in communicating a message to all audiences. And it's this which raises some interesting questions for those rather callously referred to as 'the talent'.

A debate held this week at the BBC's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group, BBC Pride, discussed how presenters making their sexuality known to the audience indirectly send out a positive message to 'the community' and the heterosexual audience too. Such incidental value is as important as landmark dramas or 'gay storylines' in soaps.

But how can a journalist successfully do that whilst maintaining their necessarily impartial role in telling a story and quite understandably wishing to keep personal identity out of their work? Shouldn't they retain the right to maintain a certain amount of privacy? Does their on-screen presence mean there's an expectation or hope that they'll send out a positive message to the audience?

It is a difficult line to tread, reflecting the difficulty inherent in interpreting statistical reports about members of an audience group which - like any audience group - don't conform to stereotypical views themselves.

But one 'case study' might act as a starting point. Sports presenter Clare Balding's recent complaint about Sunday Times' reviewer AA Gill's reference to her as "a dyke on a bike" was upheld by the Press Complaints Commission. Balding's action illustrates how a presenter can ensure an authentic and transparent image outside the confines of a television screen. Whilst negative in origin, the outcome was undoubtedly positive.

Like the survey respondents' call for more incidental portrayal of lesbians, gays and bisexuals, it may be that the smaller, incidental actions on the part of pan-media 'talent' could have the greatest impact on positive portrayal in future. It may well be that example which helps influence future coverage in running orders.

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