Media Studies and Journalism

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Media studies explores the production, nature, and consequences of electronic and print media messages and involves a highly interdisciplinary approach, drawing from the fields of communication, journalism, sociology, anthropology, history, and literary studies. It utilizes a number of different theoretical perspectives and research methodologies, including empirical and textual analysis, behavioral-and ethnographic-based studies of media impact, and empirical and historical case studies of media production processes. What unites these disparate approaches and efforts is an agreement on research as a critical project whose aim is to raise questions about the role of media in society.

The LGBT movement in the United States has emerged in the context of a rapidly expanding and powerful media environment, and media images are an important source of information in defining LGBT identity and community. Historians have used media sources to document the growth of the LGBT community. Although not properly a part of media studies, such work explores the close relationship between the media and the developing sexual communities in America. George Chauncey (1994) showed in his pre–World War II history of gay New York that while the mainstream press typically ignored the LGBT community, tabloids and neighborhood periodicals covered the emergence of the gay communities in Greenwich Village and Harlem. John D'Emilio's 1983 history of the post–World War II homophile movement chronicles the interaction between mainstream media coverage and the development of the LGBT media, which countered many of the negative images. As he notes, positive mainstream media visibility was a goal of the many homophile activists. Marc Stein's history of the LGBT community in Philadelphia (2000) and Gary Atkins's history of Seattle (2003) draw upon the local press coverage and show the important role of both visibility in the mainstream media and the establishment of a community LGBT media played in community building.

Within the field of media studies since the 1980s, the study of LGBT people and the media has emerged as a defined subfield with its own literature and research agenda. The basic research questions concern how LGBT media images are created and what are the consequences. The field has moved from an earlier focus on criticizing media invisibility and homophobic representations to a concern about the nature and significance of seemingly affirmative LGBT media images.

One major area of research is LGBT representations in the news media. As news media purports to give a factual account of social reality, key topics in research are the nature of authoritative news sources, the process of news gathering and writing, the frames used to interpret events, issues of balance and "objective" reporting, and overall questions of social power associated with the construction of meanings and news narratives. Prior to the 1960s, news media images of LGBT people were typically shaped by narratives of crime and perversion. Edward Alwood's study Straight News (1996) provides a general history of how, starting in the 1960s, major news organizations such as the New York Times and the television networks responded to LGBT media activists, LGBT media professionals within the news organizations, and growing LGBT political activity, and how they began framing the LGBT community as a minority seeking equality and inclusion into the social mainstream. Timothy Cook and Kevin Hartnett's 2001 empirical analysis of network broadcast news in the 1970s documents how a 1977 Dade County, Florida, referendum provided the LGBT political movement with a presence in national television news. James Kinsella (1989) and Paula Treichler (1987), however, showed how news reporting in the 1980s of the AIDS epidemic revitalized many of the homophobic narratives of gay male sexuality as a sickness. Marion Meyer's 1993 study of coverage of the gays-in-the-military issue in the 1990s revealed a male, heterosexist news narrative reinforcing homophobic myths and stereotypes. While election year coverage on National Public Radio in the 1990s of the LGBT community grew more positive, Kevin G. Barnhust (2003) found a greater reliance on professional LGBT sources and voices to represent the community and a growth in the number and intensity of negative comments to provide news balance. Overall, while the amount of positive news coverage has increased, news narratives still have yet to give LGBT concerns the same legitimacy and status as those of other minorities.

Although entertainment media typically is not given the same authority as news narratives, given its ubiquity and popularity, media scholars regard it as a discourse with far more powerful consequences. The economic and legal environment and audience characteristics are different among the major entertainment media of film, broadcast television, and cable television. Typically, film and cable television have more freedom than broadcast television in depicting LGBT characters and topics. While LGBT content was evident in film since its early days, prior to the late 1970s, there were few neutral, much less positive LGBT images in broadcasting entertainment. However, media scholars like Alexander Doty (1993) have explored the rich possibilities existing for queer readings of nominally straight characters and situations in this period of broadcasting. Responding to LGBT activists, entertainment professionals in the late 1970s began to incorporate more positive LGBT images in programming, and by the late 1990s LGBT visibility had increased.

LGBT visibility on broadcast television is always a few steps behind film and cable television, and breakthroughs in LGBT images occurred first in films like Boys in the Band (1970), Making Love (1982), and Torch Song Trilogy (1988), and on cable television shows such as And the Played On (1993). While media scholars happily acknowledge the decline in explicitly homophobic characterizations in the entertainment media, they nonetheless regard the new visibility as fraught with problems. In spite of the increase in positive images, the mainstream entertainment media is programmed for a heterosexual audience. Popular television talk shows typically represent LGBT sexuality as marginal. Although a number of popular prime-time shows have LGBT central characters, (for example, Ellen and Will and Grace), such portrayals typically present a narrow image of LGBT sexuality and community that does not challenge dominant heterosexual assumptions. And while cable television shows such as Queer as Folk present a broader image of gay male sexuality and community, such programming is aimed more at creating a specific viewing audience demographic (young, white, urban, typically male) and less at reflecting the broad characteristics and concerns of the LGBT community. Nonetheless, research by Rodger Streitmatter (2003) suggests that such images have a positive benefit both for LGBT and non-LGBT adolescents.

The LGBT Media

Along with the study of mainstream news and entertainment media, media scholars have also examined the LGBT media. Streitmatter (1995) chronicles the rise of the LGBT press from the early 1950s to its current stage, showing its important role in the formation of LGBT identity and community. On a smaller scale, there has been also the growth of LGBT broadcast programming. LGBT-based community media have been instrumental in community development, both in the past when mainstream media ignored the community and currently in providing a particular LGBT perspective.

Because much of both the mainstream and community media is advertising based, another area of scholarly interest is the development of the LGBT market for advertisers and its impact on media images. As the LGBT market becomes more attractive to advertisers, LGBT media representations are being shaped by the need to reach those groups with the most disposable income, primarily white, Anglo, middle-class, young males. As a result, LGBT community media are functioning less as a "minority media" providing representation of the broad community and more as a lifestyle/market niche media, assembling primarily one segment of the LGBT community as its audience. As a result, many segments of the LGBT community are again becoming "invisible" or marginalized. A focus on LGBT concerns and topics continues to grow as an area of research within media studies. The major media studies scholarly organizations, such as the National Communication Association, the International Communication Association, and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, have LGBT studies division and LGBT research panels at their annual meetings. The LGBT advocacy organization Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) provides funding for research through its Center for the Study of Media and Society.


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Fred Fejes

see alsoadvertising; film and video studies; newspapers and magazines; television.

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Media Studies and Journalism

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