This last week’s, at times outrageous, reporting by news media on the barring of gay donors by the South African National Blood Service reflects a startling lack of responsibility and ethics on the part of some journalists and news outlets.
The Saturday Star’s front page headline of “Gays Launch Blood War – Hundreds of Homosexuals Lie About Their Sexual Orientation And Donated Blood” is one of the most shocking examples of hysteria-mongering and hate speech I’ve come across in the mainstream media. While lesbians and gays have often been misrepresented and maligned in many, usually subtle, ways in the past, the sensationalism of this kind of headline is blatantly offensive, almost certainly inaccurate and may well endanger lives.
This is representational stereotyping of the worst kind and may well stir up homophobia and potentially lead to retaliatory violence against homosexuals. Now into our second decade of progressive democracy, we continue to find lesbians and gays lumped together as a terrifying homogenous mass. Apart from the utter irresponsibility of the headline and the paranoid nature of much of the coverage, a few vital questions need to be answered by journalists and their editors.
On what basis has the Gay and Lesbian Alliance (GLA) – the organisation that made a “call” for homosexuals to donate blood en-mass quoted in this and other articles – been given the credibility it has in the media? Has any journalist or newspaper actually checked the bona fides of this organisation? The GLA is known within the gay community as an illegitimate and shadowy pseudo-organisation, apparently consisting of no more than one publicity-hungry man (who never seems to appear in public) and his fax machine.
The GLA has never been able to prove any of its assertions of any membership or support. It has no credibility whatsoever and repeated attempts by various gay community organisations and media to interact with the GLA have been ignored. In fact not a single lesbian or gay man I know has ever met a member of the GLA – or that mysterious voice of the GLA, David Baxter.
The Saturday Star further writes that an “estimated 300 men complied with a plea by the GLA to donate blood.” Estimated by whom? Is this a number that the GLA came up with? Who and how could anyone estimate this number if these men apparently donated blood confidentially? Why is the quoted figure of “65% of the gay men who donated blood… are unsure whether they are HIV-positive” given any credibility? How can any of these numbers be verified by the GLA and how did the journalist check these facts?
On a News24 article on Sunday, this is all reported as fact, when it is stated that “About 120 members of the Johannesburg-based Gay and Lesbian Alliance (GLA) on Friday donated blood at clinics in response to a statement by the South African National Blood Service (SANBS) asking gays not to do so.” Again, no source or basis for this statement is given. To so liberally use these kinds of conjectured statistics by a suspect source is entirely irresponsible. This is hack-journalism run amuck.
I would be so bold as to suggest that no such homicidal group of gay blood-donating-men exists; and that the GLA’s ‘call’ was in fact not heeded by anyone, bar perhaps a lunatic or two. This is a true non-event – a hoax- that has been given sensationalistic front page coverage.
Consider the hypothetical absurdity of a man starting a campaign to bar women from voting: He comes up with a name for his organisation – perhaps the Men Against Women Alliance – and begins to issue press statements claiming to represent the male community and asserting that the organisation has hundreds of thousands of members. Few would take this seriously. Sadly this has not been the case with the GLA who has suckered the media, with their preconceptions and unconscious “us and them” mentality towards gay people.
I suspect that, in addition to a general lack of sensitivity to gay and lesbian issues and realities, much of this has to do with the nature of news organisations that report press releases verbatim without checking their legitimacy. These are rewritten by journalists who largely simply embellish what is already there for publication. The story is then, in turn, picked up by the international media and news feeds, and an untruth travels the world as though it were fact.
Every single legitimate South African gay community organisation and media outlet has publicly discredited the GLA in past letters, press releases and statements to the mainstream press. These statements have been ignored and the mainstream media continues to write about the GLA as though it actually represents a gay constituency. What will the cost be for this sloppy, lazy and unprofessional journalism and who will take responsibility?
This reporting has resulted in the real issue of rationally debating the appropriateness and validity of barring sexually active gay men from donating blood, (in the midst of an often desperate need for it), falling by the wayside. Who wins? No one – except perhaps the shareholders and owners of newspapers.
It appears as though journalists and their editors really do see fit to favour sensationalism at the cost of truth, and in doing so endanger lives and a community that already lives on the knife edge of social tolerance.
You have egg on your face. And possibly, even blood on your hands.
Shame on you.