It's been ten years since news of the violent murder of Matthew Shepard first made headlines. For many weeks following those initial reports, coverage of the Laramie, Wyoming tragedy flooded major television stations and news outlets from coast to coast.
It was undoubtedly the most visible anti-LGBT hate crime in this country’s history.
To this day, Matthew's story continues to be told and his death memorialized - the most widely recognized tribute being Moisés Kaufman’s internationally acclaimed play, “The Laramie Project,” which was later adapted into a GLAAD Media Award winning film for HBO. To mark the 10th year of remembrance, Kaufman has updated the play with an epilogue. The new version will be published and used in future performances.
One would think that in light of the widespread coverage of Matthew Shepard's story and the conversations it caused on a national level and in our local communities, subsequent coverage of hate crimes against LGBT people would have increased.
Sadly, this is not the case.
Many times when LGBT people are attacked for being who they are, the media coverage - if there's any at all - is limited. So far this week, GLAAD has highlighted just a few cases (Anthony Hergesheimer, Nakhia Williams and Sean Kennedy) that demonstrate how hard getting coverage of anti-LGBT hate crimes can be and the impact the media can have when they actually do provide coverage.
In the few cases where an anti-LGBT hate crime has risen to the national level of awareness, we often see problematic language and assumptions in the media's coverage.
Take for example the coverage of Lawrence King's murder. Earlier this year, the brutal and senseless premeditated murder of 15-year-old King became the most widely covered hate crime of the year.
On a Friday in February, Lawrence, an openly gay student from Oxnard, California, was shot and murdered by a fellow classmate. The attacker brought a gun into school and killed Lawrence because of King’s orientation.
When the news of the murder first broke, GLAAD urged the media to report on the intersection of anti-gay bullying and violence. When the Associated Press published a story which unfairly assigned blame to King for "flirting," we called upon the Associated Press to reexamine the way it had covered the story.
Then, one of the most visible stories about the murder, a Newsweek feature article titled “Young, Gay and Murdered," was published. The article received harsh criticism from many who viewed it as, similar to the AP story, blaming the victim. From the Newsweek article (emphasis added):
Larry King was, admittedly, a problematical test case: he was a troubled child who flaunted his sexuality and wielded it like a weapon—it was often his first line of defense. But his story sheds light on the difficulty of defining the limits of tolerance.
After collecting concerns from the community, GLAAD met with Newsweek to discuss them and provide feedback. The meeting was productive and Newsweek later published a follow up article that included many of the responses people had left for the newsmagazine after the article's publication:
The article drew a massive response online--more than 4,000 comments were posted through the week. Many responded to reporter Ramin Setoodeh's assertion that Larry "was a troubled child who flaunted his sexuality and wielded it like a weapon."
Yes, he was a flamboyant kid who wore high heels and makeup. But many commenters felt this characterization suggested that Larry deserved to die.
Los Angeles based writer and attorney Peter DelVecchio also delved into the Newsweek criticisms in a blog post at The Bilerico Project.
The Newsweek LGBT sources interviewed were uniformly dismayed by the piece, believing it represented King as being responsible for his own murder. Ryan referred to a "tone of blaming the victim," (a charge she leveled against media handling of violence against LGBT youth generally).
The Newsweek article "was framed in a way . . . that justifies violent action by people that is in line with the gay panic defense argument," said Cathy Renna, managing partner of Renna Communications, a public interest communications firm focusing on LGBT issues.
"It was very close to blaming the victim . . .," said Kevin Jennings, founder and executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a national education organization focused on safe schools.
And recently, GLAAD secured an op-ed in the Ventura County Star highlighting the common threads linking the Shepard and King tragedies.
As candlelight vigils and benefits take place across the country this week in remembrance of the ten years passed since Matthew Shepard’s murder, we also remember countless others like Lawrence King and urge the media to increase responsible coverage of hate crimes against LGBT people.