When News Reporting Adds Fuel to the Fire

When I moved to Virginia about 17 years ago, I learned that at Thanksgiving it’s not uncommon to fry your turkey. Deep fry. I thought, “Ok, that’s going to be a lot of oil.” Then I thought, “Ok, I can do this.” So I watched many videos on “how to fry your turkey” and discovered that most of them were warnings based on people setting fire to their garage.fire, turkey deepfryer

I was reminded of how easy it is to add fuel to the fire when I recently spoke at a Christian university in Canada and the news coverage that led up to and followed the event.

There is so much that could be written about how news coverage is done today. I have seen very good and accurate coverage, and I have read material that makes me scratch my head. I don’t have time and interest in delving into a full-blown discussion of this topic, but I did want to share an interesting development.

One reporter wrote an article about me coming to speak at the university. It actually begins with a premise from a study I conducted that sets the article in the wrong direction at the outset. The article frames the discussion as though I am discussing or advocating conversion therapy to the undergraduates there. So on the one hand the coverage does not reflect more recent, documented concerns on my part about conversion therapy with minors. I since sent more current information to the reporter for her future reference. On the other hand, for what it’s worth, the focus of my public presentations in chapel and in the community were on gender dysphoria. I was surprised this wasn’t even mentioned in the article and I think would have been readily accessible. (As an aside, the person who is quoted expressing concerns about me being on campus is a self-proclaimed activist and perhaps one of the least likely to provide an objective perspective.)

To the reporter’s credit, she did reach out to me, and I can get behind the idea that she wanted to offer a balanced article. However, my experience has been that reporters often let me know what they are writing about, and given the number of requests from media received here, I do not always reply, especially if I do not know what they are covering. As I mentioned, I sent her more information that might help her have a clearer picture of who I am and the work I do, the various lines of research that I have going, and so on, which often does not fit neatly into the current cultural and political polarization surrounding sexual and gender identity concerns.

After I left campus, another article surfaced about my time there. I thought, “Ok, at least now this will be news coverage about what I actually said rather than coverage in anticipation of what people think I will say.” But I was wrong. The story reads like a rehashing of the first story. This is interesting only because presumably any member of the journal’s editorial board who contributed to the piece would have had a chance to hear either chapel address or attend the community talk. None of these sessions was on conversion therapy. I was invited to speak on gender dysphoria. The comment from a student (in the comment section below the article) was telling:

There is a lot of misinformation in this article. I sat in on Mark Yarhouse’s sessions at TWU and never once did portray transgender people in such a light. The BIGGEST thing I was able to take from it was to be more compassionate and loving towards transgender communities. But I guess pegging an institution as homophobic in order to boost your image of political correctness can be tempting.

I am not particularly surprised by all of this, but misinformation and poor (or no) coverage of events should at least be noted when it occurs.

Of course, in the larger landscape, these pieces can be read as adding more fuel to the fire of the cultural wars that have been so polarizing to so many, and it’s not turkeys or garages that get burned; it’s families, churches, universities, and broader communities. Reporters can and should do better.

4 Comments

  1. Mark, I think part of the issue here is that sometimes you seem a bit “squirrelly” on certain issues – on the one hand trying to appease your conservative base, but on the other hand trying to uphold the ethical standards of your profession. Case in point: in your “documented concerns” about conversion therapy (specifically, the link you provided here), I don’t read any actual concerns you have about conversion therapy for minors. Not a single one. I read that the group CONSENSUS had major concerns, but also that you disagreed with some of the consensus. The only explicit concerns raised in the article are your concerns about government getting involved in the issue. But I’m left “scratching my head” as you say when it comes to your stance on the consensus statement and what you disagreed with, and what your actual concerns were. Given your historical affiliations, it does not at all surprise me that journalists freak out a bit about you, nor that they walk away with [what you consider to be] inaccurate reflections of your stances, because you are not always very explicit about where you actually stand.

    And while I understand that your invitation was related to gender dysphoria, do you really believe that your stance on reparative therapy is not germane to that issue? Yes, gender identity issues and sexual orientation issues are distinct, but historically, they have been lumped together in terms of civil rights advances, thus, one who is not particularly progressive on one issue is not likely to be very progressive on the other. I don’t think the journalist’s analysis and concern about your presence is out of left field here.

  2. Conservatives have well earned all their mistrust from the public on this issue.
    I really do hope for a more balanced coverage of these things. I will admit that I was prone to believing the original article when I saw it (I don’t now).

    I too think you can be “squirrelly”. I think you have really failed to call out conservatives for the reign of terror and misinformation they carried out on LGBT people. I’ve felt that for some time–that you’ve never been particularly exercised enough to hold conservatives accountable for their worst excesses.

  3. I like that you stay neutral/gracious, (not squirrelly). To me it shows respect, restraint and confidence in and for each person to navigate and determine their path. After all a good counselor offers and then steps back, when invited steps in and then back again.
    You are a good presenter on your topic of focus and I would imagine a kind and gracious elder as well.
    You have helped me immensely with the situation I have recently found myself faced with to understand regarding someone I love more than life itself.

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