The Evolving Media Coverage of Conversion Therapy

So many times, when we cover the nature of the media, we are stuck pointing out how investigative media coverage has gone downhill and become more conservative over time.  Whether it’s Faux News, or even more of the mainstream media resisting true investigative journalism, the coverage is disappointing.

            There is one place where media coverage has improved over time: coverage of conversion therapy.  Coverage has gone from a rather inaccurate representation of conversion therapy to a much more accurate picture.

            In the 1980s and 1990s, media coverage of conversion therapy was very skewed towards conversion therapists.  Despite the fact that he had been booted from the American Psychology Association in 1983 for intentionally distorting his statistics, Paul Cameron, a pro-conversion therapist continued to make regular appearances on media talk shows and was quoted in newspapers as an expert on the matter (Besen p. 111).  For example, he was added as an expert on the subject and made five public appearances on Geraldo during this time (p 114).  Granted, Geraldo did sometimes give LGBT individuals equal time on his show (p. 114), but the fact that he put an unlicensed therapist on the television and did not include the majority of experts, who thought that homosexuality was unlikely to change, made it sound like the issue pitted LGBTQ rights activists against the experts.  This is a false representation, as the American Psychology Association had not considered homosexuality to be a disorder since the early 1970s and shows skewed coverage in favor of conversion therapy at that time.

            In the early 2000s, media coverage of conversion therapy improved, but it was still represented somewhat inaccurately.  At that time, CNN had Richard Cohen, a major leader in the conversion therapy movement, on their TV show about the issue (“Ex-Gay Therapist on CNN”, despite the fact that Cohen was not psychologist or psychiatrist and, in fact, was not even a licensed counselor (Besen p. 164).  They did not even note this on their show, so the unsuspecting viewer might be thinking that he was an actual expert and that many authorities still believed homosexuality is a disorder that can be cured.  Granted, CNN did give a leader in the American Psychological Association, with a PhD, some time on the show, but he fact that the show treated them as equals makes it sound like the academic community is divided 50-50 on whether or not conversion therapy works.  In fact, The American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, and American Medical Association had all opposed conversion therapy for quite some time, so this coverage was misleading at best.

            Now, news articles about conversion therapy seem to present a more accurate picture.  A recent article from NBC News about Virginia’s ban on Conversion Therapy discusses that it is a “harmful” practice that can lead to “depression” and “suicide” (Sopelsa  The article also interviews a survivor of conversion therapy that describes the specific damage that happened to them psychologically and notes that the major mental health organizations are all against the practices (Sopelsa  The interview with the survivor personalizes the experience for the reader, and the fact that the article notes that conversion therapy is discredited by major mental health organizations makes people that are uneducated realize that it is largely ineffective and has negative effects.  These are all things that the media should have been saying about conversion therapy for a long time, but the fact that they are finally doing it is good for the public’s education about the issue and will help prevent thousands of people, including many minors, from being forced into this form of discredited therapy by their families and religious leaders.

            Coverage of conversion therapy for LGBTQ people has improved greatly over the years in accuracy and has become more personal now that it is featuring the true experts on the subject and interviewing those that have survived the ex-gay movement.  Perhaps this is one area where investigative journalism has actually improved over the years.

Works Cited

Besen, Wayne.  Anything But Straight. Harrington Park Press: New York, 2003.

“Ex-Gay Therapist on CNN.” CNN. 2006.

Sopelsa, Brooke. “Virginia Becomes 20th State to Ban Conversion Therapy for Minors.” NBC News. 2020.