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” www.youtube.com), 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 www.nbcnews.com).  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 www.nbcnews.com).  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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJXWFZz0Qjo&t=11s

Sopelsa, Brooke. “Virginia Becomes 20th State to Ban Conversion Therapy for Minors.” NBC News. 2020. https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/virginia-becomes-20th-state-ban-conversion-therapy-minors-n1148421.

Selling Progressive Values in the Media

News media outlets, political candidates, and both the Democratic and Republican Parties are using conservative language metaphors in the media, and it is hurting the ability of progressives to pass their legislation and win political races.

What metaphors am I speaking of?  George Lakoff, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant and numerous other books on political discourse, likes to use the example of “tax relief” (Lakoff p. 3).  The word relief implies that working families are “afflicted” by taxes and anyone who cuts taxes is a “hero,” (even if those cuts are mostly going to wealthy people), while anyone who raises them is a “villain,” placing a burden on working families.  So, if one thinks about the metaphor “tax relief,” one can see why it favors fiscally-conservative policies.

So, of course, right-wing media outlets love to use phrases like tax relief.  Fox News’ most recent article on President Trump’s response to the coronavirus touts part of it as a “tax relief” plan (O’Reilly www.foxnews.com).  And, in doing so, they are helping reinforce the idea that taxes are bad.

Now, no one would be surprised by President Trump, the Republican Party, and Fox News using phrases like tax relief.  The problem is that progressive candidates, the Democratic Party, and progressive news media outlets are using these phrases too.  Earlier this month, the New York Times used the phrase “tax relief” in the headline of an article about coronavirus (“On Virus Response…” www.nytimes.com).  Additionally, when I worked in New Hampshire in 2006, the Democratic Party was bragging about how New Hampshire had the lowest tax burden in the nation, and trying to take credit for that.  In using this phrase, these media outlets and the Democratic Party are ruining their chances to send money to education and health care because they are making taxes-something that is vital to invest in these programs-sound awful.

All of this underscores the important point: progressives must start using language and metaphors more to their advantage because it will help them win elections and get their agenda passed by selling their values to the American people in a way that makes linguistic sense.

The question is how?  Conservatives have been drilling phrases like tax relief, small government, family values, and free markets into our heads for decades, and we all instantly know what they mean.  Additionally, they are hard to argue against.  Arguing against family values makes it sound like you are arguing against the family unit, or saying that families are bad. Does anyone in their right mind want to say families are bad?  Of course not.  That’s why conservative candidates and media outlets love to use that metaphor.  Googling the phrase “Fox News” + “family values” returns over 5 million results.  Additionally, key Republican congress people, such as freshman Senator Joni Ernst (IA), who is up for re-election, use it frequently in dialogue with the press (Hall caffeinatedthoughts.com).

So, how can progressive candidates, media outlets and the Democratic Party use language to their advantage?

I can think of one example of a candidate who started doing that: Barack Obama.  As far back as his first term of as a President, Obama would say he wanted to use tax dollars to “invest” in education, and progressive education groups followed suit by using the same language (McCabe www.nea.org).  Investments, in our society, are a good thing because you get a return on them.  Thus, Obama, was making spending on education a good thing.

In this case, the investment Obama was selling to the American people was going to deliver a return in the form of a pro-active way to avoid future poverty, and, of course, having an educated work force.  In fact, he called it “the best anti-poverty program around” (McCabe www.nea.org).  By using this language, Barack Obama helped convince the American people that tax dollars can be a good thing, if properly used.

More recently, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have tried to use the phrase “medicare for all” to win over support for their health care policies (Scott www.vox.com). Medicare is a popular program, so emphasizing it over say “socialized medicine” does make sense. Additionally, Pete Buttigeig has made effective use of language by saying he supports “Medicare for all that want it” (Scott www.vox.com). This way of talking about health care implies more choices, and choices are a good thing in our society. My hope is that Joe Biden will follow suit and use the language the Buttigeig is using.

I’m curious to see what kind of responses people have to Lakoff’s ideas about language.  What are some ways we could use language to sell progressive values to the American people?

Works Cited

Hall, Jacob. “Iowa Senate Candidate Profile: Q & A with Joni Ernst.” Caffeinated Thoughts (2020). https://caffeinatedthoughts.com/2014/05/iowa-u-s-senate-candidate-profile-qa-joni-ernst/

Lakoff, George.  Don’t Think of an Elephant. Chelsea Green (2004).

McCabe, Cynthia. “Obama Calls for $4 Billion in New Education Spending.” National Education Association (2019). http://www.nea.org/home/37894.htm

“On Virus Respnose…” The New York Times (2020). https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2020/03/10/us/politics/ap-us-virus-outbreakwashington.html

Scott, Dylan. “Pete Buttigeig’s Medicare for All Who Want It Plan Explained.” Vox (2019). https://www.vox.com/2019/9/19/20872881/pete-buttigieg-2020-medicare-for-all.