'Scare Tactics?' How Editorial Skepticism of Monkeypox Stigmatizes LGTBQ+ Community

“It’s only a handful of cases.”
“Not that many people are impacted.”
“If we cover this, are we just creating scare tactics?”
 
These are phrases we’ve heard from journalists around the country when discussing how to cover the spread of monkeypox.
 
On Sept. 6, global health agencies recorded a total of 53,027 monkeypox cases worldwide. Approximately 52,516 of those cases are in areas not historically known to have monkeypox, indicating an alarming trend of community spread. Through contact tracing and travel history, health leaders linked the initial spread of monkeypox to events and locations attended largely by “men who have sex with men,” a clinical term that’s not exclusive to gay and bisexual men. Note: There is disagreement about the use of this term.
 
Cases now are spreading beyond this population to include women and children.
 
As gay men who also are newsroom leaders, we’ve become outspoken advocates for covering — and educating our colleagues about — the monkeypox crisis and its impacts on the LGBTQ+ community. We want to use this experience to help newsrooms learn how to be better advocates, allies, and supporters.
 
We’ll explain key issues in editorial conversations about monkeypox. And, we’ll provide five critical ways you can help your newsroom reduce stigma in monkeypox coverage.
 
THE ISSUES
 
Skepticism in newsrooms is healthy. It’s how we do our jobs. However, in this case, much of the skepticism over the newsworthiness of monkeypox (even when presented with the best of intentions) not only discounts an indisputable and growing harm affecting a historically marginalized community, but it also stigmatizes the LGBTQ+ experience.
 
First, deciding not to cover the spread of monkeypox based on the volume of cases erases the LGBTQ+ experience. It implies that the lives of LGBTQ+ people are less than heterosexuals. When there’s evidence of a public health crisis unfolding, supported by concrete data and trends, discuss the news value to your audience based on the whole of the information, not based on it affecting only a specific population. That population deserves information and communication, especially when it can mitigate the spread of a virus.
 
Second, because scientists pinpointed the early stages of spread to men who have sex with men, the LGBTQ+ community can be unfairly cast as irresponsible and “dirty,” which renews decades-old homophobic tropes reminiscent of the AIDS epidemic. There is a fine line between reporting on factual medical data and unintentionally shaming the LGBTQ+ community. This is a reason to report on the public health crisis because it’s an opportunity to stop the spread of misinformation surrounding the virus’ behavior and who it’s impacting.
 
That’s the third way skepticism around reporting on the monkeypox virus stigmatizes the LGBTQ+ community. We know how audiences behave. We know how the internet behaves. The monkeypox crisis has become a misinformation epidemic on its own. By denying the legitimacy of the story, journalists are enabling misinformative behaviors by allowing twisted narratives and lies about the virus and the LGBTQ+ community to spread unchecked.
 
Misinformation breeds distrust. This underscores the imperative obligation for newsrooms to better understand the issues they report. We’ve heard from members of the LGBTQ+ community that a lack of clarity and consistency in monkeypox reporting makes it difficult to trust the reported information.
 
Another phrase we’ve heard is “Well, people aren’t dying from it.”
 
When COVID-19 hit, metrics on hospitalizations and death were used as the barometer for the pandemic’s severity. COVID-19 is not monkeypox. Monkeypox is not COVID-19. The idea that monkeypox doesn’t warrant significant coverage because of its mortality rate is proof that relating impact to deaths has been hardened.
 
Fewer deaths must mean less impact, right? Wrong. Look at the direct and long-term impact monkeypox is having on people who contract the virus. Those who get sick will spend three to four weeks in isolation, experiencing excruciating pain from lesions and sores, not to mention the loss of work, stigma, and shame from contracting the virus. To measure monkeypox’s impact by how many people it kills diminishes the LGBTQ+ experience by implying our lives don’t matter.
 
Responsibility rests not solely on newsrooms. Public health leaders, themselves, have used language and taken actions that further stigmatize LGBTQ+ people.
 
Look at these two examples.
 
In a May interview with “The Hill”, Dr. Amesh Adaja, an infectious diseases expert, said “The general public is not at risk.” This language is dangerous because not only does it imply that the spread of monkeypox cases was under control, but it also implies, at a very basic level, that LGBTQ+ people are not part of the general public. The data proves that monkeypox cases have spread in public areas — such as music festivals.
 
The data also proves that people of color are disproportionately affected by monkeypox cases. This population is also disproportionately affected by HIV (in 2019, Black people accounted for 44% of new HIV diagnoses, Hispanic/Latinx accounted for 30%), yet vaccine eligibility in many locales did not expand to make people living with HIV eligible until early August despite being at increased risk for severe disease as a result of infection.
 
These examples show the painful erasure of the LGBTQ+ experience when the community is at an elevated — and, in some cases, high — risk for contracting and spreading monkeypox.
 
Public health coverage and messaging were slow from traditional media outlets in the early stages of the monkeypox crisis. With news coverage limited, the LGBTQ+ community worked to save itself through social media by posting details about the vaccine and where to get a shot. Doctors used TikTok to share medical information about the virus and how to treat symptoms. This content was gaining traction because there was an audience desperate for answers.
 
We, as journalists, have a responsibility to serve our communities in times of need. All our communities. With solutions-oriented reporting absent, audiences turned elsewhere.
 
Ultimately, the monkeypox health crisis illustrates the uphill climb LGBTQ+ people face in the fight for equity. It’s incumbent upon newsrooms and journalists to go the extra mile to provide wholly accurate, fair, and inclusive coverage.
 
THE SOLUTIONS
 
Here are our five takeaways from our experience leading newsrooms through monkeypox coverage:
 
  1. Pay attention to the data — Early on, scientists pinpointed trends in the data that linked the spread of monkeypox to events attended largely by the LGBTQ+ community. Understanding what this data said and what the trends showed predicted the virus’ spread. Exploring this data editorially could have better equipped newsrooms to challenge the arguably inadequate public health response by federal, state, and local leaders to proactively mitigate monkeypox by ordering more vaccines, expanding public health outreach to at-risk populations, and increasing transparency in their processes.
 
  1. Context, context, context — Context leads to clarity and that’s why it is critical to include context in coverage to avoid unintentionally stigmatizing the LGBTQ+ community when covering monkeypox. Explain the factual foundation for using phrases such as “men who have sex with men,” discuss the disagreement about such phrases, transparently discuss what’s known and not known about how monkeypox is spread and use expert input and analysis when discussing the impacts of monkeypox.  
 
  1. Listen to the people impacted (internally AND externally) — Gathering input from affected communities is an important step newsrooms should take during editorial discussions about monkeypox coverage. Decisions should not happen in a vacuum. Early in the crisis, we found ourselves being the only advocates for covering the potential public health crisis. We advocated for coverage based on our experiences and communication with other members of the LGBTQ+ community. We heard from community members that there were challenges navigating the systems set up to distribute vaccines. We heard how many weren’t getting a phone call back before their post-exposure window expired. Use these stories to motivate your journalists to get answers and hold leaders accountable.
 
  1. Education is key — If you don’t know or understand, ASK. Education is the first step toward understanding. Education creates a more informed news staff, ensures all voices/perspectives are heard, and leads to more robust editorial conversations and decisions. And, at a fundamental level, have more conversations.
 
  1. Use Your Resources — Covering topics with sensitivity can be difficult. Use available resources to ensure your coverage of historically marginalized communities is fair and accurate. For example, when covering monkeypox, consider resources from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association to better understand appropriate language for articles and scripts. For example, how many people in your newsroom know what PrEP is? We spent days trying to get our newsroom(s) to understand how a decision from the health department to include people on PrEP as a vaccine eligibility criterion not only shamed that group, but also systematically shunned those living with HIV — especially when many are likely taking the exact same drug, just for treatment instead of prevention. Education is critical! Ask questions. Do the work.  
 
This is not to say you shouldn’t be skeptical of information about monkeypox. Journalists are wired to be skeptical. However, there is a responsibility to use that skepticism to better understand and inform your decisions about a particular story. Why would you only look at reasons NOT to do a story? Also look for reasons TO do the story.
 
You’ll be a better journalist.
Your newsroom will provide a stronger public service.
And your audience will benefit from it.
 
Our goal is not to be alarmist about this developing health crisis. Our goal is to use our platform for accountability and education while making an earnest effort to prevent further stigmatization. It is a delicate, yet exhausting balance with real-world consequences because words matter.
 
Ryan Wood is Executive Producer of Innovation and Matt Horn is Executive Producer of WFAA Daybreak at WFAA (ABC) in Dallas, Texas. Stuart Boslow is Director of Innovation at KHOU (CBS) in Houston.

 



 



 
 
 
Corporate