To Hell With Mainstream Press Coverage: Women, People of Color, and Trans People Should Create and Control Their Own Media Stories
For those of you who don’t know, my group – QWOC+ Boston – produces a week-long multicultural pride (LGBTQ) festival every year. It’s an impressive (if I do say so myself) array of art, music, discussion, and social justice events for LGBTQ people of color and diversity-conscious allies. We’ve spent the past 3 months creating these events and now they’re ready to go out via official announcements!
Next Steps: Generating so much buzz that people from neighboring states visit Boston to attend the events (and in so doing, validate our weeks of hard work).
As I prepared to send out the official QWOC Week Calendar today, I paused to take a look at my really long ‘Press/PR’ to-do list and noted the slightly underwhelming list of journalist contacts. Some would call that a #fail on press release day, but where there arguably should be an uppity list of noteworthy press contacts, I have, instead, a list of connectors — bloggers, event producers, community organizers, and crucial tweeps to reach out to for grassroots promotional support. This came as no surprise to me since I’ve been pretty successful leveraging social media to do outreach, promotions, and build QWOC+ Boston’s brand. Plus, mainstream media has routinely pissed me off with their half-ass coverage of issues pertaining to people of color, much less about LGBT people of color.
In the past, the media coverage QWOC+ Boston events have received has been light and fluffy at best — who-what-when just about summarizes the general approach, with opinion or speculation — usually from the lucky friend of a friend of an editor — driving the why-and-how portion (vs any sort of ‘investigative’ reporting). At this point, I’ve become accustomed to the two or three paragraphs (usually a composite piece) dedicated to highlighting “people of color” (usually the male, LGBT, african-american community) during pride, and not much else in terms of press coverage (unless of course it’s around the AIDS epidemic); women’s/feminist grassroots movements are almost always an afterthought (or viewed as ‘cute’ and thus, not ‘news-worthy’), so a part of me has given up on hoping for more.
But it’s not that New England papers don’t know how to cover POC issues (or women’s issues for that matter) — they should be treated as every other subject matter — with tact, professionalism, and thoroughness; it’s that they’re too lazy to challenge themselves to do more than just ‘highlight’ and ‘profile’ and deep down, they don’t think that we’re important enough. However, they’re notorious for shadily snapping photos of the 2-3 brown people at every mainstream event and then featuring them in their next media blast when everyone knows there were practically no people of color present. I’ll never forget the year my friend and I (unbeknown to us) made it the front page of Bay Windows as part of a “success!” news story on the popular Fenway Health Women’s Dinner event (see picture on the right). Great job! You scored a QWOC and a trans guy.
Incidentally, a few years ago, QWOC+ Boston received a front page profile piece in Bay Windows, written by Ethan Jacobs, a former staff writer. It was a well-written article I think because my bestie (who works in PR/Communications) prepped me for the interview; she gave me client-strong guidance as to how to manage the ‘reporter’, how to ‘brief my organizers’, how to make sure I got my ‘sound bites’ in, how to ask for the questions ahead of time etc. The result was a well-rounded story on QWOC+ Boston’s contributions to the local scene and our plans for the future. They did introduce us as “new” (I guess if white and mainstream media isn’t writing about you then you don’t exist, right?) even though we’d been around for two years, but at least it was a start; QWOC+ Boston was given visibility, credibility, and that article, which featured an overzealous quote by yours truly about our future, was the inception of QWOC Week.
Since then, we’ve been covered mainly via pretty pictures and short sporadic event blurbs within which they routinely misquote me, misspell my name, and repeatedly refer to us as “QWOC Friends” or worse, “QWOC” (without the plus, without the f**king plus), no matter how many times we insist on including this symbol (which represents our valued ally supporters) or having our name spelled out — Queer Women of Color and Friends (QWOC+ Boston) — so that new people can recognize that we’re an LGBTQ organization that mainly caters to women of color. [Seriously, what does “QWOC” mean to a grad student who just moved here from Tenessee and is seeking community outside her stark and stoic chem lab at MIT?]
I posted an angry Facebook update about this recently, and a friend of mine who’s the director of Villa Victoria Center for (Latino) Arts and Culture sent me some timely words of empathy, along with a sample media kit — a short and simple PDF document that outlines some branding rules which you can make available to press contacts / journalists looking to write about you. It was a godsend — and my intern just recreated one for us. [Please feel free to download and use as a template for your org!].
No doubt, the consistent time and effort I’ve invested in building QWOC+ Boston via partnerships and collaborations has given me a visible position within a strong network of leaders — women, people of color, lgbt, african activists, social entrepreneurs etc. — whom I can not only count on for support, but for professional guidance as well. However, for many people, (practical) tips such as how to work with journalists or even design a press kit aren’t that easy (or cheap) to come by. I feel for non-profit/grassroots leaders who, like me, must often ‘wing’ it, learn by trial and error, or (per the reason of this post), suffer bad press by remaining at the mercy of privileged, mis-informed media professionals.
But as leaders of social change, we aren’t in a position to suffer “bad” press — which in our field, often means mis-informed, mis-quoted, downplayed, and at times, downright inaccurate press coverage on the social justice issues we care about. Our causes — “brands” for the sake of argument — aren’t celebrities who can afford to say “any press is good press” and wait for the next scandal to hit the stands.
Africa has been receiving a lot of negative press lately around the “atrocities” being committed against queer/LGBT people. But which Africans (I include myself in this) are writing about the spike in homophobia as a manifestation of resistance to bullying from the west? That’s not a narrative you hear or read about everyday, but I assure you it exists beyond the popular argument that Africa is full of barbarians.
Remember the news coverage on the two “gay” men that were facing a harsh prison sentence in Malawi? — they both weren’t “gay”, one of them was a transgender woman. And whereas I do object to the west enforcing their labels on Africa, the fact that many mainstream news outlets blatantly disregarded her gender should be viewed as yet another wakeup call to all of us that taking a passive approach to media will almost always result in the insensitive, inaccurate face-value recounts of events we’re inundated with today (vs. insightful commentary on news stories, which by the way, we really should be telling ourselves).
The great news is, social media is saturated with media consumers, not as many (in fact, in my opinion, too few) media producers; we all have the power to create content in the form of our own stories, and in so doing, make a difference. We shouldn’t have to wait to be ‘given’ press coverage or “be written about”. For what we have at stake, this approach to gaining visibility and expanding influence is too passive to be worth our consideration. This is not to say that mainstream media coverage isn’t worth anything at all; I’m just concerned that if marginalized groups — women, people of color, trans people, immigrants, blue collar, anyone whose voice is always missing/mis-represented — put all their eggs into a basket that’s already filled with a bunch of privileged, cocky, a**holes then our stories are bound to seep through the cracks.
My intern and I worked on a blog post that discusses the concept of “Activism During QWOC Week” in lieu of an official press release. Our words, our vision, our perspective. And it’s been truly liberating to pass the link around to people and receive direct feedback. We’re planning to do several posts about QWOC Week in order to highlight different aspects of the week; inter-generational conversations, music and the arts, etc. See, by creating and controlling your own content, you aren’t subjected to anyone else’s perspective on what’s “important.” Incidentally, we just found out that “Family Week in PTOWN” is happening during QWOC Week and thus Bay Windows Ad prices are for a Special Edition print out that week. I’ve already received several recommendations to pitch a story around our “Family Day in the Park” to see if Bay Windows “decides” to run a story on it. But who cares if Bay Windows wants to cover us or not? We run our own blog!
I encourage you — whoever you are, you’re still reading so you must have something to say — to start contributing your voice to the mass media that’s being consumed by millions of users… every – day. In the short term, we should probably all come together, sit down, and brainstorm how to proactively gain press coverage for our organizations, movements and causes. But who wants to plan this? Anyone? Not me — I’m too busy changing the world to worry about press releases, and I’m pretty sure you are too. So while we’re waiting for someone else to take this on…
Start a blog. Write an opinion piece — it doesn’t have to be that long. Just make a statement — any statement; celebrities do it all the time. Create a video on your fancy MacBook (so that’s it’s worth the 1000-something-dollars you paid for it) — people love to watch videos. (Did you know they’re the most popularly shared media type on the web?) Write an Op-Ed response to your neighborhood newspaper about an article that pissed you off. Just contribute something. Anywhere.
You are important. Your voice is important. Your content should be shared on Facebook. Damn it.
Update: We win! Bay Windows profiled QWOC Week in this piece here, aaaaand the reporter pretty much copy-pasted the blog piece that my intern and I wrote on our blog. The result? A well-rounded profile on QWOC Week (save a few errors — really, she estimated 2 dozen people showed up because she arrived at the beginning and was POC-shy so awkwardly approached a few people with her notepad, took a few notes, and jetted. Ah, white people… why are POC still so scary to you in 2010?)