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Major News Outlets Fumble In Reporting CDC Study On LGBT Youth

June 08, 2011 11:54 am ET by Carlos Maza

A new study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has found that LGBT students are more likely to engage in unhealthy risk behaviors - including tobacco use, alcohol use, sexual risk behaviors, and suicide - than their heterosexual peers. According to a CDC official, the report pointed to the incredible impact that "stigma, discrimination, and victimization" can have on the health of LGBT youth. From the CDC's press release:

"This report should be a wake-up call for families, schools and communities that we need to do a much better job of supporting these young people. Any effort to promote adolescent health and safety must take into account the additional stressors these youth experience because of their sexual orientation, such as stigma, discrimination, and victimization," said Howell Wechsler, Ed.D, M.P.H, director of CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health (DASH). "We are very concerned that these students face such dramatic disparities for so many different health risks."

Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, made sure to point out that the disproportionate levels of health problems affecting LGBT youth were due to anti-LGBT discrimination and intolerance:

A study our department is releasing today found heightened levels of "unhealthy risk behaviors" like tobacco use, substance abuse, and suicidal behavior in LGBT youth. But we know that these behaviors are not a result of who these young people are, they are a result of the discrimination, bullying, violence and poor relationships at home they can experience in their day to day lives. That's a tragedy. And that's why we need to continue to build support for LGBT youth and create the protective environments needed to reduce these behaviors. [emphasis added]

The study should have prompted a public discussion about the extent to which anti-LGBT discrimination contributes to major health and mental problems for LGBT teens.

Unfortunately, the mainstream media caved to the desire to create a simple and catchy headline, likely reinforcing right-wing smears about the "homosexual lifestyle" in the process:

  • Fox News, The Washington Times, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, MSNBC, and ABC News all ran the story with the headline provided to them by the Associated Press: "CDC study: Gay, bisexual teens do riskier things."
  • CBS News chose the headline "Gay, bisexual teens more likely to engage in risky behavior, survey shows."
  • Reuters ran with "Bisexual, Lesbian, Gay Youths Less Likely to Use Condoms, More Likely to Use Drugs, Alcohol - Study."
  • US News & World Report settled on "More Risky Behaviors Among Gay, Bisexual High School Students: CDC."

The overwhelming majority of major news outlets failed to highlight the reason why LGBT youth experienced such disproportionate health risks. Aside from CNN, none of these major outlets framed the CDC study how it should have been framed as: evidence of the incredible damage done by the rejection of LGBT youth. 

Most of these outlets didn't mention the role that anti-LGBT stigma and discrimination played in exacerbating health problems until the fourth or fifth paragraph, while Reuters bumped the explanation to the bottom of its article.

Unfortunately, most people who see these articles won't make it that far. Research has found that a substantial portion of the amount of people who visit news aggregator websites merely scan headlines, rather than reading full articles. Arnon Mishkin, a partner at the Mitchell Madison Group consulting firm, summed up this research, stating:

In all cases, there was at least twice as much traffic on the home page as there were clicks going to the stories that were on it. In other words, a very large share of the people who were visiting the site were merely browsing to read headlines rather than using the aggregation page to decide what they wanted to read in detail. 

That research was confirmed by a 2010 study that found that nearly half of all Google News visitors scanned headlines without clicking through to the full articles.

In other words, headlines matter.

They especially matter when dealing with stories about LGBT health. Anti-gay groups consistently promote the myth that LGBT people are disease-ridden, live shorter lives, and pose public health risks in order to justify anti-LGBT policy position. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, for example, has a persistent habit of using evidence of LGBT health disparities to prove that homosexuality should be "discouraged at all costs":

When it comes to cancer of various types, they candidly admit that "gay men, lesbians and bisexual men and women are at higher risk for some cancers as a result of their sexual orientation." Smoking and alcohol use puts them at elevated risk of lung and liver cancer, while their sexual activity increases their risk of anal cancer and cancers of the head, throat and neck through frequent exposure to HPV, the human papilloma virus.

If there was ever a clarion call for our entire society to say with one united voice that homosexual behavior is a danger to health and should be discouraged at all costs, this is it. We've found one voice as a society with regard to drug use and drunk driving; it's time we find it with regard to homosexual behavior. [emphasis added]

News outlets need to be cautious when reporting about statistics concerning the LGBT community. While finding a short and compelling headline may be a priority with most news stories, it's important to remember that anti-LGBT groups won't hesitate to use poorly-framed articles and headlines as talking points to attack the LGBT community.

In this case, what should have been a clear step forward in the effort to support vulnerable LGBT youth now runs the risk of being used as a weapon against the very group that needs protection the most.

Previously:

What Will It Take For News Networks To Stop Inviting Anti-Gay Hate Mongers On The Air?

Insensitivity, Ignorance Play A Role In LGBT Health Disparities

Time Magazine Shamelessly Misrepresents Study On Cancer Risk For Gay Men