WBTV report on public sex questioned

Advocate, GLAAD decry report as sensationalistc, lurid, biased and inaccurate

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: February 23, 2011 in News

CHARLOTTE — A news report on public park cruising by a local TV news station has managed to ruffle some feathers among the LGBT community, including reaction from one national LGBT media watchdog group.

The story, by WBTV’s Steve Crump and which aired Feb. 22, examined reports of illegal sexual activity in James Boyce Park in Southeast Charlotte. It included interviews with parents of young children and the leader of a nearby neighborhood patrol, accompanied by several video images of young children playing on swing sets and other playground equipment, on a baseball field and with their parents. The report also stressed that gay men were the alleged perpetrators of the alleged activity. The online version of the story was titled, “Internet site links Charlotte to gay sex.”

Anchor Molly Grantham noted that men were “being led to the park by a website, kind of like a directory.” Copies of website postings were shown to parents during interviews. In one scene, the reporter mentions the name of the website, “Cruising Gays,” followed by a parent’s, “Oh no!” Later, a young woman is heard saying, “This is awful.”

WBTV News Director Dennis Milligan said his station learned of the park situation from a viewer.

“It [the public sex] had been the subject of neighborhood concern and consternation,” Milligan told qnotes. “I think they had been in contact with the police department and there was some exchange of emails that there was going to be something done and that was forwarded to us.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) crime data tracking back to Jan. 1, 2011 show no reported incidents or calls for service related to public indecency or other sex-related crimes within a half-mile of the Boyce Park area.

Raleigh resident Sean Kosofsky is familiar with public park sting operations and the media reports that often follow them. For 12 years, he worked as the policy director for the Detroit, Mich.-based Triangle Foundation. There, he says, he dealt with hundreds of cases of gay men harassed, entrapped or intimidated by police in public parks and rest areas. [qnotes has requested data regarding public park stings and arrests from CMPD.]

Kosofsky says WBTV should have been more sensitive to the video images they used when producing the story.

“There is still a pervasive public perception that gay men are sex offenders and that if they are in these parks that children are somehow at risk of something,” he said. “Just because this website says that some adult at some time did something inappropriate in a park, that doesn’t mean that straight people aren’t doing this in public places all over. And, so the focus that somehow if it is gay men meeting in public that it’s a threat to children is lurid and a little bit biased, if not a lot biased.”

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), a national organization that counters anti-LGBT bias in the media, echoed Kosofsky’s sentiments.

“The sensationalistic nature of this segment perpetuates crude stereotypes about gay men, and only serves to stir panic and prejudice in its audience,” GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios said in a statement today. “By circulating these images, WBTV is failing to meet the basic standards of fair and accurate journalism.”

Milligan says his station’s report never indicated that the men in the park were preying on children.

“The issue was that people were concerned about behavior going on in and around the park that they didn’t approve of,” he said. “I didn’t think it mattered if they were gay or straight or anything else. People are engaging in acts that are inappropriate for a park. There are children playing in the park, teenagers, adults — a lot of people use that park.”

The station did not interview or speak with a representative of any LGBT community organization in Charlotte.

“I don’t know that it even occurred that there needed to be someone from the gay community in that story,” Milligan said.

Kosofsky says the station ultimately decided to ignore many issues of sensitivity in favor of crafting an audience-shocking story. He also says WBTV’s report ignored a basic reality of human nature.

“The vast majority of people who choose to, straight or gay, go to a ‘cruise’-y park don’t want to get caught, don’t want to be seen at all,” he said. “No one wants to get in trouble and so they aren’t going to be stumbled upon by some family, hence why those parents were surprised. They’ve probably never seen anything like this before because it is such a discreet thing. It’s not a big, menacing problem like the news says it is.”

A spokesperson for GLAAD said they planned to reach out to WBTV.

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