Both sides now: USA Today does a decent job covering LGBT flap in a Florida town

Gol' durn, Florida is always full of surprises. In reporting a controversial school board meeting over LGBT rules, USA Today -- and its state affiliate Florida Today -- stuck pretty much to basic reporting, as opposed to editorial writing.

Even better, the national report is a nearly word-for-word re-post of the original Florida Today story, rather than some Beltway gloss. LGBT matters can get pretty heated, and so can school board meetings. So when they collide, it ain't always easy just to report. These stories do have a flaw or two, but they generally show a satisfying fairness and respect for all sides. We'll look at the flaws in a bit, but the top alone rates a hat tip:

MELBOURNE, Fla. -- Big crowds came out for a Tuesday evening meeting about a proposed non-discrimination and equal employment policy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Brevard Public Schools.
After more than 90 LGBT policy opponents spoke to the school board, the board voted to kill the proposed policy, and said it would hold a public workshop on LGBT issues down the road.
Nearly 100 people signed up to speak at the meeting, and most of those who spoke were in opposition to the LGBT policy.
Friar Demetri Tsigas of Melbourne, a Greek Orthodox priest, said that the opposition of people of faith like himself was something school board members should heed. "You can see the spirit of the town here," Tsigas said.  "This is not San Francisco, folks. This is Brevard County."

Friar? That's off the mark. However, that statement is something of a surprise, starting the quotes with a Greek Orthodox priest, rather than the typical "fundamentalist" who is then held up to scorn.

It is crucial to note the ratio of people attempting to speak in opposition to the policy, as opposed to those who defended it. This was a very tense, charged meeting.

As an apparent attempt at balance, the story follows Tsigas with a backer of the LGBT policy:

During the speeches of LGBT policy advocates, some people booed.
They booed during the speech of Daniel Wall-DeSousa, a Heritage High teacher, who was the first speaker. He has been advocating for an LGBT non-discrimination policy for many months.
"Some will argue that the update of the non-discrimination notice gives the LGBT community some advantage or special right or privilege," he said. "The proposed changes to the non-discrimination policies do not give the LGBT community any special rights. On its face, the term 'special rights' does not make sense. If something is a right, by definition it is not 'special.'  It belongs to everybody."

The balancing act is shaky, with the story quoting only three speakers in favor of the proposed LGBT policy and five against. But that may be an accurate picture if, again as the newspaper noted, most speakers opposed the change.

Not that they always aided the discussion. "We want Jesus Christ back in our schools," one says. A youth minister alleges an evil "spiritual force" at work. Another resident warns of a mass exodus of children to private schools if the LGBT policy is adopted.

One backer of the failed policy gives a dire warning:

Scott Wall-DeSousa of Palm Bay said that discrimination against him as a child in Brevard Public Schools prompted him to attempt suicide, and that his story was an example of why the non-discrimination policy was needed, and why LGBT youths needed to be protected.
"More than anything, their lives matter, and my life mattered, and the children that come after me matter," he said.

And at the end, the article says he had predicted the meeting would get "ugly" and "nasty":

"I believe that everyone has a right to be heard," he said.  "Unfortunately, what's happening tonight is going to show why this policy is needed.  It could turn out to be very, very ugly... It's going to get nasty and that's a shame because a school board meeting is not a place to get nasty.  We're supposed to be the adults."
He said that the gay community is not asking for anything unreasonable, that all they want is to be treated equally.

Hmmm, two Wall-DeSousas in one story. Any relation? Yes, they're a couple, as a previous piece in Florida Today says. This USA Today article should have divulged that.  

The story does report more rational objections from the Liberty Counsel, which often jumps in on cases like this. In an open letter to the school board, the Counsel says that Florida law doesn't recognize sexual orientation and gender identity as "protected classes," and that the board should "maintain the common-sense position that objective biological sex -- male and female is (and should remain) the determining factor for access to gender-appropriate public school facilities and programs."

Annnnnd, the USA Today newspapers don't t toss off the group with the usual prejudicial label, "the conservative." Instead, they say the group is "a national litigation and advocacy organization that represents the interests of American evangelical Christians and cultural conservatives." The "C" word is still there, but at least it's amplified with a longer description. (However, an editorial in Florida Today adds that the Counsel has been "named a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center." At least that bit of grading was confined to an opinion piece.)

Florida Today even got a separate interview with Roger Gannam, who drafted the letter. He says that such policies "chill free speech and threaten religious liberties." He threatens to sue if the policy is passed.

But as long as USA Today was talking about Palm Bay, it could have mentioned -- as did the Liberty Counsel's letter -- that that city recently turned back an ordinance that would add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes of people. In fact, that editorial in Florida Today brought up Palm Bay today, although it deplored the city's decision.

Did the Palm Bay vote yield any nastiness, as Scott Wall-DeSousa warned of the school board meeting? USA Today and Florida Today don’t say. Then again, they also didn’t try to pin down the opponents on alleged spiritual forces or how LGBT rights are connected with bringing Jesus into schools.

As I say, such public hearings often generate more heat than light, and fair coverage can be elusive. For the pursuit of that fairness -- especially in light of the negative editorial -- USA Today and Florida Today still deserve a nod of respect.

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