Black in America: CHURCHED Coming October 2010

Looks like CNN’s next Black in America documentary will focus on the Black Church. It’s coming October 2010.

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Just found out that one of the next “In America” installments will come in October 2010.

On Facebook, there’s already a  bug (presumably created by the CNN producers) with the graphic image for “Black in America: CHURCHED”

Time Warner Cable put out an alert for advertisers to get on board with “Black in America: Churched” earlier in the spring.

Kevin Allocca of TVNewser interviewed Soledad O’Brien about the new direction of “In America,” which apparently has an expanded staff with plans to air six documentaries a year.

Like tonight’s “Gary and Tony Have a Baby,” these next projects will be more narrowly focused than the 2008 and 2009 “In America” projects.

In the interview, O’Brien explained that Black in America: Churched (which she called “Black in America 3”) will focus on one pastor and one church.   That’s very interesting.

As an African American who spends a lot of time working in and with my church, I can’t wait to see this.

CNN Breaks New Ground, Offers Lesson In Covering America in Its Diversity With ‘Gary & Tony’ Documentary

CNN’s latest “In America” project, “Gary & Tony Have a Baby” is groundbreaking. The Turner-owned network managed to tell a story on such a controversial topic in one hour while appropriately acknowledging the various sides of the issue of same-sex marriage, same-sex adoption and the legal barriers that still prevent those Americans from being parents.

Well the much-anticipated premiere of the 2010 installment in CNN’s “In America” series is over.  If you missed “Gary and Tony Have a Baby,” you’ll get a chance to see airings both this Saturday, June 26th and Sunday, June 27th.

What I want to talk about is how CNN managed to tell a story on such a controversial topic in one hour while appropriately acknowledging the various sides of the issue of same-sex marriage, same-sex adoption and the legal barriers that still prevent those Americans from being parents.

CNN's Soledad O'Brien participated in at least two advanced screenings of "Gary and Tony Have a Baby" in New York and Los Angeles. Photo Courtesy: CNN

“My job is to do the story as authentically as possible,” said Soledad O’Brien, the CNN correspondent who has thus far  reported all of the network’s “In America” projects.

O’Brien’s comments were made at one of at least two advanced screenings — in Los Angeles and New York.

Being authentic in reporting any story about Gays in America or any other subset of our population is daunting, to say the least.

But, as one who prepares students to be responsible journalists in reflecting the diverse aspects of the lives of their readers, viewers and communities, O’Brien and her staff were up for the task and delivered in a big way.

It matters not whether you agree or disagree with the same-sex marriage or same-sex adoption.   What DOES matter is whether you as a viewer of tonight’s documentary were informed and enlightened about a topic that is rarely covered in this much depth.

Tom Shales Was Right

Even before tonight’s documentary premiere ended, CNN included an excerpt from The Washington Post in its promotion of the re-air dates for the documentary this week.

In a review published Tuesday, The Washington Post’s Tom Shales wrote
“Gary and Tony” is not technically advocacy journalism, but in showing a same-sex couple who successfully navigate the mine field and adopt a baby that one of them helped create, O’Brien makes a case for, at the very least, compassion.”

I think Shales is right in his assessment that O’Brien made a case, a role that journalists have as they seek to shine the light on stories that might not otherwise be reported.

In an earlier post, I made reference to efforts in entertainment, one daytime drama, ABC’s One Life to Live, which recently showed the court case involving a same-sex couple that adopted a child what was biologically fathered by one characters in the daytime drama.    Also on ABC, two of the main characters on the hit drama, Brothers and Sisters, are using surrogate parenting to have their first child.

But, tonight’s one-hour presentation represents responsible journalism in ALSO acknowledging the naysayers, but NOT getting mired in the controversy. The back-and-forth, the hysteria that surrounds this issue could have choked out what is otherwise a great story.

If you look at the comments on CNN’s Gay in America microsite, which accompanied the documentary,  there is no shortage of hate and debate about gay marriage and gay parenting.  You don’t have to go far to find that.

This documentary could easily have been overtaken by that.   Instead, the CNN producers focused on the REAL story.

CNN Producers: “Their personalities come across”

“Agree or disagree with their lifestyle, we do think that their personalities come across,” said Dave Timko, who edited the documentary.

In their very short “behind the scenes” video posted on the CNN microsite, Timko and Producer Brandon Clements acknowledge it’s taken 19 months to bring this story to the airwaves.

Photo: Courtesy: CNN

Clements describes the project as “a human story about two people fulfilling their dreams in getting something they wanted for so long.”

These comments show how the staff at CNN clearly looked beyond the controversy in trying to depict the real story.   It was not about “exploring all sides,” which Shales in his  Washington Post review noted was “cliche.”

NOW– to my FIVE questions about “Gary and Tony Have a Baby”

In an earlier post today, I posed five questions that I took into my own viewing of tonight’s premiere:    Let’s try to answer them.

1. To what extent does the story reflect the tensions between those on multiple sides of the morality debate surrounding same-sex adoption?

This seemed to be handled best by the producers’ decision to tell a little bit of the background about Gary and Tony.    They took us the viewers to their hometown.   It’s interesting to note that one of the men grew up in a suburb of my hometown, Richmond, Va.

But, we also saw the tension in the story of depiction of Gary and Tony’s activism. We saw the tension in the way the New York vote on gay marriage was included as a reality check for same-sex couples in a state like New York.

2. How do the story subjects’ own experiences make them a highly unusual situation (and, by definition, NEWSWORTHY)?  Or does CNN broaden the canvas by contrasting Gary and Tony’s experiences with multiple other couples?

While I have no way of verifying this,  I think it ‘s safe to say this story is probably NOT the norm for most same-sex couples who want to have a baby and use surrogate parents.    Society, local governments,  etc.   have NOT embraced this concept.    Except for the vote on gay marriage in New York,  everything worked in Gary and Tony’s favor and they had a happy ending.

But, their experience is the exception.

This is where a 60-minute documentary has to oversimply in order to tell the story and depict the emotions.    A longer documentary might have contrasted Gary and Tony’s experience with a couple that did NOT have  the same success– either with adoption or surrogate parenting.

3. Is there an undercurrent of REFORM in the way the CNN producers assemble the information (i.e.  Is CNN making a subtle case for changing laws?”) in the documentary?

As noted earlier by Tom Shales, CNN makes a case for change.   The writers and producers included just enough of the spotlight on the government barriers that some could watch this documentary and use it to educate lawmakers about what some say still needs to be done for couples such as Gary and Tony.

4. What OTHER types of diversity (class, race, gender, geography) are present in the documentary?

With the exception of geography (we saw the typical small town vs. big city difference in the backgrounds of Gary and Tony), these other types of diversity were hard to come by in this presentation.

In my view, this was the biggest shortcoming of “Gary and Tony Have a Baby.”     By showing white male activists who have been part of the Gay Rights Movement, who march in Pride Parades,  CNN still mainly depicted homosexuality as a thing that happens in white community.

Some have argued these are actually feeding stereotypes about those in the gay community.    I would like to have seen producers carve out AT LEAST 10 minutes to briefly show some of the stories that appear on the Gay in America microsite.   These show couples from other racial and gender groups.

In television land, we call these vignettes.

The focus on the documentary is on Gary and Tony.  But, there are many viewers who may walk away with only their story and not realize how much more to this issue is out there in the stories of other couples from other racial groups.  What about those who could not afford the expenses involved in having a surrogate?

While lesbian parents were ALSO shown tonight,  I don’t think we got a full understanding of the DIVERSITY within the diverse experiences of same-sex couples who want to have a baby.

5. What does the documentary reveal about CNN’s general mission in its “In America” franchise?

I think we saw CNN take a VERY different approach with the “Gary and Tony Have a Baby” from their efforts last year with Latino in America and Black in America II.    They didn’t try to cover the landscape.  They really went in depth with one story.    And, the results paid off.

I think what we can learn about documentary producing or truly indepth reporting is that sometimes, it’s appropriate to have lots of different story– as you represent the landscape of experiences.  But, other times, it’s better to stick with one person or couple’s story and go much more indepth.

It will be interesting to see what approach the CNN producers take with their next installment in the “In America” franchise.

Five Questions for CNN’s latest installment in its “In America” franchise that airs tonight

Tonight- CNN makes another contribution to this welcome genre of diversity-focused indepth news coverage by looking at the issue of adoption by Same-sex couples. The teacher and researcher in me will be looking at tonight’s media presentation with a few specific things in mind.

Gary Spino and Tony Brown are featured in tonight's CNN In America documentary "Gary and Tony Have a Baby." Photo Courtesy of CNN

As media diversity educator, I have been particularly interested in documentary-style presentations of various aspects of our nation’s diversity.   Over the last two or three years, I’ve followed two efforts at NBC and CNN.   Most of these presentations, however, have to do with race.

Tonight- CNN makes another contribution to this welcome genre of diversity-focused indepth news coverage by looking at the issue of adoption by Same-sex couples.

You’ve probably seen my postings in the past TWO summers about CNN’s Black in America and Black in America II as well as the Latino in America presentation last fall.   Soon after Black in American II aired, I saw lots of rumors online about CNN working on a “Gay in America” installment to its “In America” franchise.

Not until this morning did I see on the CNN.com Web site the Time Warner-owned network use the words “Gay in America” as a heading.

The name of tonight’s progarm, “Gary and Tony Have a Baby” is a little different since it doesn’t have “In America” in the name.  It’s also only one hour (as opposed to the four-hour, two-hour treatment for Black in America and Latino in America).

The Online Strategy for the FULL Story

A key of the “In America” franchise is what happens right here on the Internet — the discussions, debates and additional information that one misses if you only watch the on-air product.

In CNN’s microsite, “Gay in America,” the producers have made it clear that we cannot look at diversity of sexual orientation through a single diversity lens.

The story of the “Gay Brady Bunch” exposes the dynamic of the intersection of race and sexual orientation through the experience of two Atlanta men.   This aspect of being “black in America” was not covered in either of the 2008 or 2009 documentaries. (And one of CNN’s iReporters made a point to bring that out two summers ago)

We also see this intersection of race and sexual orientation exposed in the story of Niki Solis.


Keeping it Focused on the Story

I know some of you who read this blog may have moral  issues with the concept of gay adoption or gay parenting.   I can’t imagine CNN would not address that in some fashion in tonight’s report.

But, judging from what I’ve read elsewhere online,  the producers of this series have kept the focus on Gary and Tony’s adoption experience and not allowed those of us who might oppose the whole concept to distract from the issue.

At least one blogger, who’s seen a screener (a preview DVD sent to journalists to help promote an upcoming documentary) of tonight’s program has criticized it for focusing too much on stereotypes.

Bill Browning, a blogger on the Huffington Post, says “This is not Gay in America, it’s Gay in Gary and tony’s World.”

Therein lies an interesting challenge  from a journalist’s perspective– do you try to cover the LANDSCAPE?  Or, is it more effective to find a couple of interesting stories and focus on them?

Both Black in America and Black in America II were criticized for depicting the extremes.    Can you cover “the big picture” in one hour?  I suspect the writers and producers at CNN have kept this presentation tightly focused in order to do justice to this couple’s story.

Regardless of where you stand spiritually or politically, you have to recognize that same-sex couples adopting is an aspect of American life that is rarely covered in any depth.  As journalists, we have a responsibility to reflect the diversity of those who consume our media products.

Already Done On the Soaps

In looking a little deeper into this topic from a media aspect, I stumbled upon a soap opera storyline that actually addressed this issue of same-sex couples adopting.

Since last summer, ABC’s “One Life to Live” featured a same-sex couple, a police officer and a medical student whose relationship evolved as a storyline that recently ended in April 2010.      It won the network a GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Media Award

ABC’s story of Oliver Fish and Kyle Lewis is actually a SECOND effort by the Disney-owned network.

I’m personally a BIG fan of the hit drama, Brothers and Sisters. And, it has also addressed gay marriage and adoption in some depth through the experience of two of the main characters.

So, with its documentary, CNN may be playing catch-up to a phenomenon already depicted in scripted series.

FIVE QUESTIONS to Ask About “Gary and Tony Have a Baby”

The teacher and researcher in me will be looking at tonight’s media presentation with a few specific things in mind.   I thought I’d share what those things are.  Then, afterward, we’ll go back and look at them one-by-one to see how the writers and producers did.

1. To what extent does the story reflect the tensions between those on multiple sides of the morality debate surrounding same-sex adoption?

2. How does the story subjects’ own experiences make it a highly unusual situation (and, by definition, NEWSWORTHY)?  Or does CNN broaden the canvas by contrasting Gary and Tony’s experiences with multiple other couples?

3. Is there an undercurrent of REFORM in the way the CNN producers assemble the information (i.e.  Is CNN making a subtle case for changing laws?”) in the documentary?

4. What OTHER types of diversity (class, race, gender, geography) are present in the documentary?

5. What does the documentary reveal about CNN’s general mission in its “In America” franchise?

Second Day of Christian Writers Conference Ends with Tips For Writing Success

The 19th Southern Christian Writers Conference is wrapping up with a blue-ribbon panel with advice for success as a Christian writer.

Cheryl Wray moderated the closing panel featuring Edna Ellison, Betty Hassler and Bruce Barbour at the Southern Christian Writers Conference in Tuscaloosa, AL

Even as he prepares to launch his next book on an iPad, Bruce Barbour reminded those in the closing panel at the two-day conference here in Tuscaloosa that only 10% of Americans are making the book population.

Barbour also reminded those attending the conference that more than 60 percent of Christian books are sold in secular book outlets.

Barbour also suggested that having a social networking platform such as Facebook or Twitter is a must, especially for unpublished authors.

“We’re going to see a huge number of new ways for bookbuyers to buy books,” Barbour said.

Prolific Children’s Writer Wows Tuscaloosa Audience

She’s published more than 65 books, but it’s the story behind Crystal Bowman’s publications that inspired a roomful of Christian writers tonight here at First Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa.

“When I was writing Meditations for Moms, I didn’t picture a young man with post-partum depression,” said Bowman. “That’s the awesome thing about publishing.  We can’t begin to know how God is going to use.”

In a keynote address titled “Finding Purpose in your writing,” Bowman gave attendees a heavy dose of advice while providing a sampling of her stellar storytelling skills.

Publishing your book is not just about being a successful author   Bowman reminded those at the Southern Christian Writers Conference we are also called “to touch lives” and “to point people to Christ.”

“What I think we need to do as writers is to be obedient, be faithful and allow God to use our writing as a way he sees fit.”

She also recounted how a manuscript she intended to be a book ended up being selected for publication in Clubhouse, Jr. Magazine

Infected With a Passion For Writing at First Baptist Tuscaloosa

More than 200 people are in attendance at the Southern Christian Writers Conference at First Baptist Church Tuscaloosa.

Even though I teach journalism year-round at The University of Alabama, I rarely am in a setting like the Southern Christian Writers Conference (SCWC) where there is such a passion and enthusiasm for writing.

We’re only through the first two rounds of breakout sessions and the enthusiasm is bubbling over from how to use the Web for communicating our messages to capturing a person’s experience in a personality profile.

Doyce Powell from Dallas, Ga. urged the nearly 200 people in attendance to lift up their hands with every word they write.

“Nothing ever happens if we let things deter us from lifting our hands,” he said.

Powell was one of four previous SCWC attendees who told their stories to kick off the two-day gathering. “These four stories show how different we are as writers,” said Joanne Sloan, SCWC coordinator.

Sloan and her husband, my University of Alabama Journalism Colleague David Sloan, along with their daughter, Cheryl Wray and son, Chris have made this conference a labor of love to which so many of us look forward each summer.

Packed Out for Opening Session

If I had been a few minutes later, I might not have gotten a seat at the opening session this afternoon here in the Fellowship Hall at First Baptist Church in downtown Tuscaloosa. Writers from across the Southeast are here for what is billed as one of the nation’s top gatherings for Christian writers.

So far I’ve met school officials from South Alabama, Children’s book writers from right here in Tuscaloosa metro area. Along with the new friends excited about writing, I also got some sage advice on writing.

“Procrastination is nothing but wasting God’s time,” said Marlaine Peachey of Mandeville, La.

This year many of those speaking at the opening session talked about their experiences at the conference and what it does for their writing

One of Alabama’s Best Profile Writers

He says he once wrote 532 personal columns in a row for a newspaper in Columbus, Miss.Today Delbert Reed shared his secrets to success at a session on Profile Writers.

“I was so busy churning out columns doing my job that I didn’t realize how I might impact a life,” Reed said as he told the story of a woman from nearby Memphis, who wrote to tell him how one of his columns helped her reverse her decision to take her own life.

The stories of writing for impact will be plentiful this weekend.

SPJ: A Reason To Miss Sunday Morning Services

INDIANAPOLIS–  It’s the first Sunday in June and I’m not able to start the week off in church due to some travels that have me in Indiana’s Capital City.

The Society of Professional Journalists is the nation’s largest, most broad-based group of journalists.   This weekend, I’m joined by more than 40 other attendees at the Ted SCripps Leadership Institute.

My pastor back home in Tuscaloosa even set me up with a church to visit here in Indianapolis.  But,  9 a.m. start this morning won’t quite be enough time to make even an early 8:30 a.m. service.

So, what could possibly be so important that I have to miss church on Sunday?

I can list five reasons:

1.  SPJ Membership is Down, and we need to fix it.

Linda Hall, our membership coordinator (see in the above picture) works hard to keep our membership at levels it should be.  Today we will be talking about membership strategies as our three-day meeting winds down.

2.  Time to set some specific plans for 2010-2011

Scott Leadingham, editor of QUILL, SPJ's membership magazine, shows the deep thought that we will be in on this final day of the Institute.

A big part of this gathering is about planning for the upcoming year.  While those of us on the SPJ National Board can set a course of action for the overall Society, those plans have to be localized and actionized by those leaders here this weekend.

3. Time to take our group picture– a better one than this

The 2009 Scripps Class

One of the highlights of Sunday’s events at the Scripps Institute is taking our official group photo.   For more than a dozen years, this event has trained leadership in the society and we have our group photos by which to remember the weekend.

4.  It’s GRADUATION TIME

University of Alabama SPJ Vice President Chartis Ivy receives her certificate upon completing the SPJ Scripps Institute in June 2009.

Each of the 43 participants will receive a certificate in a ceremony similar to the one depicted above where my outgoing Vice President Chartis Ivy received her certificate at the 2009 retreat.   It’s an important signal that those here from two dozen states have reached a point of READINESS to work in SPJ.

5.  Brainstorm

As the cliche goes, last but not least, we need to brainstorm some ideas that we can put into place to make SPJ better.

So I think these are five reasons to miss Sunday Morning Services today, even if I am in a city like Indianapolis where there are lots of churches.    Talk about true dedication to SPJ!