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.

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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?

Author: George Daniels

George L. Daniels is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. After spending eight years in the local television newsroom working as a producer at stations in Richmond, Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Atlanta, Georgia, Daniels moved from the newsroom to the classroom. He’s conducted research on diversity issues in the media workplace and change in the television newsroom as well as media convergence. Before going to work in television news, Daniels worked briefly as a freelance writer for The Richmond Free Press in his hometown of Richmond, Va.

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