The creator of Openly on the importance of queer news in mainstream media.
Earlier this year, Antonio Zappulla (COO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation) made history when he founded Openly, a digital platform which delivers “fair, accurate and impartial news” about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Covering topics such as legislative change, health-related matters, business and economics, Openly has been noted as one of the first LGBTQ brands to cover global queer news.
We sat down with Antonio and discussed how Openly was formed, the importance of LGBTQ news in mainstream media, and what we can expect from the brand in the next 12 months.
Congratulations on the launch and great success of Openly. Why was this a platform you wanted to launch into the mainstream?
LGBTQ rights are human rights and as such they should be everybody’s business. When LGBTQ people are not empowered to be themselves, society at large suffers. There’s an undisputed correlation between LGBTQ inclusion and economic development. This is not my opinion, this comes from the World Bank, together with a several trusted think-tanks. And then there is the issue of misrepresentation. When words such as ‘filthy’, ‘diseased’, ‘devil worshipper’, ‘disgusting’, ‘abnormal’ and ‘paedophile’ are used by mainstream media around the world in reporting on the LGBTQ community, there is clearly a problem. Going mainstream means that you go beyond the echo chamber, shining a powerful light on the many issues affecting LGBTQ people: health, immigration rights, persecution – and also progress. We have a collective responsibility in changing the narrative surrounding the LGBTQ community. And if we keep speaking among ourselves, that simply won’t happen.
When creating the platform, what did you hope to achieve?
Normalising the conversation. If you are reading this interview, you are probably accustomed to the media reporting the victories for marriage equality, the corporate support for LGBTQ inclusion, and the increased visibility of trans people. But let’s not forget that this is a narrative which belongs to the ‘progressive’ West, and one which has only emerged in the past 20 years. A friend shared with me a 1981 article from a respected UK broadsheet describing the opening of a London gay club in terms that today, would not just raise a few eyebrows but would probably trier an Independent Press Standards Organisation investigation. So much has changed since then, here in the UK. People’s hearts and minds have opened towards greater acceptance of LGBTQ people. But this hasn’t happened by chance. The media has played a key role in making this shift happen, dropping the witch-hunt-narrative and delivering more factual and fair reporting.
How important do you believe LGBTQ media and news within the mainstream is?
Around the world, LGBTQ issues are largely under-reported and, given the size of the LGBTQ community globally, this simply makes no sense. To be clear, I am not calling for the media to have a pro-LGBTQ agenda. I am calling for good journalism, which by definition is impartial, fair and accurate. We need journalism that sticks to the facts and leaves prejudice and agendas behind. We need journalism that is bound by truth-telling alone. This journalism still exists.
Sadly, the levels of acceptance for queer stories and lives changes around the world. Being an international platform, how does the reporting of LGBTQ issues change depending on the location of the story or audience?
For millions of people around the world the media actually constitutes a threat to life. It’s a dangerous amplifier of stereotypes, prejudice and hatred. Take Uganda, where a national newspaper published a front-page story with the headline ‘Top Homos: Hang them’. The article argued that gay men in the country had set a target to ‘recruit one million children’. In Jamaica, a recent article claimed that gay people with guns were terrorising local communities. The story argued that many local gangsters were directly linked to the gay community through a network of male escorts. In Russia, where the 2013 anti-gay propaganda law forbids the promotion of behaviours that contradict ‘traditional family values’, the media has shifted towards a narrative which portrays gay men as paedophiles. Imagine for a second that you are on the receiving end of this vicious and public abuse. How would this impact your safety, your personal life and your career? Even today, in the current ‘post-truth’ era, the media still has the ultimate power to influence the public’s beliefs, and to shape attitudes towards social and political issues. This is why we launched Openly, a global LGBTQ news and information platform powered by the journalism of the Thomson Reuters Foundation bringing impartial LGBTQ news to a world that isn’t. Openly is bringing high-quality LGBTQ news to the widest possible audience, one which includes non-LGBTQ readers. Thanks to our distribution model, all our LGBTQ stories will be published not only on Openly, but also across the Reuters news distribution service, reaching a daily audience of 1 billion people. In practical terms, this means that a story we recently wrote describing the strules of being trans as part of Colombia’s indigenous community has landed on news-desks both in Norway and in Saudi Arabia. Our distribution strategy itself is playing an important role in normalising the conversation about LGBTQ people.
So often, LGBTQ people and the stories that affect them come from sadly ‘straight-washed’ newsrooms. How does Openly ensure that LGBTQ people are able to amplify their own work authentically?
Openly adheres to the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles of integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. We have a duty to report reliable and objective news and information to the world. In this context, your sexual orientation and gender identity is and should remain irrelevant. Our Editor is constantly in touch with hundreds of LGBTQ organizations on the ground who put forward story ideas. He happens to be an openly gay man. Does it make him a better journalist? No. He’s brilliant regardless.
Do you think others will follow Openly in leading the way on telling queer narratives?
It is already happening. The BBC is currently hiring an LGBTQ reporter/producer. We see this as great development. If we are launching a trend leading to more fair and accurate news being reported on LGBTQ people, that’s encouraging and definitely welcome.
And finally, what’s coming up for you and Openly in the next 12 months?
My role at the Thomson Reuters Foundation goes beyond Openly. But, in regards to Openly, our goal is ambitious. We want this to become the ultimate daily source of LGBTQ news in an environment where the topic remains largely under-reported and confined to niche outlets which often have a regional focus and are predominantly catering to an LGBTQ and mainly male audience. Openly is set to change all that. Now, we need more funding to hire dedicated reporters internationally, but I am very confident we’ll get there. The response we have received so far from all corners of the world is beyond our initial expectations, which is very encouraging.