The cre­ator of Openly on the im­por­tance of queer news in main­stream me­dia.

Gay Times Magazine - - ANTONIO ZAPPULLA - Words Sam Damshenas

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 triƒer 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 struƒles 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.

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