Blurring the lines between newsworthy and exploitation: lessons from the Rebel Wilson controversy
MediaCast Team, June, 2022

The controversy surrounding the Sydney Morning Herald’s handling of Rebel Wilson’s sexuality earlier this month provides a valuable lesson in connecting with LGBTQ+ audiences. The fallout has highlighted that LGBTQ+ people still come up against some challenging discourse in the media and as PR professionals, it’s key for us to be part of the solution not the problem. 

As Pride Month comes to a close, you will have noticed an increase in the number of LGBTQ+ narratives in the media since the start of the month. In recent years, Pride Month has become an openly acknowledged global movement. Increased social tolerance and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people have been the driving forces behind Pride Month’s popularity. Off the back of this increased support, global corporations have made it trendy to vocally advocate for LGBTQ+ communities during June. 

Support is shown in a variety of ways, but generally, we see pride motifs incorporated into logos, commentary from LGBTQ+ voices, and participation in festivities. For Australians, it’s an incredible and welcome shift, considering that LGBTQ+ citizens have only had access to common law marriage since 2017.

Participating in Pride Month enables organisations to wear their pride on their sleeves without repercussion and presents a profitable business opportunity. Pride Month is seen as a useful time hook for media outlets, but this attitude can blur the lines between newsworthiness and exploitation.

The Rebel Wilson controversy is an excellent example of a media outlet wanting to be a part of the conversation at any cost. Aside from the questionable ethics involved in commodifying someone’s sexuality as some sort of hot topic or newsworthy scoop, the attempts to justify the way Rebel’s story was reported on was out of character from such a well-respected organisation. The use of the argument that no one should be ashamed of coming out highlights a vital issue in this conversation. While the assertion that there’s no shame in coming out or embracing one’s sexuality is undoubtedly true, the eagerness to report on Rebel’s story resulted in her sense of autonomy being sidelined. 

This is not to say that media shouldn’t touch on LGBTQ+ issues; on the contrary, LGBTQ+ voices should be represented widely throughout a healthy media landscape. But there are certainly a few takeaways from the Rebel Wilson controversy. When covering sensitive topics such as sexuality, journalists need to display a duty of care toward their subjects. Despite the increase in societal acceptance, being an openly LGBTQ+ person still carries inherent dangers. In fact, outing someone can put their livelihood and wellbeing on the line.

A celebrity revealing their sexuality is not scandalous and it’s surprising that it is still treated as such by some media outlets in 2022. Doing so makes a spectacle of queerness and comes across as ‘othering’ the LGBTQ+ community. Running a ‘coming out’ story is by no means a no-go zone for journalists, however centring the subject in their own story rather than leaning on shock value can make a huge difference in how the story is received by the audience. When done right, these pieces can share valuable experiences and raise awareness of LGBTQ+ issues – as well as giving the subject a positive ‘coming out’ experience within the media. 

Coming out is a profoundly personal experience, and it is important to keep this in mind when covering coming out stories. In doing so, organisations add a human element into their reporting, and can avoid coming off as speculating on someone’s sexuality or unintentionally alienating the LGBTQ+ community.  Secondly, publicly positioning your organisation as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community during Pride Month is a great way to show support, however backing this up through demonstrating genuine support all year round is key. 

While Pride Month may offer a tempting time hook for LGBTQ+-related content, a level of care, humanisation and respect is essential to cover such stories with thoughtfulness.