Thirty-five Ohio LGBTQ+ organizations have signed an open letter to Spectrum News 1 Ohio (“Spectrum”) asking the statewide news network to remove a story published in July on conversion therapy that “validated the harmful practice and a disgraced practitioner against a transgender individual’s lived experience.”
The letter is the latest development in months-long back-and-forth between Spectrum and The Buckeye Ranch, a Columbus-based organization providing family-focused mental health treatment and services for behavioral, psychological, and substance-abuse disorders.
Representatives from The Buckeye Ranch say they were approached in May by Tonisha Johnson, a journalist for Spectrum, who was searching for a transgender individual to participate in a story.
“She explained to us that the story would be focused on the mental health damage done by the uptick in anti-trans legislation in Ohio, like the attempts to ban trans Ohioans from playing sports,” said Trish Richter, marketing and communications coordinator for The Buckeye Ranch.
The Buckeye Ranch connected Johnson to a 24-year-old Black trans male in the Columbus area, referred to as “Chris” in this piece.
The final version of the story—aired and posted on Spectrum’s website on July 1—did not focus on the increase in anti-trans legislation, but instead highlighted the practice of conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy.
A bill to “prohibit conversion therapy for minors” was introduced in the Ohio State Senate by Senators Tina Maharath and Nickie Antonio and referred to the Health Committee in February, but no hearings have been scheduled.
In the Spectrum piece, Chris’s experience with suicidal thoughts and deep depression was broadcast alongside the views of a Virginia-based “international, multi-faith peer support group” specializing in conversion therapy who called the practice “affirming” and a “positive experience.”
[Editor’s note: The Buckeye Flame is not linking to the original story so as not to amplify it further.]
After the story ran, Chris reached out to The Buckeye Ranch because he was upset with how his experiences were portrayed in the story and that a discredited therapy was given equal weight to his narrative. The Buckeye Ranch reached out to Johnson via e-mail:
“[Chris] and our team were disappointed about the story on conversion therapy and its effects on the LGBTQ community. We feel that providing a platform for [the conversion therapy] program alongside Chris’ story dishonors Chris’ experience and vulnerability in sharing his story. While we understand the effort to provide unbiased coverage, we feel these interviews should have been presented separately. Using the term “reparative therapy” repeatedly is damaging enough, implying that someone’s identity is something to be repaired. Rich’s statement that his program brings LGBTQ individuals’ “sexual thoughts and behavior in line with their values” communicates to the LGBTQ youth watching this interview that their identity is a condition to be healed and corrected, comparing it to sex addictions and trauma coping mechanisms.
Conversion therapy does irreparable damage, often leading to suicide, and providing a platform to it under the guise of another voice is challenging for us.
We discussed providing an apology to [Chris] (via email) and the taking down of the story to prevent further harm to the LGBTQ community.
In her reply back to The Buckeye Ranch, Johnson wrote that it was not her “intent to dishonor or misrepresent Chris in any way, shape or form, or misrepresent what we were looking for with the story as a station.” Johnson offered both to make the apology to Chris as well as to further the discussion with station management, but said that “it is against station policy to take a story down.”
Chris’ full name and image is used in the story that Spectrum refuses to take down.
The Buckeye Ranch then contacted Karl Turner, Spectrum news director, and Saliqa Khan, Spectrum managing director for the regional digital team.
“We expressed our appreciation for [Johnson’s] work to tell the stories of the LGBTQ+ community, but we reiterated that we wanted to see the story taken down due to the harm it continued to do to the LGBTQ+ community just by being up,” Richter said. “The community member we connected with [Spectrum] felt misrepresented by the story and disrespected by the way his story was told side by side [with the Virginia nonprofit].”
The Buckeye Ranch enlisted the support of GLAAD, a national LGBTQ+ media advocacy organization. Barbara Simon, head of news and campaigns for GLAAD, reached out to Spectrum management on behalf of The Buckeye Ranch to facilitate the removal of the story.
“Outlets can and should remove content like this and adhere to the highest principle of public safety,” Simon said.
A joint meeting was held on August 17 during which Spectrum reiterated that the story would not be removed.
Turner e-mailed The Buckeye Ranch and GLAAD on August 19th and offered “to do another story to further explore the danger of conversion therapy rather than take down material or add an editor’s note to the existing story.”
Simon reached out to Spectrum management one final time to request that the piece be removed. According to Simon, Spectrum responded by offering to add a statement/rebuttal to the post and link to GLAAD resources on covering the topic, but the news organization maintained their refusal to remove the piece.
On October 5, Spectrum added an Editor’s note to the piece:
The Buckeye Flame asked Spectrum for comment on its policies and refusal to remove the story.
The Flame’s questions included:
- What was the original topic of this piece and how it was pitched to the client? Did the focus change in the process? Is it possible that the topic of the piece was not represented clearly to the client, or that it changed after the conversation?
- Why give an out-of-state agency of a discredited and proven-to-be-harmful practice equal footing with a member of Ohio’s LGBTQ+ community?
- What is the official policy on removing stories?
- What is your response to the 35 orgs stating that the presence of this piece online continues to do harm and should be taken down?
In response, a Spectrum spokesperson replied in an email, “We stand by our reporting.” 🔥