The Backstory: Covering the controversy over the Santee YMCA’s transgender policy
Luis Cruz: Welcome to “San Diego News Fix — The Backstory” where we tackle important questions about journalism ethics and give you a behind-the-scenes look at our industry and our newsroom.
Protests have taken place in Santee over the last couple of weeks after a 17-year-old girl complained about seeing a transgender woman in the women’s locker room at the Cameron Family YMCA. The incident and the protests have garnered national attention.
Union-Tribune managing editor Lora Cicalo, publisher and editor Jeff Light, and communities editor Tarcy Connors discuss the U-T’s coverage of the protests and some of the decisions the newsroom has had to make while covering this ongoing story.
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Jeff Light: Thank you, Luis. What I wanted to do today was talk about how a story makes it onto the front page of a big metro newspaper like The San Diego Union-Tribune. So, in a second, Lora Cicalo, I’m going to ask you about what your criteria are and then we can walk through how we got to that threshold last week in discussing the story about the protest outside the YMCA in Santee. But let’s start just with some of the facts of the story. Tarcy, can you fill us in on this whole dispute in Santee over the locker room facilities at the Y? What are the news events there?
Tarcy Connors: Last week, on Wednesday, we received notice of a protest that same day at the YMCA in Santee. It would be closing early because they had gotten wind that people would be gathering outside the facility to take exception to the YMCA’s policy of allowing transgender people to use its facility, which is allowed by state law. It sort of caught us flat-footed. We weren’t aware of anything at that time and just had the basics of the protest.
The basic outline was that a transgender person had been seen in the women’s locker room by a young woman. And the young woman had gone to the Santee City Council to complain about that and to say how unsafe she felt because she said she believed at that time that it was a male that she had seen in the women’s locker room. The young woman had subsequently gone on Tucker Carlson’s show to talk about what had happened in the locker room. Then the story was picked up by the New York Post and some other outlets, which elevated the story and got the attention of a whole bunch of folks. That is what prompted the protest and the closure of the Y on Wednesday.
Jeff Light: Early in that day, Blake Nelson, the Santee beat reporter, wrote a story saying that this protest was planned and the Y was closing early. That story was up on our site. And Lora Cicalo, you’re tracking that as you’re putting together the print edition. I imagine you are looking to see, well, what is going to happen with this protest? Tell me a little bit about your process in putting together the front page. What are you looking for?
Lora Cicalo: Obviously, we’re a local paper, so, the first criteria is giving greater weight to things that happen in our region. And like any news story, in this particular case, as you mentioned, we knew that there was a protest planned – the Y had decided to close early – but we had no idea, at that juncture in the afternoon, what really was going to happen. It could have been four people who showed up with signs in front of the Y. It could be lots of people – and people on multiple sides – and a confrontation. We just didn’t know. So, I went into the evening with the thought that I would just have to have a plan in case this story turns into an A-1 story.
You asked, “What is the criteria for an A-1 story?” Like any news story, we’re looking at a variety of things: the relevance of the story, how much interest there is around it. Sometimes we’re looking at the impact. Is there conflict? Prominence? Proximity? All of those are factors that we’re looking at when we’re judging where to play a story. So, as I said, that evening we went in not really knowing whether this is an A-1 or a local section story. It was certainly newsworthy that the Y had, proactively, decided to close because they said they were concerned about the safety of their staff and their members. We had to kind of let things play out.
Jeff Light: So, going into the evening you’ve got the Y is closed. The closure of a YMCA is probably not front-page news in general, although it’s around a matter of controversy. That elevates it a little bit. And now there’s this protest planned, and you’re keeping an eye on how big that protest is. And probably also who was there. So, if 1,000 people appeared at the protest, that would be different than if 100 people came, right?
Lora Cicalo: Right. There was the possibility it could have been any number of people, and we had to – as we do every evening – stay flexible to react based on the news event.
Jeff Light: If 1,000 people appeared, that would be a pretty good argument for its front-page placement on the face of it. But that was not the case, right? There were not 1,000 people there. It was a few hundred people, correct?
Tarcy Connors: It was over 300 people.
Jeff Light: Three hundred people. OK, so sort of a tweener. Two or three hundred people get together in San Diego in all sorts of fashions every day. But there were other factors here as well. Like I mentioned earlier, the Y is closed over a matter of controversy. I think that certainly is something that can elevate a story to the front page. This is an issue of public interest and of public debate. But, on the other hand, this was a protest staged by one group to promote their point of view. So, it was a partisan event. And so there was this question, “Are we going to elevate this partisan event, this PR for one side, onto the front page?” How do you think about that? I think that was very much in your mind as we were talking about it that night.
Lora Cicalo: Absolutely. We didn’t know, in advance of the event, if people on another side would show up or not. All we knew was this protest had been planned by a particular group. And, as the three of us talked that evening, there was concern about elevating that particular perspective. We didn’t have a lot of information about the event that had precipitated all of this. Tarcy and I, in addition to the reporter, had listened to this young woman’s comments before the Santee City Council, which preceded this. But it really wasn’t clear what actually had transpired. What propelled her to take this matter to the City Council? I had a lot of questions about what was really at the root of this, and we didn’t have the answers to that. So, that gave me pause about the group that was organizing the protest and what this young woman’s experience had been. Her comments before the council did not generate a lot of reaction at the time. She kind of got up and spoke and then that was the end of it. So, I had questions about how that then became the subject of a Tucker Carlson segment and the reason for this protest. We didn’t have those answers immediately.
Jeff Light: I’m looking at our standards – which are on our website – of who we don’t include in stories, sources that we would not use. And those include a lack of veracity and lack of transparency. So, there was a question: Did we really know what happened and whether this complaint was legitimate? Or whether it was sort of ginned up? I think that was a question. And I guess we still don’t 100 percent know. And then there are other criteria: Bigotry and law breaking are two criteria that can disqualify people from participating in our news coverage or for us to include them. In this case, I think there were elements of both of those. It’s clear the law requires equal access to the dressing-room facilities for transgender people, and people of all sexual orientations as well. So, part of this protest was advocating breaking the law. That’s one thing that we consider. And then, secondly, bigotry. This seemed to be targeting people based on their gender identity in a way that seemed bigoted or hateful.
Lora Cicalo: Right. And not to jump too far ahead into that evening, but we did have subsequent conversations once the protests had had taken place – Tarcy and I with the reporter and another editor – about the language that we would include in that story. I felt very strongly that we should not be giving oxygen to hate speech. There were many, many statements made during the protest by speakers, and by protesters interacting with counterprotesters, that we would see as hate speech. I felt, even though it happened and our reporter observed it, we should not be amplifying that in our in our story. We characterized the interaction and some of the speech but did not quote verbatim the things that we considered to be to be hate speech.
Jeff Light: I wanted to really focus on the placement of the story and how we debated that, because those criteria we just went over are important determinants. And your concern that you just expressed about amplifying hate speech is definitely something that’s on our minds. Had this been a case of a marginalized person or community being denied access to the YMCA based on their identity and 300 people stood in front of the Y to protest that, we would not hesitate, I think, to see that as newsworthy and front-page news, right? This is different. Did something even happen here? There’s a little uncertainty there. And then, secondly, what about bigotry and law breaking? Those are real concerns.
The other side of the argument was that to not put this on the front page raises questions of diminishing this act of prejudice and discrimination. It’s saying it’s not important, that the rights of the transgender community are somehow less than other marginalized communities. I felt like this kind of action against any of a wide range of groups we would see as front-page news, right? So we got a little caught in this conversation of seeing both sides of this coin and really not knowing where to go. What was it that tipped it to, yes, it should be on the front page?
Lora Cicalo: Well, I think there were a couple of factors. One, as you mentioned, we kind of collectively went through this thought exercise of, OK, what if a similar situation presented itself and we were talking about another group? I think that was valuable for all of us to kind of walk through that process. Would we put that on the front page? Would we cover that in the same way? That, to me, was helpful in clarifying my thoughts.
A couple of other things that we found out about the protest: One, there was confrontation. The Sheriff’s Department was out there in force. They were anticipating the possibility that this could turn violent. There were interactions between the two groups. Another factor for me was having public officials, elected officials stand up and advocate violating the law, the law that protects and affords equal access to all people. And not only advocating breaking the law, advocating that California’s law should be overturned. This transgender woman – in these people’s minds – should not have access to the facilities. And I think the Y’s position, which they were very forthright about, was “We are making sure that everyone has access. We are legally obligated and we provide that access in equal and equitable way.” To me, it was exceptionally newsworthy that we had public officials advocating against that very protection.
Jeff Light: Then, I think there also was a little bit of news that was added late in the evening about the school district.
Tarcy Connors: Yes, that really started to broaden the scope of the story. The school district released an announcement saying that it would stop all field trips and programs to the YMCA until they had a discussion with the YMCA about its policies regarding transgender people. So, that began to elevate the story to a broader audience participating in that discrimination against the transgender community.
Jeff Light: And, if I recall, that was really the tipping point where it seemed like, OK, this is definitely a front-page story. Very interesting conversation. So, what I’m taking from it is that the elements at play were public interest, maybe social significance, the size of the crowd, the composition of the crowd – who was there – and also the news of the event. What I mean by that was here are people with a particular point of view who don’t seem to be happy, but nothing has really happened. It’s just people out here expressing their opinion. And that became a little different when, OK, the schools are now somehow getting involved. The police are involved. That action, I think, also elevated it. I felt like we had a little journalism workshop at work that night.
Lora, any concluding thoughts before we sign off?
Lora Cicalo: I think it’s a great example – and maybe people are not aware – that we spent a lot of time and energy that evening not only talking about the play of the story, but really wordsmithing and going through that story with different lenses. I think it’s noteworthy, the energy and the amount of time that we spent. We don’t always get it right. We certainly make our share of mistakes. But there was a concerted effort to be very conscientious about the way we approached that and to be fair in that story. It took a little bit of a village to get that to the point where we felt like this was the story we were comfortable with.
Tarcy Connors: And I thought it was really important that we brought in diverse voices from within the newsroom to go over that story and really make sure that we weren’t harming anybody.
Jeff Light: Excellent. Thank you both, Tarcy Connors and Lora Cicalo. Job well done.