YOUR NEUTRAL APOSTROPHES SICKEN ME

J‑Source is the site operated by the Canadian Journalism Foundation. It is so technically atrocious it does not really have “HTML” and comments on blog posts work only if you manually add www. to the site address (which instruction the site actually gives you). Nonetheless, it is the closest thing to a Romenesko manqué Canada has.

I sent along a note about my gay-money research and received this invitation from interim associate editrix Dana Lacey on 2010.11.24:

I think it would be interesting if you wrote a story for J‑Source outlining the media myths you’ve encountered in your research, and the reasons behind launching this site. Let me know if this is something you’d be interested in.

I told her I’d have to work up a head of steam to do that. I later did, going so far as to call up Tara Perkins and Marina Strauss, the Globe and Mail journos who put together that absurd story on gay wine that prompted my entire project. I turned in copy on 2010.12.03, and Lacey has been incommunicado since that point.

Here, then, is the article J‑Source commissioned, then refused to run.


When facts get in the way of a good-news story

When journalists spend a decade and a half telling a good-news story about a minority group, what happens when facts contradict the story? Is the news still good?

The minority group in question here is “the gay community” – a term whose vagueness will become important later on – and the story is the “lucrative” market the gay community represents. Journalists’ coverage has consistently struck the same notes from the 1990s (“Going after the gay market: Business begins to realize there is profit in aiming ads at affluent, educated gays,” Montreal Gazette, Sept. 27, 1992) to the present day (“Looking for gold at the end of the rainbow,” Globe and Mail, June 26, 2009). It’s a good-news story of “gays” who, because they are “DINKs,” have more disposable income than straight people, making them a “dream” market.

These stories paint a picture of a “demographic” with no kids to pay for. “The gay community” envisaged here has exquisite taste; it expects nothing but the best and is happy to pay for it. The reporting is really about fashion-forward, fabulous gay males, of course, not frumpy lesbians with a fixer-upper they’re renovating with their own tools. Gay entrepreneur and market Sean Strub summed up the stereotype well: “The public sees two gay professional white men with their BMWs and shar-pei dogs, or whatever, and take that to be an accurate reflection of our community.”

One problem: This good-news story isn’t true, at least according to the consensus of economists. By far the majority of peer-reviewed papers reporting data from the U.S., Sweden, Australia, the U.K., and, yes, Canada show that gay males have, on average, lower incomes and earnings than straight males, while lesbians have higher average incomes and earnings than straight females. And lesbians and gay males do have kids – in rough terms, about one-half and one-quarter as often as straight people, respectively.

But this isn’t the story gay marketers tell.

Telling half-truths with “statistics”

Using surveys of, say, attendees at gay-pride events, subscribers to gay newspapers, or tourists at gay hotspots (none of them random samples), marketers have jumped to optimistic conclusions, all of which conveniently correspond to the interests of firms trying to market goods and services to the gay community (or their own services as gay-marketing experts). Canada gets off a bit more lightly in this regard than the United Kingdom, where gay marketing can be and is summed up in a cutesy alliteration – “the pink pound.”

If you were a marketer who lived and died by the data, you’d spend most of your time selling to married heterosexual males, because a well-documented “marriage premium” puts them on top of the earnings heap on average. But married guys aren’t a new market to be exploited, nor are they a hot new topic for journalists to cover.

The facts about gay money have been readily available since about 2001, when M.V. Lee Badgett’s seminal book Money, Myths and Change: The Economic Lives of Lesbians and Gay Men was published. But journalists have remained curiously immune to the facts. Let’s return to that Globe and Mail piece from 2009, for which Marina Strauss and Tara Perkins shared the byline. It proposed an entire new product category – gay wine.

“Gay people have better-than-average taste in wine and they have a lot of disposable income to spend on wines,” says Daniel Lenko, owner of his eponymous winery. “It might look a little bit campy or a little tongue in cheek. But a lot of people are waking up and saying, ‘Hey, these people have been ignored as a potential sale. Let’s get our heads out of the sand and do something about it.’ ”

The efforts can pay off handsomely. According to the Canadian Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, the GBLT demographic is estimated to have the collective buying power of about $100 billion a year….

There actually aren’t any peer-reviewed studies of gay “buying power” or “disposable income.” (Defining those terms is an issue in itself; StatsCan tersely defines disposable income as “Personal income less current transfers to government.”)

Why do journalists keep writing and rewriting the same good-news story even though the news isn’t all that good? I have a pet theory that I think is not really wide of the mark: Journalists are fundamentally liberal. It appeals to their sensibilities to have good news to report about gay people, a group they generally like and work with day to day.

Viewed more objectively, marketers’ claims are more convenient to cover. A quick rewrite is all you need. It takes much more time to fact-check marketers’ claims; journos are not in a big rush to put in that time if it means – again – contradicting a good-news story.

Sources explain their reasoning

A meta-article about journalism requires its own fact-checking, so I double-checked with sources.

  • I called up Perkins and Strauss to ask why they thought journalists keep republishing the same untruths. Perkins couldn’t remember the article (or a conversation she and I had had in June 2009 after the article appeared), but promised to get back to me; despite a follow-up E-mail, she didn’t.

    “I think they look at disposable income especially,” Strauss said, “and the fact that this demographic has more money to spend, more disposable money. They have fewer people who are dependent on them and so they can spend more of the money they make on purchases, which makes it a potentially attractive market for companies.”

    When I pointed out this was a restatement of marketer’s unverified claims, Strauss asked, in an annoyed-sounding voice, why I was bothering her instead of the Chamber of Commerce. (Because journalists are the story, I told her.)

  • The Canadian Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (CGLCC) couldn’t back up the “$100 billion a year” estimate. When asked for corroboration, CLGCC’s Bruce McDonald E-mailed a survey on the gay travel market; not only did the survey fail to mention the figure in question or anything like it, it did not even state its number of respondents. (All of them were, however, recruited online, and – surprise – most earned higher incomes than Canadian average.)

    When queried further, McDonald did not fill in that gap about number of respondents. He did, however, refer me to a report (PDF) from the International Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (headquartered in Montreal) that included an “Est. G/L Spending Power” for Canada of €68,144,016,000 ($90 billion). Methodology? Here it is in full: “The findings are based on data collected from publicly-accessible information sources, including Web sites, government statistics offices, and the public CIA Global Information Service.”

That’s how much work it took to disprove a single claim in one article. In general, it’s just easier to copy and paste from a press release. Because who can resist a good-news story about that admirable gay community?


Resources for journalists covering gay money and “the gay market”

Inspired in part by the Perkins/Strauss article, I spent more than half of 2010 reading nearly every peer-reviewed study, and many popular-press articles and books, about lesbian and gay incomes and earnings. One of my goals was to produce a readily-Googlable source of reliable information for other journalists so that finally, at long last, they’d stop making the same mistakes.

My resource – Gay Money: The Truth About Lesbian & Gay Economics – is now online, as is a companion chapter for journalists.


Reference

Strub, Sean (1997). “The growth of the gay and lesbian market.” In Martin Duberman, ed., A Queer World: The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2010.12.20 14:00. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:
https://blog.fawny.org/2010/12/20/jsource-gaymoney/

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