Coverage of Tom Daley’s Announcement Reveals What’s Wrong with the Media

Yesterday, British diver Tom Daley posted a Youtube video stating that he’s in a relationship with a man. The announcement from the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist has drawn plenty of public attention and last night Daley tweeted that he was “overwhelmed by all the support.”

Despite the support, there is a disturbing undercurrent to the coverage of his announcement. If you Google ‘Tom Daley’ and peruse the news headlines, the terms “comes out,” “gay,” and “bisexual” are used frequently. The problem with this is that in his 5:26 video, Daley never uses any of these words.

The video very frankly announces that he is currently dating a man, but that’s all he reveals. He does say that he “still fancies girls,” which has led some to label him as bisexual, while others have chosen to label him as gay. (Nichi Hodgson breaks this down nicely in The Guardian)

But why does the media feel the need to label his sexuality at all? If he hasn’t, it’s not fair for anyone to else to impose a label on him. Daley said that he was making the video so that he wouldn’t be misquoted or misunderstood, and yet that’s exactly what’s happening. As one person tweeted, “Tom Daley: I like toast. Media: Tom Daley only eats toast.”

Media in 2013 seems to want everything to be easily compartmentalized. Things need to fit into an easily defined category – there are no shades of gray. Jon Stewart lampooned CNN recently for its breakdown of events as either ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Unfortunately the world doesn’t work that way – it’s impossible to breakdown the Iranian arms deal, health care, or the economy in such simplistic terms.

Yet that’s what the media does. As a result, Daley’s nuance is lost in a sea of headlines that fail to accurately reflect what he said.

Of course there’s another question that begs to be asked: why do we care who Tom Daley (or anyone else) is dating?

As we’ve discussed in a past episode of the History Slam, there is a disturbing voyeurism that permeates society and leads people to feel entitled to know about other people’s personal lives. In an essay for New York Magazine , Joe Jonas talks about the public fascination with the purity rings he and his brothers – and fellow band mates – used to wear:

“I remember this interview with this guy whose entire agenda was to focus on the rings. He kept pushing the subject, and when we insisted that we didn’t want to talk about it, he told us, “I can write whatever I want,” which terrified us. That’s the thing: We didn’t know any better, and we just wanted to make people happy. Now I know that I don’t have to answer any questions I don’t want to. Like, why do you even care about my 15-year-old brother’s sex life?”

To a certain degree, Tom Daley is simultaneously a victim of the media’s voyeurism and laziness. He made the video so that the story could be told on his terms – that he’s hounded by paparazzi made it likely that news would leak eventually – and yet because he didn’t label himself, the media has imposed one on him.

Yesterday’s coverage was an example of everything that’s wrong with modern journalism, where sensationalism and simplicity reign supreme. There are still reporters doing fine investigative and analytic work, but they are slowly getting lost in a sea of tabloids and gossip. Daley didn’t reveal much about his relationship yesterday, but he indirectly revealed a lot about the media culture in which we live.

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