Update: Since this story was first published, The Desk has learned new details about the origin of the memo written by Amy Fox, and has confirmed that the station’s parent company, Nexstar Media Group, has launched an internal investigation while removing Fox and another executive from discussions over future Pride Month coverage. To read the updated story, click or tap here. The original story appears below…
The news director of a Michigan NBC affiliate ordered her reporters to ease up on coverage of LGBT-focused stories during Pride Month, saying the news pieces were upsetting some of the station’s conservative viewers.
The memo, penned by WOOD-TV (Channel 8) Assistant News Director Amy Fox, followed several reports that focused on a celebration hosted in the city of Grand Haven after officials there approved a permit for an inaugural Pride Month parade.
The stories featured several interviews with individuals who identify on the LGBT spectrum, with most saying the Pride Month celebration allowed them to feel comfortable in their community after years of no recognition.
“I feel compelled to remind folks that any society that values justice must also value diversity, equity and inclusion,” Catherine McNally, the mayor of Grand Haven, said in one report aired by WOOD-TV.
But the stories did not sit well with some viewers who expressed displeasure on the station’s social media account, and those complaints — however few in nature — ultimately provoked Fox to send a newsroom-wide memo urging reporters to think twice before they commit to a story on LGBT-related events during Pride Month.
“We know that West Michigan is a Conservative area in many ways,” the memo said, according to a copy obtained by The Desk. “We need to recognize that some stories related to LGBTQ issues are going to be controversial and polarizing in our community. While you personally may not agree with a certain position, people are entitled to their opinions, and they are our viewers.”
Fox said the station could not “cover every event or festival that happens in West Michigan,” citing a lack of time and staff to commit to those stories.
“We should not cover every Pride event that we learn about,” Fox affirmed. “We need to do some work to discern the newsworthy-ness of the event. If we are covering Pride events, we need to consider how to make the story balanced and get both sides of the issue.”
The memo was a rare instance of a news executive encouraging reporters to sideline stories based on the political affiliations of its viewers. Fox did not respond to an email from The Desk seeking comment, nor did the station’s news director, Stanton Tang. The existence of the memo was first reported early Wednesday morning by media columnist Scott Jones at his website FTV Live, who noted that WOOD-TV had covered numerous St. Patrick’s Day events without any apparent pushback or consideration for station resources.
WOOD-TV is owned by Nexstar Media Group, which is the largest owner of local broadcast television stations in the country. On its website, Nexstar says the company “strive[s] to foster a culture of diversity and inclusion, so all of our employees feel respected, and no one feels discriminated against.” Gary Weitman, a Nexstar executive in charge of external communications, did not return an email from The Desk about Fox’s memo.
The Grand Rapids television market is the 42nd largest in the United States, comparable in size to Las Vegas, Oklahoma City and Albuquerque, according to Nielsen Media, which evaluates the number of television households to determine a market’s rank. Politically, Grand Rapids does skew more conservative than progressive, data from the website Best Neighborhood showed.
Two individuals inside WOOD-TV’s newsroom who spoke on condition of anonymity said it was not unusual for the station to receive emails and social media comments from viewers who expressed opinions that skewed on the political side, particularly when reporters cover matters involving social issues. But they characterized the memo by Fox as unusual and unnecessary, and were concerned that it could set a precedent for the types of stories covered by WOOD-TV where the political beliefs of viewers outweigh the legitimate journalistic interest of a story.
One person who works closely with Fox said she speaks openly about her religious beliefs, and recently celebrated the Confirmation of her daughter. But they said Fox isn’t the type to editorialize her religious or political beliefs, and believed the memo sent around the newsroom was merely an attempt to nuture a good relationship between WOOD-TV and its viewers, which do skew conservative.
“I’m not saying she deserves the benefit of the doubt, her note to the newsroom could have been worded better, and the way it was written, it is problematic,” the person said. “But I also don’t want people to get the impression that she’s someone who regularly interferes with stories because they’re too liberal or too gay, because that’s not what she does, though I get that’s how this might come across.”
Correction: An opening paragraph of an earlier version of this story erroneously said the City of Grand Rapids hosted a Pride Month celebration. The event was held in Grand Haven, which was correctly identified later in the article.