The University of Winnipeg’s theatre group performed a play called the Laramie Project last week. The New York-based Tectonic Theatre Company developed this play by conducting interviews with the town of Laramie, Wyoming after the Matthew Shepard murder. The Laramie Project is basically a presentation of those interviews.
Matthew Shepard is the student who was kidnapped, tied to a fence far from town, beaten, and left to die. It was reported that Shepard was targeted because he was gay.
This murder sparked a media circus that lasted for weeks. Reporters were camped outside of the hospital for days while they waited to hear Shepard’s fate. They covered this murder, labelled it a hate crime, and soon the town became a symbol of hate.
I picked up a pamphlet about the play and the director of this U of W play had a note on the back that mentioned the media coverage of the Shepard case a few times. “[The Tectonic Theatre Company] managed to chronicle this community’s effort to redefine itself following Matthew’s death, and portray the residents dealing with their anger, their own misgivings, and the onslaught on media scrutiny that broadly labeled the community as intolerant…Once the media glare fades away, these communities—like Laramie, Wyoming—are left on their own to resolve the lingering divisions among the residents. The Laramie Project demonstrates that while the modern media can polarize people, theatre can build connections and restore empathy.”
As the director mentioned, there has been a common criticism that media placed a lot of importance on this murder, divided those who supported Shepard and those who don’t, then left them to deal with their problems on their own. I’ve also read the opposite—that when the media coverage stopped, the residents of Wyoming stopped questioning themselves and no longer had to feel responsibility for their homophobia.
No matter what the criticisms, it’s sad that so many people have lost faith in media. So many people I talk to only have bad things to say about media. Some say media is biased, wrong, unethical, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, ableist, etc. And yeah, sometimes it is. Mainstream has a long way to go in being equal and covering both the good and bad of minority groups.
But some of these people who criticize media the hardest also admit that they don’t follow the media. They don’t read the news, listen to news radio, or watch newscasts. It really makes me wonder how they’ve come to their decision to hate media. It also makes me wonder if they’re using their hate as an excuse for their lack of civic participation. If they don’t follow what’s going on in their world and they don’t participate in their community—whether they’re voting for the next mayor or protesting the government—how can they have so much hate for the media? The same media that has the power to hold people accountable and spark discussion in a community or all over the world.
If there’s one good thing that came out of the media coverage of the Shepard case, it’s that it brought to light the homophobia in the town. For a brief time, it sparked discussion and civic participation—parades of support for Shepard, well-attended vigils, and a hate crimes bill that, unfortunately, failed in the House of Representatives. Shepard is still talked about in university classrooms, in LGBT* organizations, in mainstream media, and in an article in the Laramie Boomerang that was published online only 20 hours ago.
Where would we be without the media coverage of the Shepard case? Maybe we wouldn’t still be talking about him 16 years later.