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LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rainbow flagApparently, or so they say, there’s an uproar over a “diversity and inclusion” questionnaire being put to volunteers for the 2012 Summer Olympics. The test has been called (or “dubbed” or “labelled”) “patronising,” and Olympics bosses have “come under fire” and been “slammed” over its content.

I first saw the story on Pink News, the UK-based LGBT news service. The headline focused on a question that asked London 2012 volunteers how they would respond to a complaint about a gay male couple holding hands. The lead explained:

A quiz for Olympics volunteers which included advice on dealing with complaints about gays holding hands has been dubbed ‘a bit patronising’.

Naturally, we wonder who exactly pronounced the questionnaire patronising. It gets worse for the Olympics in the Shropshire Star, the Hertfordshire Mercury, and the Huffington Post (UK) where a syndicated story opens:

Olympics bosses have come under fire for “patronising” advice given to volunteers about how to deal with gay, Muslim and disabled visitors to the games.

Again we wonder, under fire from who?, a Northern Irish news website, reports similarly: “Olympic Bosses Slammed over ‘Patronising’ Advice.” Who’s doing this slamming?

It’s not only local, small and niche media reporting the story this way. A few lines into its own report, the Telegraph says:

But the simple quiz has been criticised for being “patronising”, with one participant claiming his colleagues were deliberately choosing wrong answers for their own amusement.

So there are critics. At least one critic says the quiz is patronising, and another of these critics says the test was so laughable, he and his friends sabotaged it.

But hang on. He appears to be the only critic. None of the stories reports any criticism other than that from one person. His words (the entire story, in fact) can be traced to a single report that appeared in Tuesday’s Manchester Evening News. The story quoted the one volunteer:

One volunteer from Manchester, who did not wish to be named, said: “I thought it was unnecessary and they could have spent the money in other ways.

“I know they are trying to cater for everybody but this was a bit patronising.

“They should trust people’s common sense.

“By the end of it people were choosing silly answers on purpose.”

To be fair, even this critic doesn’t even seem particularly angry. “I thought it was unnecessary,” he says, and he thinks the money could have been better-spent. The test was patronising, yes, but only “a bit patronising.” How did several newspapers jump from what appear to be some mild criticisms made by only one of 70,000 volunteers to the announcement that Olympics bosses were being “slammed”? We envisage controversy, but there was no controversy — just one person’s opinion.

That’s not to blame the MEN or to say they shouldn’t have reported it. The MEN, in fact, made the questionnaire itself the story and included the quote from their source. Those who picked up the news made the quote and its source the story, turning the remarks of one person into a much juicier story about a controversy that didn’t (yet) exist.

That’s not news reporting. That’s news manufacturing.

As for the actual story: Meh. A training handbook for London 2012 volunteers included a number of scenarios involving race, sexual orientation, religion and disability, and readers were asked to choose the correct response from three. The example that got the most attention in reports was that of someone making a complaint about two males holding hands. How should a volunteer respond — tell the complainant to stop being a homophobic idiot, politely ask the couple to stop holding hands or explain that the Olympic Games welcomes a diversity of people, including gays, lesbians and bisexuals?

If only the correct response were so obvious. Unfortunately, common sense isn’t quite so common, and it’s only right that the Olympics organizers anticipate a range of scenarios and give volunteers an idea how best to handle them. It may seem overcautious, but when people get these things wrong, fists fly, victims sue, and newspapers both report and distort.

Is it really so bad if some volunteers felt they were being taught to suck eggs and made a joke of it? If a nod to sensitivity saves a media storm over a gay couple being asked to leave an event because their sexuality makes someone else uncomfortable, or if it stops a volunteer rousing Muslim extremists to fury over an ill-judged aside about a hijab, leaving a few wiser souls feeling patronised might just be worth it.

Image: Ludovic Bertron

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