Searching for the Threshold

Can gay and lesbian journalists cover same-sex marriages? Can they get a marriage license? The offices of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association have been swamped with requests for clarity to these questions and others.

The listservs at the NLGJA have been buzzing with conversation all week, said Steven Petrow, national president of the organization, which has 1,200 members.

“There seems to be a great deal of both light and heat in the online discussion,” Petrow told me Friday in an e-mail. The Northern California chapter is holding a special discussion on the issue next week.

Last week, the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle told a city hall reporter and a photographer they could no longer cover marriage for gays and lesbians, because they were among the thousands of same-sex couples who received marriage licenses through the city.

On Thursday, city officials rallied around reporter Rachel Gordon and photographer Liz Mangelsdorf. In a press conference, several city officials asked the Chronicle to let the women cover the story of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s attempt to make marriage legal.

The ensuing conversation throughout the industry points out the unsatisfactory nature of the discussions we have, or don’t have, around conflicts of interests in our newsrooms. We rarely talk about this, except to say: Don’t take gifts, don’t join controversial groups, and don’t put political signs in your yard.

And when we do stumble into a situation for which we don’t have a pre-existing rule, we instinctively look for similar situations with different circumstances. Could black journalists cover the Civil Rights movement? Can a Catholic journalist write about the clergy scandal? If you lived through a violent crime, can you report on other violent crimes? Can a woman do stories on abortion?

This is a natural reaction. But it leads down a path of reasoning and rationalization. All conflicts are not created equal. There is no arbitrary test by which a conflict can be judged to determine if it rises to the level that precludes a journalist from covering particular stories. Instead, what becomes important is the process by which conflicts — all conflicts — are examined in newsrooms.

The first step of this process, the one often skipped over, is to ask everyone in the newsroom to examine his or her conflicts of interest. What is it about my beliefs or experiences that might compromise my ability to be fair? It might sound unnecessary, impractical, and even painful. And it is, if every conversation requires the hours of emotional soul-searching that Chronicle Executive Editor Phil Bronstein described in a staff memo.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Openly discussing potential conflicts could be a part of daily newsroom life. It could become as reflexive as fact-checking a story, writing a budget line, or brainstorming for new story ideas.

“The majority of editors involved in the story, and in the discussions, were in agreement on one aspect: that Chronicle journalists directly and personally involved in a major news story — one in whose outcome they also have a personal stake — should not also cover that story.”

Yes, gay and lesbian journalists have a stake in whether they can legally get married. And that connection to the story makes their conflict unique, but not necessarily greater than straight journalists. Shining a spotlight on the journalists who are by their very identity related to the story ignores the fact that everyone has a stake in this issue.

The journalist who gives money to a church where the minister preaches for or against marriage for gays and lesbians has a stake. The reporter whose sister or daughter is a lesbian has a stake.

Rather than searching for analogies, journalists must find the threshold where individuals are disqualified from reporting, editing, or influencing a particular story. One threshold should be when fairness cannot be achieved. Another threshold involves public perception. When a journalist enters into the public debate, he gives the public cause to doubt his ability to report the news fairly.

In most cases, it takes more than a person’s identity to disqualify him or her from covering a particular story. Usually it takes a specific action, like giving money to a cause or taking a public stance by signing a petition or putting a bumper sticker on your car.

Looking only at the journalists who embody the conflict in their identity creates a double standard. It is looking at the obvious for all the wrong reasons. Yes, journalists should avoid becoming part of the story. But when newsrooms worry only about the most evident conflicts, we sew a flimsy safety net.

All conflicts are not created equal. There is no arbitrary test by which a conflict can be judged to determine if it rises to the level that precludes a journalist from covering particular stories.We ask the second question, “What if the readers or viewers found out?” but we ignore the first question, “Can we be fair?” So it becomes more likely we won’t discuss the conflicts hidden from the audience but liable to seep into our journalism unchecked.

“The issue here is most definitely not the integrity of the journalists themselves,” Bronstein said of Chronicle staffers Rachel Gordon and Liz Mangelsdorf, in the memo. Of course it isn’t. But too often in our business we look through the magnifying glass at the journalists who are in the minority and ignore the majority.

“Nor is it about gay and lesbian rights, even as the story itself is,” Bronstein wrote. The issue isn’t about rights if you stop at the question about what the public thinks. But it is if you go on to a third question: Are we willing to accept the public perception that results when two lesbian staffers get married? If the public perception is that the San Francisco Chronicle is in favor of legal marriage for gays and lesbians, could we live with that? It’s a question that most editors would prefer not to address. It’s a question that gets to the moral fiber of the issue.

Now is a good time to have better conversations in newsrooms. They start with a well-articulated policy that makes it clear that all journalists have conflicts of interest. Maintaining credibility with the public means journalists should avoid working on stories where their personal beliefs have led to a specific action.

Examples are fine as long as they don’t become narrow rules that stifle discussion. For instance, an editor might say, “Participating in a public commemoration marking the anniversary of Roe v. Wade would disqualify a journalist from reporting or editing stories about abortion. By doing so, the journalist has entered the public debate.” 

The best policies should hold the door open for honest conversations about those conflicts without becoming punitive. The worst policies will presume to have the answers or a formula for determining the answers.

In the newsroom, editors and news directors have to ask everyone to participate in the discussion. Some legitimate questions on the issue of same-sex marriage might be: Have you attended a same-sex civil ceremony? Do you belong to an organization that supports or opposes civil marriage for gays and lesbians?

Critics may dismiss such questions as inquisitions designed to ensure only the most passive reporters work on controversial stories. If that happens, the journalism will suffer. Gay and lesbian journalists bring acuity to stories about same-sex marriage that comes from living life on the outside.

Rather than black-listing journalists, editors should first consider a range of alternatives:

  • Craft reporting strategies to mitigate bias.
  • Assign an editor to screen stories for fairness.
  • Disclose certain conflicts to the public.

Eliminating a journalist from the lineup should be a last resort.

By creating a process in which conflicts are routinely handled without punishment, we make the discussion a normal part of gathering the news. Turning our heads and ignoring the many conflicts present among the staff in every newsroom in the country will create a more familiar problem. The public will stop trusting us.

Perhaps there is one more argument for delving into the ambiguity of our own conflicts about same-sex marriage, as well as the other topics and issues we cover. Doing so forces us to experience the scrutiny we often turn on others and the complexity of an issue. As a result, we might find a better story or two along the way. We might find that we become better journalists.

CORRECTION: In a previous version of this article, Steven Petrow’s name was misspelled.

Related Posts

No related posts.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.