August 8, 2003

A journalist on the phone was looking for guidance. I offered to help.

“When is it OK to identify a person’s sexual orientation in the news?” he asked.

I didn’t have an answer. Not a good one anyway.

It’s a question that’s bound to become more pressing in newsrooms over the next months and years, as issues of gay acceptance become more contentious. The answer, and more importantly the process by which you find the answer in your newsroom, will set the tone for your coverage of social issues.

These issues have been prominent in the news this summer. At this week’s annual convention of the Episcopal Church of America, the church debated, then confirmed the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.

The coverage was extensive. Religious denominations normally get little ink out of their annual conventions. An exception occurs when a church is grappling with scandal, such as the Roman Catholic clergy crisis. Churches can also provoke coverage with such deliberate controversy as the Southern Baptists’ decision to hold their annual gathering in Salt Lake City, home turf of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But the coverage this week of the Episcopalian gathering in Minneapolis was even more unlikely. After all, there are 2.3 million Episcopalians in the United States, compared to 62 million Roman Catholics and 16 million Southern Baptists. (Note: the numbers game is a dicey one in religion reporting because churches have different standards for membership, but you get the idea).

The intense interest in the Episcopal gathering is a symptom of the deeper tension in heterosexual society over just how much acceptance should be extended to gay people. This friction is playing out in our newspapers and newscasts with increasing frequency.

Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court ruled that gay sex should not be a crime. Shortly after that, President Bush said he would oppose efforts to recognize gay relationships as civil unions, similar to marriage. In June, Canada began recognizing such unions. Now many couples are traveling north for a ceremony, then returning home and submitting announcements of their unions to their local newspaper. (Every month more newspapers follow the lead of The New York Times by running such announcements. This is a separate, but related, column. For now, realize that this decision can’t be divorced from the policies that inform news reporting.)

As journalists, we should be discussing policies and practices that influence the coverage of these issues. The first question is this: When should a newsroom identify someone as gay?  Before I was asked to articulate my thoughts on this issue, I was pretty confident I knew what I was doing. But as I struggled to say what I thought, I realized I hadn’t put much thought at all into the topic.

Here are a couple of rough thoughts:

  • Identifying someone as gay against his or her will, i.e., “outing” someone in the news, should be avoided. Exceptions to this policy should be rare, and the bar should be set almost impossibly high. A section editor should be required to approve the decision, and the individual should be notified that his or her sexual orientation is about to be disclosed.
  • Be aware of code words that indicate a person is gay. Describing someone as a “domestic partner” or two people as a “couple” is acceptable when both parties agree to it.
  • When discussing sexual orientation with a source, precise language is important to avoid errors and to obtain informed consent. “What would you think if I described you as gay?”  “How should I describe your partner?” “How would you prefer we describe your gender?”
  • Journalists should not use public forums like school board meetings and court hearings to “out” an individual. If a person’s sexual orientation or habits become a news issue (say parents ask a local school board to fire a gay teacher), great care should be taken to ensure sexual orientation is germane to the story. If it is, the individual in question should be contacted and allowed to clarify or correct the public record. Journalists should make a sincere effort to listen to the people most likely to be harmed by such stories and search for alternatives when possible.
  • How should journalists decide if sexual orientation is relevant to a news story? In most cases the source in question has the answer. When a person tells you her sexual orientation is not part of a story, respect is in order most of the time. Conversely, when a source indicates her sexual orientation is important to a news story, don’t dismiss the notion.
  • Identifying a gay teenager in the news should be done with great care and in consultation with a parent or other caregiver. It’s hard to know which teens might be mature enough to understand the consequences of agreeing to a news report. It’s better to take a cautious approach to informed consent.

This is just a start. This list is imperfect and incomplete. But the issues are going to surface frequently. What other factors should be considered?

This story has been updated.

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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