Group Leader, Ethics
The New York Times was low key in its announcement, though
its action sounded
The short story on page 23 of last Sunday's Times was
Will Begin Reporting Gay Couples' Ceremonies."
While a number of smaller papers across the country have adopted
similar practices in recent years, The Times -- with its 1.2
million circulation and its considerable reputation -- made a policy
decision that carries great weight.
"Starting next month, the Sunday Styles section of The New
York Times will publish reports of same-sex commitment
ceremonies and of some types of formal registration of gay and
lesbian partnerships," the Times story told readers.
That's the what. The why came in a statement from
Howell Raines, executive editor of The Times.
A newspaper is obligated to truthfully reflect the reality of
what is happening in the communities and society it covers.
"In making this change, we acknowledge the newsworthiness of a
growing and visible trend in society toward public celebrations of
commitment by gay and lesbian couples -- celebrations important to
many of our readers, their families and their friends."
This decision is justifiable both journalistically and ethically.
Covering same-sex unions is a matter of factual accuracy. A
newspaper is obligated to truthfully reflect the reality of what is
happening in the communities and society it covers. To be sure, this
issue is contentious, but newspapers regularly publish stories about
other events and issues about which there is debate and dispute. And
The Times told its readers, "our news columns will
remain impartial in that debate [about the legal and religious
definitions of marriage], reporting fully on all points of
Reporting gay couples' ceremonies is also a matter of fairness. This
is a human rights issue, and individuals should not be discriminated
against -- deprived of news coverage -- based on their sexual
orientation. The Times says it will apply the same criteria
for reporting on same-sex unions -- "the newsworthiness and
accomplishments of the couples and their families" -- that the
paper applies to covering heterosexual weddings. That's logical and
Some will see the decision by The New York Times as a
courageous action. Granted, the paper has opened itself to challenge
and criticism, and The Times likely will receive many
I reserve the word "courageous" for those editors of
smaller papers around the country who have preceded The Times
on this policy change.
But I reserve the word "courageous" for those editors of
smaller papers around the country who have preceded The Times
on this policy change. Those editors are much more likely to come
face-to-face with the animosity and anger of critics. The editors of
smaller and medium-sized papers know they will hear directly from
readers and advertisers, including some who will threaten to cancel
subscriptions or pull advertising.
Charles Broadwell for instance. He's the editor and publisher of The
Fayettville (NC) Observer. The Observer recently
changed its policy on publishing same-sex union announcements,
running an announcement under a banner of "civil union"
on the page opposite short items on traditional opposite-sex
Wall Street Journal
reported that Broadwell decided to publish the announcement
from a local resident who was united with his partner in a
civil-union ceremony in Vermont. Broadwell told his readers,
"I eventually decided that to refuse such an announcement --
which we print for free, along with most of the more standard
announcements -- would be hypocritical or even
• The managing editor of TheTimes Record in
Brunswick, Maine, told
The Associated Press why his paper was ready to publish
same-sex union announcements. Jim McCarthy said, "It could be
your neighbor. It could be your son or daughter. As an editor, I
couldn't reject or deny someone the opportunity to get that news
into the newspaper."
• The Bangor (Maine) Daily News changed its
policy to start publishing same-sex union announcements. Executive
Editor Mark Woodward told the AP, "All the elements told
us this is absolutely legitimate… It would have been just as
easy to find reasons not to do it, but we found reasons to do
• Denny Bonavita, editor and publisher of the Courier-Express
in DuBois, Penn., said
his paper will publish same-sex union announcements because
"We're in the business of telling stories, not not-telling
stories. It's not our job to decide what should and shouldn't
happen in our area. That's up to the people of our area."
newspaper editors and publishers haven't always distinguished
themselves on matters of fairness to groups of people who were on
the receiving end of discrimination.
America's newspaper editors and publishers haven't always
distinguished themselves on matters of fairness to groups of people
who were on the receiving end of discrimination. Look no further
than the historical treatment of Black Americans by our nation's
press. It took a long while and considerable pressure from outsiders
before most newspapers honestly and effectively integrated their
pages with the stories and celebrations of African-Americans. The
same is true of the failures in the way newspapers covered Native
Americans for generations, and in more recent years, other minority
groups including Asian Americans and Hispanics.
My Poynter faculty colleague Keith Woods has studied this history of
press coverage of minorities. He points out that the segregation by
race of wedding announcements, births and obituaries didn't end in
practice at many papers until the 1980s, even though the implicit
segregation rules changed in the late 60s under pressure and
picketing during the Civil Rights era.
Woods says that newspapers face some of the same policy and practice
challenges as they decide how to report on sexual orientation.
"With gay unions, there are challenges in social mores and
religious values. In its most benign form, it still is challenging
human tradition whether you are for it or against it. You are
dramatically changing a practice that has deep historical roots in a
world society. Changing that rule, that norm, is major."
That's why the decision by The New York Times to begin
reporting gay couples' celebrations is so significant and weighty.
That's why the changing practice at many smaller papers to cover
same-sex celebrations is equally momentous and consequential.
library director David Shedden provided research assistance for this
Are newspapers acting quickly