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Reporting Same-Sex Unions


By Bob Steele
Group Leader, Ethics
Poynter Institute

Bob Steele

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 headlined, "Times 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 view."

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 appropriate.

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 brickbats.

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.


Take 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 weddings.

The 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 discriminatory."

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 it."

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."


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.


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.

Poynter library director David Shedden provided research assistance for this column.[ Discussion: Are newspapers acting quickly

 

   
     
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