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
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
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?" "Do
you describe yourself as transgendered? What does that
- 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
- 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?