By: Carl Sullivan
It’s an old but perennial question: can gay journalists cover gay issues? Should black reporters write about civil rights? May a practicing Christian fairly report on Mel Gibson’s “Christ” movie?
The short answer to all these questions: it depends.
It’s been over three months since the San Francisco Chronicle controversially removed two lesbian journalists from the same-sex marriage beat, but the decision was still a hot topic at this past weekend’s National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) convention in Brooklyn, N.Y.
After covering the first lesbian couple to get married at San Francisco City Hall in February, Chronicle reporter Rachel Gordon and photographer Liz Mangelsdorf, who have been partners for over four years, “owned” the remarkable news story for about a month. But when Chronicle editors discovered that the two women were married on March 9, they were taken off the story. The decision split the Chronicle newsroom and sparked outside protests.
One thing’s for certain: the Chronicle won’t be the last newspaper to deal with this issue. Court cases involving marriage rights for gay men and lesbians are likely to meander through the legal system for years, filling endless inches of news columns. Roberta A. Kaplan, an attorney involved with a same-sex marriage suit against the state of New York, points out that it took 17 years for suits against interracial-marriage bans to work their way up to the Supreme Court.
In the meantime, more and more journalists will march down the wedding aisle with their same-sex partners. Some gay and lesbian reporters have already done so in Massachusetts (the only state to currently recognize these marriages). Can these reporters write about gay marriage? Other gay issues?
The Chronicle says gay and lesbian reporters may cover gay issues, but that Gordon and Mangelsdorf crossed a line. “The issues were attributes versus actions,” said Chronicle Associate Managing Editor Kenn Altine, a gay man who defended the newspaper’s decision during a panel discussion Saturday at the NLGJA meeting. He said the women were lesbians and journalists — attributes. “That was not a problem,” Altine said.
But the women chose to get married when the state of California and the rest of the country considered such marriages illegal, he said. “That was an action,” Altine explained. “That was a decision that put them in the story.”
In an e-mail interview this week, Gordon said she understands why the editors made the choice that they made, although she still disagrees with it. “We were entering into uncharted territory,” she said. “All Liz and I asked for was for the editors to keep an open mind and to listen to a differing perspective on the issue of conflict/potential conflict in this case. I am not confident they have. And that’s too bad. Perhaps in time they will — not necessarily change their minds, but at least respect the differences of opinion, which have been emerging. One can find a journalism ethics expert who says the decision was a bad one and one who says it was a sound one.”
Indeed, the nearly 700 attendees at the NLGJA convention seemed to be divided over the question. Personally, I think the Chronicle editors made the appropriate decision, but at the same time, my heart aches for these two women. Such an intimate and personal decision as choosing a life partner shouldn’t affect your job or be fodder for public debate — in an ideal world, at least. Unfortunately for gay people, the personal so often is political. Had I been in Gordon and Mangeldorf’s shoes, I’d like to think I would have waited until the day when a gay couple getting a marriage license was no longer a news story. But making an abstract decision based on a hypothetical question isn’t the same as making a real-life choice about love.
There’s a lot of gray area here. Kelly McBride, an ethics faculty member at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., suggests that newsrooms spend more time talking about potential conflicts of interest. In a recent column, she wrote, “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.” But beyond that, there isn’t often a lot of guidance.
Stephen G. Reed, deputy editor of the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group, said his company’s policy states that journalists may participate in activities that define their community, so long as those events aren’t political. So a gay employee would be allowed to march in a Gay Pride parade, but not under the banner of a political or activist group. The difficulty here is deciding what’s political. Some newspaper readers no doubt would consider the mere act of participating in a gay pride celebration as explicitly political.
Some might even see membership in NLGJA as political. To my mind, NLGJA membership is analogous to involvement with minority journalism groups such as the National Association of Black Journalists. NLGJA and NABJ aren’t media watchdogs like the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) or the NAACP. The journalism groups work to promote diversity in employment, to provide professional development for their members, and to work quietly from within newsrooms to ensure fair and accurate coverage. This is all for the betterment of their members and the media industry as a whole. But I recognize that others won’t share this assessment.
And forget about drawing analogies. “You wouldn’t believe the number of analogies we’ve run through,” the Chronicle’s Altine said. If Hispanic reporters can cover immigration, why can’t gay reporters cover marriage? Can a woman who’s had an abortion write about this polarizing topic?
Belva Davis, the first African-American TV reporter on the West Coast, sees clear parallels between her experiences and those of gay reporters. “If Jesse Jackson and Rosa Parks made life easier for me, should I not have been allowed to report on them?” she asked during the NLGJA panel.
Altine responded that black reporters should of course be allowed to cover civil rights leaders. The line would only be crossed when that black reporter decided to join Rosa Parks and take part in a protest.
As McBride wrote: “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.”
Altine says newspapers need to have general policies about conflicts of interest and then work out the specifics as they come up, recognizing that no two scenarios will be exactly alike. It’s a messy business, but one that newsrooms need to take seriously, for the sake of both readers and their journalists — of all colors, creeds and stripes.