Straight-Washing in Murky Dishwater
So now I'm a straight-washer. Who knew?
Kevin Naff, managing editor of the Washington Blade, now responds to my post about his editorial on how the Post handles the sexual identity of people we write about. Naff says reporters should make it a standard daily practice to ask sources whether they are gay, just as we might ask someone if they are married or whether they have children.
My argument was that a person's family structure or sexual orientation is only germane to a newspaper story if we're writing about family, if we're writing a profile that gets into the subject's personal life, or if the literary structure of the piece calls for a level of intimacy that reaches beyond the ordinary focus on policy or other highly public news topics. Naff is a very good journalist and a strong advocate for the audience he serves--the Blade is Washington's gay weekly. But he errs here in trying to apply the standards that make sense for a specialized publication like the Blade to a broad-based news organization like the Post.
Let's get practical here: Naff and I debated the case of Randi Miller, Metro's choice to be its new public address system voice. The Post's coverage of her selection did not mention that she is a lesbian; the Blade's coverage did. The Post reporters did not know she is a lesbian; the Blade reporter obviously did. The difference: They asked; we didn't.
So: Should we have asked? I wouldn't unless I were writing a personality profile, the kind of piece that looks beyond her selection as the voice of Metro and gets into her career, home life, where she grew up and so on. We never wrote that story, though it would have been a perfectly interesting one to publish. But in the limited scope of an article about her voice work, I wouldn't have asked about her family situation, regardless of her sexual identity.
"Randi Miller would have gladly told the Post that she's a lesbian had the reporter asked. Failure to include that information serves only to keep gay newsmakers in the closet. Just ask, many of us are happy to tell."
That's nice to know, and I'll keep it in mind in case I ever want to write a profile of her. But consider for a moment a gay person who doesn't want that fact known to the outside world. I have a specific source in mind--a politician whose work I occasionally write about. I happen to know that he is gay. He does not live a hypocritical lie in his public life--his votes and his advocacy are supportive of gay rights, so the legitimate and necessary avenue of inquiry that opens into a politician's private life when he's voting hypocritically does not exist. He simply chooses to keep his sexual identity out of the public limelight. Many gay advocates would argue that he does not have that right, that by virtue of choosing a public career, he is obliged to make his homosexuality public.
I have some sympathy for that viewpoint, but I don't think it's my right as a journalist to impose my view on readers or on sources. So I respect that source's wishes. There are, of course, two caveats here: If he were to act in his job in a way that was contrary to the interests of the gay community, there'd be a legitimate question to be asked of him. And if he were to become prominent enough through his work to merit a larger profile in the Post, then the standard questions about personal life should be asked, and the answers should be published, just as they would were he heterosexual. "He lives with his partner in Palookaville," the story might say. Or the story might go into the challenges he faces as a gay man in a very public position.
But I reject the notion that I am obliged, barring any news-driven cause to do so, to publish the fact that he is gay against his express wishes to keep that to himself. If the Blade wants to do that to make a political point, that's a decision its editors must make, weighing their sense of their journalistic role against the man's personal desire for privacy. But the Post ought not be in the business of making political points through our news decisions.
"The Post and other mainstream media should stop enforcing anachronistic customs of avoiding the subject of sexual orientation and give people the chance to answer the question."
I agree that we are generally too timid about writing about sexuality. I agree we should cover gay issues more aggressively, more frequently and with a whole lot less of the Victorian gentleman attitude that newspapers cling to in a let-it-all-hang-out society.
But we would be wrong to turn our news pages into a vehicle for outing people who prefer to keep their orientation to themselves. Heterosexual sources routinely ask me and other reporters not to mention their divorce or that they have stepchildren or other such matters. The proper answer to them, as it is to Naff, is that when the news warrants it, we should publish that information, whether or not the source wants us to. And when the information is not germane to the story we're writing, we should leave it out.
I'll finish with one last example: In today's column, I write about two artists whose work is appearing in a benefit gallery show for artists who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Thinking back on my interviews with them, I did not ask either of them a single question about whether they are married, who they live with, or what their sexual orientation might be. The story gets into their intimate thoughts about the storm and their direction in life and their art and its meaning. But family just didn't come up, and it would have been artificial and serve little purpose for me to have imposed that subject on those interviews. If I were writing a longer piece, say, for Style about those same artists, I likely would have asked those questions in an effort to flesh out the study of those characters, to understand why they moved where they did after the storm, to develop a picture of the challenges they now face. In that case, I would have published a description of their living situation.
Tell me where that's wrong.
By Marc Fisher |
February 28, 2006; 7:52 AM ET
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