Just First Names, Please

“They asked that we just use their first names.”

About a minute into a story about a lesbian couple reacting to Maryland coming one-step closer to legalizing same-sex marriage, the phrase shows up in the report by WAMU (an NPR station in Washington, D.C.). The story goes on to use the couple’s first names, the name of their child and dog.  We are told what town the couple lives, in, that they’d already been married in DC, and a lot of other details about their lives.  They are well-educated and very fluent in the politics of same-sex marriage and the legal implications.  When you go to the website about the story, there is even a picture of the women and their family.

So why was it necessary to pick a couple who didn’t want their last names used?   If there are concerns about safety or being “outed,” they weren’t mentioned in the story.  Maybe they are protecting their child, but why then would they agree to have their picture on the website?

So here’s the journalism question. In 2012, why illustrate a story about same-sex marriage and LGBT families with a couple who don’t want their last names used when there is no rationale given for doing so?   It seems that there is a subtle message when LGBT people are interviewed–and want to be cloaked in some level of anonymity–that the reader/listener isn’t being told the entire story or the reporter is trying to signal something about risk, danger, and the closet.  If that’s the case, why not be more intentional about that risk.  If it’s not the case, why pick people to profile who insist this level of anonymity when there have to be many other families who are willing to be profiled without the cloak of anonymity.

For those of you with greater familiarity interviewing LGBT families and writing about LGBT people, what is your policy on giving a “just first names, please” agreement to interview subjects?

Marriage Equality, Gay Marriage and Same-Sex Marriage

The most recent Press Pass Q has an excellent article about the use of “gay marriage” vs. “same-sex marriage” in LGBT publications. The article also explores whether “marriage equality” is only an activist term.

The NLGJA stylebook supplement suggests “marriage for same-sex couples” but prefers “same-sex marriage” over “gay marriage” because its more inclusive of women.

That said, there isn’t much consensus in the eight LGBT publications cited in the article. All sorts of things are taken into consideration, from accuracy to activism to the practical realities of generating site traffic:

In the nation’s capital, Metro Weekly and the Washington Blade have taken different approaches.

“Preferred usage for the Blade is ‘same-sex marriage,’” said editor Kevin Naff, agreeing that “marriage equality” is an activist term.

However, Metro Weekly prefers ‘marriage equality,’ said managing editor Will O’Bryan. “While some might feel that the phrase is a form of editorializing, we would argue the same with regard to ‘same-sex marriage.’ In D.C., we live in a jurisdiction where people of the same sex who marry get a marriage license. They don’t get a ‘same-sex marriage license.’ And as an LGBT publication, it’s a given for us that LGBT people are first-class citizens, even when that’s not reflected in law.”

Practical considerations of the Internet era – search engine optimization – also affect word choice. “It seems that when we use ‘marriage equality,’ our copy is far less likely to get picked up by the Google algorithms … than when we use ‘same-sex marriage,’ O’Bryan said.

He has a point. A Google search yields far greater results for “gay marriage” than “same-sex marriage.” The former generates 29,600,00 results, with the latter pulling up 16,900,000. “Marriage equality” draws 5,550,000 results.

Still, word choice at Charlotte, N.C-based Q-Notes makes little difference. “We’ve used ‘gay marriage,’ ‘same-sex marriage,’ and ‘marriage equality’ interchangeably,” said editor Matt Comer.

“A quick search of our web site for those specific terms returns nearly the same number of returns for each,” Comer said. “It’s like splitting hairs, in my opinion. No matter what it’s called, people know what you are talking about.”

Not necessarily, says Duncan Osborne, associate editor of New York City-based Gay City News.

“I use ‘marriage,’ ‘gay marriage,’ or ‘same-sex marriage.’ I never use ‘marriage equality,’” said Osborne. “‘Marriage equality’ is meaningful to some people in the lesbian and gay community, but is probably not understood by most people outside of our community,” he said.

So, what do NLGJA members think?

Chick-Fil-A and NLGJA: Can a Lesbian Be Objective About Chick-Fil-A’s Problems?

One of the founding principles for NLGJA (and other minority journalism groups) is supporting journalists in the newsroom who are assumed to be biased about LGBT news just because they are LGBT.  It’s a smear that haunts all minority journalists, no matter the evidence to the contrary.  Which brings us to Chicken sandwiches.

More specifically, it brings us to Kim Severson’s front page story on the New York Times about the high-profile problems haunting Chick-Fil A for its Christian ethos and support for efforts that are considered anti-gay. There are talks of protests and boycotts.  Chcik Fil-A officials have been forced to go to social media to defend themselves.  So when an award-winning food writer and Atlanta bureau chief for the NYT writes about the story, we get a great mix of food and politics:

ATLANTA — The Chick-fil-A sandwich — a hand-breaded chicken breast and a couple of pickles squished into a steamy, white buttered bun — is a staple of some Southern diets and a must-have for people who collect regional food experiences the way some people collect baseball cards.New Yorkers have sprinted through the airport here to grab one between flights. College students returning home stop for one even before they say hello to their parents.

But never on Sunday, when the chain is closed.

Nicknamed “Jesus chicken” by jaded secular fans and embraced by Evangelical Christians, Chick-fil-A is among only a handful of large American companies with conservative religion built into its corporate ethos. But recently its ethos has run smack into the gay rights movement. A Pennsylvania outlet’s sponsorship of a February marriage seminar by one of that state’s most outspoken groups against homosexuality lit up gay blogs around the country. Students at some universities have also begun trying to get the chain removed from campuses.

“If you’re eating Chick-fil-A, you’re eating anti-gay,” one headline read. The issue spread into Christian media circles, too.

While the story made me hungry for a Chick-Fil-A, it has apparently made conservative commentators fuming mad. Arguing the story was evidence of liberal bias supporting a gay agenda, commentators are smearing Severson because she is a former executive board member of NLGJA and has written about gay issues.
The conservative watchdog Media Research Center started off the complaining by criticizing the story and targeting Severson, saying :

The story brings two Severson strands together: Foodie Severson is also openly gay, supports gay marriage, and has served as vice-president of the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association.The Times proves once again it is not overly concerned with the religious sensibilities of Christians with its cavalier reference to “Jesus chicken.”

Recycling the meme, conservative pundit Michelle Malkin also takes a whack at Severson and the story, right down to parroting the wrong name of NLGJA included in MRC’s piece:

Severson, you see, is an openly gay advocate of same-sex marriage equality herself and the former vice-president of the identity politics-mongering National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association. In a bitter op-ed on gay marriage
laws not changing quickly enough, she asserted: “I don’t want the crumbs. I want the whole cake.” Severson has voiced complaints about her social and economic status as an unwed lesbian with a partner and child in several media publications.

None of this was disclosed in Severson’s advocacy journalism hit job on Chick-Fil-A. But therein lies the unofficial motto of the Gray Lady: All the ideological conflicts of interest unfit to print.

Both of these columns were highlighted by Bobby Ross at conservative religion media site GetReligion, where Ross focused (in comments) on Severson’s opinion pieces in Newsweek and the New York Times where Severson focused, ironically, on the personal–rather than political–questions about same-sex marriage.

(It’s odd that a GetReligion columnist would abet the “a lesbian can’t be objective” argument given the site’s editor runs a program for Christian college students who want to be journalists and try to counter the argument that conservative Christian reporters can’t be objective about social issues).

She even included a journalism ethics quandry around getting married:

We didn’t get married. My girlfriend believed that as a journalist, she couldn’t be a part of a story she was writing about. (The old journalistic-objectivity excuse–like I haven’t heard that before.) She didn’t buy my argument that straight, married people shouldn’t be able to cover it then, either.

The truth was, we didn’t want to rush it. Isn’t the whole point of getting married to have your brothers make stupid toasts and your mother cry and your friends swear to help keep you together when you’re falling apart–to craft a public sharing of love? Marriage is not about driving to a place where you don’t live or settling for a ceremony that will be recognized only there.

While people have challenged whether Chick-Fil-A is really called “Jesus Chicken,” what’s interesting is that the conservative critics never point to evidence that the story was unfair or unbalanced. Ross concedes “[t]he Times’ 1,300-word report itself seems to give a fair hearing to Chick-fil-A and provides a variety of customer (and non-customer) voices: a lesbian who wonders if loving Chick-fil-A makes you “a bad gay,” a devout Christian dental hygienist who is outspoken in her support of Chick-fil-A, a non-religious Chick-fil-A customer who thinks the outcry seems like overkill and a “Big Gay Ice Cream Truck” operator who wants people to make informed decisions about their food.

The dispute, allegedly, is over whether it deserved to be on the front page and whether the NYT (and Severson) were pushing a gay agenda that attacks Christians.  It has also become a conservative blog talking point on places like Red State.

For NLGJA, the question is whether someone who has written about her personal relationships and personal questions about getting married is barred from covering a dispute that involves same-sex marriage.  The answer, of course, is no. LGBT journalists–even married LGBT journalists–can write about same-sex marriage without it become a political agenda.  LGBT journalists constantly straddle the ethical questions of writing about LGBT issues while also being gay or lesbian or transgender.  Just as a conservative Christian reporter can write objectively about abortion or gay rights and an African American reporter can write objectively about President Obama, so can an LGBT journalist write objectively–as Severson has–about LGBT issues without “furthering an agenda.”

No Mazel Tovs for Same-Sex Weddings in New Jersey Jewish Paper

The controversy over same-sex marriage announcements has found its way to the New Jersey Jewish Standard which announced today that it would no longer run same-sex marriage announcements after its first one caused a controversy.

Now, the religious press is going to be held to a different standard than the mainstream press, but this kerfuffle in a state where civil unions are legal has gotten some attention, especially from critics in the Jewish community questioning the decision.

Here’s the explanation from the Standard:

We set off a firestorm last week by publishing a same-sex couple’s announcement of their intent to marry. Given the tenor of the times, we did not expect the volume of comments we have received, many of them against our decision to run the announcement, but many supportive as well.

A group of rabbis has reached out to us and conveyed the deep sensitivities within the traditional/Orthodox community to this issue. Our subsequent discussions with representatives from that community have made us aware that publication of the announcement caused pain and consternation, and we apologize for any pain we may have caused.

The Jewish Standard has always striven to draw the community together, rather than drive its many segments apart. We have decided, therefore, since this is such a divisive issue, not to run such announcements in the future.

I’m not sure how excluding same-sex marriages draws the community together when two of the three major segments of American Judaism either embrace or cautiously approve of same-sex marriage, but I’m not sure that’s the point.

The reaction has been interesting. Andrew Silow-Carroll, Editor-in-Chief of the rival New Jersey Jewish News says on his blog, “[i]f the Standard thought the retraction and statement would quench the firestorm, they were either naive or unduly optimistic. It will at least be duked out in the letters pages, while it certainly deserves a more sophisticated public conversation than the brief mea culpa.

Silow-Caroll, whose audience is more liberal than the Standard’s,says “publishing a same-sex engagement announcement and the next week saying “we’ll never do it again” is worse than not publishing it all” and suggests the Standard was likely influenced by the large Orthodox community in Teaneck, N.J., adding “I’m sympathetic to the pressures, financial and otherwise, they and the local federation must have been under.”

The folks at the Jewcy blog were less polite.

We at Jewcy would like to take a moment to say that we are no longer readers of The Jewish Standard, due to this decision.  Go rent MILK, visit The Museum of Tolerance, and get back to us when you’ve come to your senses.

There is a religious question, but there is also a journalism question. Does the newspaper refuse to take other listings from things that anger one segment of its readership? When it bows to pressure from critics, when else will it bow to critics in its news coverage? And what is the message the newspaper gives to its gay and lesbian readers, the families of gays and lesbians, and its readers who support same-sex marriage both legally and from a religious perspective?

DOMA Affects Us All, Even Journalists

Robin Phillips and Susan Green (right) / Photo Credit: Vincent Guadazno

NLGJA board member Susan Green is a professor at the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University with more than 20 years experience in broadcast journalism. She recently married Robin Phillips, also a fellow journalist, in Massachusetts.

Susan wrote about her marriage for NPR:

Thursday’s court decision concerning the Defense of Marriage Act is not the first time my family has been involved in fighting for the right to marry. Back in 1961 my parents — my African-American father and white mother — had to ask permission to wed … Now, here I am almost 50 years later fighting the same fight they fought all those years ago.

Congratulations to Susan and Robin!

Click here to read her story.

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