A column by Washington Post Ombudsman Andy Alexander and a follow-up on his blog suggests that the paper is on the verge of reconsidering its policy on identifying the sexual orientation of people in news stories. The possible change comes as many have questioned the paper’s unwillingness to identify a murder victim as gay after it became clear he met his alleged attackers on a gay sex chat.
Here’s Alexander’s take on the paper’s failure to identify the fact that Brian Betts, the murdered middle school principal, was gay even though it was widely reported in the LGBT and mainstream press.
When police spokesmen initially confirmed that Betts was gay, they clearly were not signaling a direct link between his sexual orientation and the crime. At that time, The Post was correct in not following the media pack.
But the disclosure of the phone-sex chat shifts the balance to disclosing Betts was gay, for several reasons.
Mentioning it provides readers with a potential piece of the puzzle surrounding his murder. And disclosure highlights the dangers people can face in arranging liaisons with strangers through phone-sex chat services, as mentioned in a Post story Wednesday. Also, Betts’s slaying is similar to others locally and nationally. “The fact that he was gay is not as important as the fact that he was most likely targeted because he was gay,” said Kelly Pickard, co-chair of a local group called Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence.
But mostly, disclosure is important to The Post’s credibility. Reader Glenn Merritt of Vienna complained about being kept in the dark. “Just about everyone now knows” that Betts was gay, he wrote me, “unless, of course, the reader relies solely on The Washington Post for news.”
And here’s Alexander’s follow-up on his blog.
Since the column appeared, a handful of gay and straight Post journalists, including two supervising editors, have contacted me to say they believe there should be a review of the policy governing when to reveal sexual orientation. It’s a good discussion to have.
Post policy says: “A person’s sexual orientation should not be mentioned unless relevant to the story… When identifying an individual as gay or homosexual, be cautious about invading the privacy of someone who may not wish his or her sexual orientation known.”
Defining “relevant” is the challenge. It can be relevant if a closeted gay lawmaker promotes anti-gay legislation. And I felt it was relevant to disclose that Betts was gay, especially because the circumstances of his murder were similar to others locally and nationally.
This is good news, if they follow through. This is not the first time the paper has wrestled with a policy that seems to be out-of-date. While the policy of not identifying a person’s sexual orientation unless relevant made sense at one time, changing views of being openly LGBT mean that being gay or lesbian isn’t something that needs to be hidden and only disclosed in the rare circumstance. There’s no need for coded language or omissions, especially in a high-profile case like the Betts murder where it was being reported broadly.
While there are many in Washington who may not want their sexual orientation identified for job reasons, it’s not as though the WaPo is suddenly going to stick a sexual orientation label on every person in every story. Instead, it is a judgment when there is news value or further develops the story, even if it doesn’t meet the higher threshold of “relevant.”
The fact that both LGBT and straight staff at the WaPo feel it’s time for a change also demonstrates the need for diversity in the newsroom. Without LGBT voices at the WaPo, how would this conversation be different? While Alexander has been a strong voice in favor of better coverage of the LGBT community, there is also a need for voices inside the newsroom–including LGBT staffers who can bring their unique perspective on the news decisions. This has always been one of the reasons NLGJA exists, both to improve coverage and also guarantee there are LGBT voices inside newsrooms.