Judge Vaughn Walker has confirmed, for the first time with the media, that he is gay and has been in a 10-year relationship with a man. The story brings an end to one of 2010’s most interesting media ethics stories relating to the judge who everyone assumed was gay–and the media often reported as a fact–yet had previously kept mum.
While Walker’s sexual orientation was one of the worse kept secrets in San Francisco, it wasn’t until two columnists for the San Francisco Chronicle reported the news that he was probably gay, or at least that’s what everyone was saying, that the story become broader fodder. The story set-off a confusion few months where journalists found themselves in the odd position of suggesting Walker was gay based on a column that never really confirms it.
National Public Radio actually did report it, calling him “gay and open” in a story that was later the subject of an Ombudsman piece where NPR’s Ombudsman Alicia Shepard acknowledged that NPR had violated policy by reporting Walker’s sexual orientation without confirming it first.
In the end, all of the reporting was correct. Walker is gay–I’m not sure anyone doubted he was–but hardly “open,” at least not professionally. The story is an example of what journalists often struggle with when reporting on people in the news. Sometimes you are fairly certain about the facts, but you don’t have the final, most important detail: confirmation.
We see this every day in the reporting on Bradley Manning, the suspected Wiki-leaker being kept in a federal prison under harsh conditions. A recent ProPublica/Frontline documentary treats Manning’s sexual orientation as fact but without confirmation from Manning. It’s not a criticism of the report, since others close to him describe him as a gay, but it does show the complexity of reporting on the question when the subject won’t (or can’t) talk.
There are times when the rumors that someone is gay or lesbian are used as a slur to undermine them. Drudge Report’s treatment of Janet Napolitano comes to mind. Sometime, it may just be genuine curiosity. Much of the reporting on Elena Kagan’s alleged lesbianism appeared to be driven more by curious gossip than malice. Even the Walker reporting seemed to be fed more by “wink wink, nod nod” gossiping than an attempt to undermine him.
Still, journalists need to focus on facts, not just speculation. Which means that, from now on, we can describe Walker not as “allegedly” or “reportedly” gay, but as gay. That seems like a stop forward.