May 12, 2010
Once more into the 'outing' mess
Posted by: Chris
Perhaps one silver lining from the horrible tragedy that is Brian Betts' murder will be a review by the Washington Post of its antiquated policy of when to report a story subject's sexual orientation. We've seen the issue arise in the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court (more on that later) but the Post ombudsman took it on in connection with reporting on the killing of the popular D.C. high school principal, who was closeted by the paper's coverage even though he was out to friends and family before his death.
The Post's policy is:
“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.”
The policy in and of itself is fine, but the application of "relevant" has resulted in setting a bar that is much higher if a person is gay than it is for those who are straight. My guess is that no WaPo reporter even consults the policy before reporting that a murder victim, or beloved principal, or prominent businessman or politician is heterosexual. And yet the kid gloves come on before a reporter will broach those same story subjects if they are rumored to be gay.
I have long held that the same rules ought to apply to everyone, period. If the Post is doing a feature on a high school principal, then he/she will of course be asked if he's married, partnered, etc. The reporter ought to ask the question and print the response, whatever it is. "Outing" comes into play only if a reporter delves behind an answer, or a non-answer, into the private life of the person -- something I agree should be very rare and only necessitated by the person's sexual orientation being highly relevant and newsworthy.
In the case of a murder victim like Betts, his sexual orientation ought to be reported without hesitation if he was out to friends and family -- as was the case here. The fact that the victim was apparently lured into meeting his killers on a phone sex chat line makes the information even more relevant -- both to his story and as a public safety message for the gay community at-large.
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