Getting personal, going public
When person's sexual orientation becomes the subject of a story, what is the balance between reporting a complete picture and respecting privacy? Two stories from last year offer different approaches to covering the potentially sensitive topic.
Veteran tech reporter Ina Fried is acutely sensitive to disclosing sexual identity, both in a story and in her career.
Fried’s AllThingsD.com writer bio contains a blink-and-you-miss-it acknowledgment: “Her reporting spanned several continents, two genders and included chronicling the Hewlett Packard-Compaq merger, Bill Gates’ transition from software giant to philanthropist, as well as the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.”
“Ian Fried” was her byline starting as a staff writer for CNET.com in 2000. Three years later, she transitioned from male to female in the workplace, though she was privately out to friends and family for years.
More so than many journalists, Fried is aware of the politics and problems in writing about sexual identity but said journalists shouldn’t shy away from the topic.
“One big question is, ‘When is it relevant?’” she said. “One question is, ‘When would I include whether someone is heterosexual or bisexual?’ Typically that might be in a features story on a person in their personal life.”
Fried suggests writers working on personal stories offer sources opportunities to talk candidly without making assumptions.
“I think sometimes it’s just indicating that you’re open to it,” she said. “If you’re interviewing a subject, instead of saying, ‘Are you married?’ say, ‘What’s your home life like?’ — something that’s a broader question that doesn’t presuppose heterosexuality.”
Entering an interview with an open mind and broad agenda can lead to untold stories. One writer at the University of Virginia reflected on the school’s history and its perception as an institution catering to southern gentlemen – perhaps even prejudicially so. He wondered if LGBT communities felt those stigmas and stereotypes, a question that led to the series “Gay at UVA.”
‘Gay at UVA’
Over the decades, as the common definition of “gay” went from merry to almost exclusively homosexual, so too did the UVA tradition of singing the school’s “Good Old Song” after touchdowns.
“We come from old Virginia, where all is bright and gay,” fans would sing, immediately followed by a chant of “not gay!”
Reflected across years of articles, columns and letters in the pages of the Cavalier Daily, the “not gay” chant provoked a movement by students who argued it created an insensitive climate for LGBT communities on campus. Though the tradition has faded in recent football seasons, the stigma that UVA is LGBT-unfriendly stuck around.
Tom Anderson, focus editor at the Cavalier Daily, wanted to cover the issues facing gay students but was unsure where to start. He contacted student leaders at various LGBT groups for some background.
“I sat them down and we talked about issues facing students right now,” Anderson said, “and I wanted to know their thoughts about the community here, if they were comfortable being gay at UVA, and what needed to be done to make life easier for LGBTQ students.”
Anderson published “Gay at UVA,” a three-part series covering diverse issues such as employment, Greek life and curriculum changes — topics he discovered from the initial conversations with student leaders.
“I started with very open-ended questions and got the issues together, and I used that to guide the article,” he said.
He pursued sources by emailing LGBT groups, asking them to forward a general request for students willing to speak with him. Anderson got many responses but saw some voids — he heard back from more men than women, for example. If he felt a specific voice was missing, such as a transgender student, he asked the group for someone in particular.
Since the sources responded to him, Anderson said they didn’t express concern over what they were comfortable with him printing. If a source was wary about specific details that emerged during interviews, he said he likely would have respected their wishes and not printed them.
Anderson found letting the sources open up gave him plenty of material to work with. The first story focused on faculty benefits for same-sex couples, and professor Ellen Bass openly talked about what issues were important to her.
“She told this narrative about how it costs her thousands of dollars to be gay,” Anderson said, “and I thought it was a great way to start that article and thought it was a great quote.”
Even though Anderson knew a source’s sexual identity, was it necessary to label the person for the reader? He said he wasn’t always consciously thinking to label sources on first reference, but contextual clues in quotes were enough for the purpose of the stories. Notably, one source was identified as straight, but perhaps not for an obvious reason.
“I was never thinking, ‘I have to make sure this person has to be labeled as straight because I don’t want people thinking they’re gay,’” Anderson said. “I was just thinking I want to label this person as straight so the reader knows that all different types of voices are weighing in on this and that it’s a balanced article.”
The paper wrote an editorial based on issues Anderson profiled in the series, which was well received by readers and sources alike. Anderson sees LGBT coverage increasing in the future for college journalists as communities grow more prominent.
“I just felt like it was worth writing about and worth educating people about this community that exists at this university and kind of separated from many facets of the university,” Anderson said.
News vs. features
When Ina Fried decided to let co-workers and sources in on her private life as a transgender individual, she took a methodical approach. She told some co-workers in person, others in an office-wide email. Fried cycled through her Rolodex of industry contacts, further expanding the circle of people who would know her as “Ina.”
“I thought my co-workers would be accepting,” Fried said. “I thought the people that I covered would be generally accepting, but I was pretty overwhelmed.”
People whom she hadn’t heard from in years re-emerged with support. Instead of building a wall between her co-workers and sources, the admission created bonding experiences.
Eight years later, Fried’s story is well known in the tech industry, and she has since begun advocating for all LGBT journalists. Fried served as secretary and vice president of print and new media at the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, currently acting as chair of the Transgender and Allied Task Force.
Fried said sexual identity shouldn’t be taboo in a feature story, but news articles can be different, as they don’t always have willing sources. Newsrooms have to make tough decisions, balancing news value against privacy concerns when reporting on LGBT issues, sexual identity in particular.
“Certainly there are times when it might be relevant,” Fried said, “but I think one also has to consider the environment: Is it safe for this person to be publicly identified in this way? In general, I think there’s a difference between asking somebody the question of how they identify and what ends up going in the story.”
The discrepancy Fried highlights played out at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill last fall. A vague news tip rapidly turned into a major campus story, pushing the college to reevaluate its non-discrimination policy and inciting reader response that put the paper on the defensive.
Controversy at UNC
Andy Thomason, university editor at the Daily Tar Heel, heard from a fellow news editor that campus Christian a cappella group Psalm 100 apparently removed a member who was gay. As the paper was wrapping up production for the week on a Thursday in August, Andy discovered the member in question was Will Thomason — no relation — a well-known senior on campus who considered a bid for student body president.
On Friday, after a chance encounter on campus, the two set up a call that afternoon. Over the phone, Andy said Will was “cagey” with the details as nothing official had happened. Psalm 100 was holding an official vote Saturday, so the two planned to meet the day after once Will knew more.
“I was committed to being really sensitive and very careful about the way that I approached this,” Andy said.
On Sunday, Andy set up a private room in the Daily Tar Heel office to talk with Will, initially keeping everything off the record given the sensitive situation.
“I basically get the sense that he has been kicked out for not agreeing with the rest of the group members’ views that homosexuality is a sin,” Andy said. “He makes that very clear. He also is very careful not to demonize the group because he’s still friends with them.”
That Will was kicked out for “not agreeing” with the other members’ views on homosexuality was a fundamental distinction. Like all student groups, Psalm 100 is subject to UNC’s non-discrimination policy, which states that sexuality and other characteristics cannot be used to exclude members. The group’s school-ratified constitution, however, allows it to limit membership to those who share a certain set of beliefs as defined by the Bible. Will’s situation exposed, as Andy put it, “a gray area” in the policy that wouldn’t be resolved for weeks.
But to write a story, Andy needed details from other members.
Will returned to the newsroom a few hours later with two Psalm 100 members who said he would be let back into the group, which Andy chalked up to the possible threat of negative press.
“Part of me was kind of disappointed because we wouldn’t have the story, and part of me was happy for Will because he clearly liked being in this group,” he said.
A text from Will later that night made it clear the story was not over. Psalm 100 members again voted Will out of the group, and Andy continued discussions with his source.
“At this point, he had become sort of indignant, so he was willing to talk to me a lot on the record,” he said.
Reflecting on his removal three months later, Will may have lost some indignation in his tone but remained firm in one regard: Despite the group’s stance, he said he was kicked out of Psalm 100 for being gay.
“I’ve had a specific belief about and been an advocate for gay rights since I got in the group,” he said, “and I have had discussions about things with members of the group, so I do think it was about my status as opposed to my belief.”
For Psalm 100, Will said being an ally to the LGBT community was not an issue until he came out.
Although Will had a girlfriend his freshman year, he said he otherwise remained ambiguous about his sexuality. Last spring, a Psalm 100 member confirmed with Will a rumor that he is gay. That member brought it to the attention of the group’s directors, and they held an initial vote for all members to decide whether to remove Will.
Will chose not to be present during the Saturday vote but understood it was based on his sexuality. It was unanimous, with three abstentions, to oust him.
After meeting with Andy and the two other Psalm 100 members the next day, Will spoke prior to the second vote — again unanimous but with two abstaining members who then left Psalm 100.
Andy used his editorial discretion during interviews with Will to navigate what he was comfortable talking about on and off the record, determining what could go in the paper. Andy said off-the-record interviews are rare at the Daily Tar Heel, but when they occur the paper’s policy is that details stay between the source and the writer.
But what remained elusive throughout their interviews was the disclosure of Will’s sexuality, a vital detail in the story because it raised the question of whether he was kicked out for not sharing fellow group members’ views.
“Even that afternoon the day before the story, he was telling me he would really only feel comfortable as ‘not identifying as a heterosexual,’” Andy said. “Kind of a convoluted thing, but this is such a sensitive issue that I say, ‘OK, that’s fine.’”
Despite attempts to simplify Will’s non-identification identification, Andy said Will remained steadfast on the phrasing. Andy labored over the wording and structure on his story working Monday night on the paper’s 12:30 a.m. deadline.
Daily Tar Heel Editor-in-Chief Steven Norton and Managing Editor Tarini Parti were concerned with the muddled phrasing of “Thomason, who does not identify as heterosexual” and wanted Andy to contact Will to clarify, but he was initially reluctant.
“I guess as any writer,” he said, “I was attached to my source’s wishes, and I had spent a lot of time talking with him about what was acceptable — what he would accept — to write the story.”
Andy went back and forth with the editors, who argued that for clarity’s sake and the truth’s sake, he should call Will to see if he was comfortable with the simpler identification of “gay.”
“It was kind of a touchy thing,” Andy said, “but I called him back and basically said, ‘Will, I think that if people read this, they’re going to be really confused about what the issue actually is and what the truth is.’ And he basically says, ‘I’m trying to understand why it matters that I’m gay.’ And I reply with, ‘well, I agree, but that doesn’t change the fact that people are going to be confused while reading this.’”
Will offered a candid explanation for the confusing label, one that shows how he has since positioned himself at the school as an advocate for gay rights.
“Maybe it’s because of my personal internalized homophobia or the stigma of saying someone is gay that I did prefer ‘non-heterosexual,’” he said. “And because, I don’t know, it’s not about one gay person. It’s about the rights of all people who identify not as the norm or not heterosexual. I thought it might be a better way to not make it a personal story and make it more of a recognition that I feel this way about a variety of different people.”
Still, Will understood the need for clarity in the story and knew readers would make the assumption anyway, ultimately agreeing to be identified as gay.
“I saw that Andy was really respectful to me,” he said. “I think he was trying to tell it straight-up like it was, but yet also willing to work with me to tell my story and be able to tell the truth about what happened.”
The article ran Tuesday, Aug. 30 with the matter-of-fact identification of “Thomason, who is gay.”
‘Not black and white’
Almost immediately, it seemed, the story caused controversy. The first indication came from within the Daily Tar Heel itself.
“Right after this story went up online,” Andy said, “I got an angry call to my cell phone from one of the members of the editorial board, completely irate. I think he thought that I had outed Will for some purpose of journalistic ambition or something.”
There was some concern from readers that Will’s sexual orientation was a label casually tossed into a larger story, but a column by Norton tried to answer to critics from the opening sentence: “The Daily Tar Heel didn’t out Will Thomason.”
The column went on to say Will was out to the people who mattered to him most and the phrase “Thomason, who is gay,” was heavily debated. Beyond the concern for Will’s privacy, public concern turned to the group that voted him out.
“A lot of people on campus were very angry at this entire thing, and how seemingly illogical it was that a group would kick out a gay member, not because he was gay but because he was OK with people being gay, including himself,” Andy said.
After an investigation, the university ruled Psalm 100 did not violate policy in removing Will because it ruled members voted in accordance with its constitution. With the ordeal behind him, Will is working alongside students, the school’s legal counsel and UNC’s vice chancellor to clarify the school’s non-discrimination policy, ensuring a similar situation doesn’t happen in the future.
Will said the process has to strike a balance by being both efficient and thorough. Still, if he could have his way he knows when he would like to see a revised policy: “Ideally it would be tomorrow.”
Hearing how the events played out at UNC, Ina Fried noted Will’s sexuality was integral to the potential controversy.
Fried said the source’s willingness to talk about sexuality is an important consideration in the interview and writing processes.
“I think it does a disservice to LGBT people to assume they don’t want to talk about it, just like I think outing is unfair because I think there are good reasons why some people may not choose to be publicly identified as LGBT, safety being one of those,” she said.
Outing someone for the sake of a story has long been a divisive issue among journalists, one Fried said was debated within the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.
For example, is political hypocrisy justification to out a politician? Fried identified ethical questions in the very definition of hypocrisy: Is it voting against what is perceived to be an LGBT issue? She pointed to the outing of Pete Williams, former spokesman for the defense department.
Williams was outed in the pages of The Advocate by journalist Michelangelo Signorile in 1991 when the department maintained policies that dismissed thousands of gay service men and women. Signorile condemned Williams for remaining in the closet while others lost their jobs. Fried noted that Williams did not take a stance on gay issues so much as repeat the government’s policies, illustrating one of many gray areas journalists face when writing about sexual identity.
Fried said journalists can expect to encounter these questions as LGBT issues become more prominent, and the conversations can easily move to high school publications as young people are coming out earlier than ever. She reiterated that safety considerations are the primary concern when journalists — and student journalists especially — are writing about someone’s sexual identity.
It is also important for journalists to remember their subject’s sexual orientation is just one part of someone’s identity, a point Will Thomason made throughout the controversy that placed him at the center.
Will was dismayed by some reader responses and online commenters who used his story to push their own agendas, be they pro- or anti-gay, pro- or anti-Christian, and every nuanced sentiment in between. Many distilled Will simply into the “gay Christian,” and he said he felt tokenized as they ignored his multi-faceted personality.
Similarly, Will is quick to point out the same could be said for the members of the group that voted him out. He cautions against pegging Psalm 100’s members, some of whom he remains friends with, as ignorant or mean-spirited simply based on this outcome.
“We like to think in black and white, and just as the issue of homosexuality and Christianity is not black and white, neither is this story,” he said.
By Peter Velz, SPLC staff writer
reports, Winter 2011-12