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Should two gay journalists who marry be allowed to cover the same-sex marriage story?

A lesbian couple celebrate their marriage
at San Francisco City Hall. (photo by
Liz Mangelsdorf, SF Chronicle)

 

San Francisco Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein recently ordered City Hall reporter Rachel Gordon and photographer Liz Mangelsdorf off the same sex marriage story after the two women were married at City Hall. Mr. Bronstein said journalists shouldn't cover a controversy in which they are participants.

But Stanford journalism professor Theodore Glasser argues "it's difficult to see how removing Rachel Gordon and Liz Mangelsdorf from the same-sex marriage story, now that they're married, advances the cause of good journalism or insulates the newsroom from charges of bias."

Read the arguments and decide for yourself. Then defend your decision in the "comments" area so all can benefit from your thinking.

Journalists shouldn't take part in controversies they cover

By Dick Rogers

When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom invited same-sex couples to City Hall to exchange marriage vows, Chronicle photographer Liz Mangelsdorf and reporter Rachel Gordon took him up on the offer.

That made them just like thousands of other couples -- including Chronicle staffers -- who institutionalized their commitment in a way never before possible. But unlike the other newlyweds, Mangelsdorf and Gordon had another connection to the same-sex issue -- they covered it as part of their beats.

For the paper, that created a dilemma: Should they continue to cover the story, or should they stand aside on the theory that they cannot be both participants and observers in a story that has reverberated from here to the White House and back, that has deeply divided public opinion, that has prompted calls for constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage?

The question prompted hours of meetings, stretching over days and involving at various times a combination of senior editors, the journalists themselves, other staff members and outside organizations. About a week ago, the paper announced to the staff that Mangelsdorf and Gordon would come off the beat. Journalists who participate in a controversy, said Editor Phil Bronstein, should not cover it.

The decision was drawn narrowly. It affected only the same-sex marriage story, not the rest of Gordon's beat (she also covers the mayor and City Hall) and not other aspects of Mangelsdorf's photography. It also had no bearing on other Chronicle staffers who exchanged same-sex vows, but were not directly involved with the story.

Reasonable people can disagree with the notion that participation and coverage should be mutually exclusive. For many of us, there is a gray area.

Mangelsdorf and Gordon weren't practicing civil disobedience. When the mayor says "come on down," that's hardly civil discord.

It wasn't illegal. Many people, citing California's Proposition 22, think so, but that's for the courts to decide.

It wasn't an attempt to sway public opinion. Mangelsdorf and Gordon sought no attention.

It emphatically was not a reflection on their professionalism. Not once did any editor hint that they would abandon their fairness.

To me, one point couldn't be so easily discounted: In a story that cuts so deeply into the social fabric, many readers easily could doubt that the journalists could retain a healthy skepticism while on the story. By participating in a controversy they care about so deeply, in other words, they gain a tangible stake in the outcome.

Readers who know their work, particularly those favorably disposed toward same-sex marriage, have viewed the principle as a mere hypothetical. One reader dismissed it as the "conceit" of objectivity.

But turn the situation on its head. Fast-forward a few years to another hypothetical: President Bush is re-elected amid a campaign for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. A Chronicle staffer, enamored of the chance to participate in such a historic event, hosts neighbors at a constitutional "meetup" to promote the campaign.

It wouldn't be illegal. It wouldn't be civil disobedience. It would be in the privacy of the staffer's home. Should the staffer, a fair and even-handed reporter, then cover the constitutional campaign? My answer would be no.

It's not a perfect analogy. Every situation is distinct. But the point is that perceptions of conflict matter whichever side of an issue you're on. Newspapers should want readers of all viewpoints to find their stories credible. Allowing journalists to take part in a controversy, then cover it, gives readers an excuse to discount a story.

Reader complaints that the paper's decision reflects discrimination against Mangelsdorf and Gordon because of their sexual orientation fall flat. Both are highly regarded, both have covered gay issues for years. The talent and diversity they represent are an asset. The paper needs more diversity, not less.

The decision also does not mean, as some readers have erroneously concluded, that African Americans cannot cover African American issues or that married people cannot cover the same-sex marriage issue.

The bottom line, as Associate Managing Editor Kenn Altine puts it, is that it's not about the person, it's about the action.

Chronicle Public Editor Dick Rogers addressed the issue in a March 22, 2004 column titled "When the news is personal."

Objectivity is a pretense; why hire a diverse staff if newsroom policy insists that it better not matter?

By Theodore L. Glasser

It’s difficult to fault Phil Bronstein and other senior editors at the San Francisco Chronicle for caring about the newspaper’s integrity and independence, but it’s difficult to see how removing Rachel Gordon and Liz Mangelsdorf from the same-sex marriage story, now that they’re married, advances the cause of good journalism or insulates the newsroom from charges of bias.

Bronstein’s reasoning, as best I can discern it from his March 12 memo, rests on the premise that newspapers and their staffs need to avoid conflicts of interest, or even the appearance of them; that when Gordon and Mangelsdorf got married, they became part of the story they were covering, which created at least the perception of a conflict of interest; and that this conflict, real or imagined, might invite readers to question the newspaper’s integrity and independence. I’m confused by each of these claims: What constitutes an interest in the day’s issues, and where would Bronstein draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate interests? Why does the public disclosure of an interest create any more of a conflict than the same interest when it remains the knowledge of only friends, family and colleagues? And why would a newspaper prefer to reassign a reporter in response to the appearance of a conflict rather than trying to reassure readers that appearances can be deceiving?

First, knowledge and interests always intersect. Not even the most gifted and most experienced journalists can know the world independently of their interests in it. The pretense of a disinterested and detached press, an “objective” press, doesn’t dissolve interests or distance the press from them; it only makes journalists less aware of their personal and institutional interests and unprepared to acknowledge and examine them. Besides, the recent and long-overdue move to diversify American newsrooms, an initiative I’m sure the Chronicle takes very seriously, begins and ends with the proposition that different kinds of people, experiencing the world in different ways, will bring to the newsroom new and different interests. What’s the point of a hiring policy that honors differences in gender, race, ethnicity and other markers of diversity when a newsroom policy insists that they better not matter?

Second, it’s not clear whether a conflict of interest at the Chronicle arises from certain interests or from the public’s knowledge of them. In the case of the Gordon and Mangelsdorf wedding, Bronstein favors full disclosure, which, in turn, increases the likelihood of the perception of a conflict of interest. But Gordon’s and Mangelsdorf’s interest in gay and lesbian rights, including, presumably, their interest in the same-sex marriage issue, didn’t materialize with their wedding; it simply manifested itself there. Wouldn’t the logic of Bronstein’s position require the Chronicle to expose the gay and lesbian interests of Gordon and Mangelsdorf before and even regardless of their wedding? And where would this policy of “transparency” end? To whom and to which interests would it apply?

Third, there’s a big difference between a conflict of interest and the appearance of one, though you wouldn’t know it from Bronstein’s memo. Editors wouldn’t spike a good story because readers might consider it libelous; they’d check the facts, consult a lawyer, and then make an independent judgment about the story’s quality. Gordon’s and Mangelsdorf’s work deserves the same independence of judgment; either it’s good material, worthy of the public’s attention, or it’s not. Deferring to readers’ (mis)perceptions only undermines a newsroom’s independence -- and in this case calls into question the integrity and professionalism of two journalists whose interests probably improved, rather than diminished, the quality of their journalism.

Prof. Theodore L. Glasser directs the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University

 

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