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Chronicle bans two female journalists from same-sex marriage story for marrying each other


Editor's note: The following is a memo from Phil Bronstein, executive editor at the San Francisco Chronicle to the staff
Posted March 15. 2004

From: Bronstein, Phil
Sent: Friday, March 12, 2004 4:20 PM
To: NewsroomDL
Subject: note

In the last few days, we have had numerous lengthy meetings and discussions about a conflict of interest issue surrounding the same sex marriage story. Specifically, the question was whether Rachel Gordon and Liz Mangelsdorf, having been married a few days ago, should continue to cover the same-sex marriage story in light of questions readers could - and do - ask about the newspaper’s objectivity and integrity.

Those meetings and conversations have included Rachel and Liz, a variety of senior editors and others. Realizing that the same-sex marriage issue affects people in a personal way, we've sought out frank and honest opinions about how the paper can best handle this.

The process was difficult - painful at times - as we maneuvered through new territory: same-sex marriage as a major news story and potential conflicts it could cause. Strong feelings were expressed, though in the most professional and appropriate way. The nearly four hours of conversations with Rachel and Liz themselves have been intense but extremely respectful all around. Everyone involved, however strong their opinions, expressed concerns for the newspaper and its integrity.

All of the discussion and debate, including informal talk around the office, would make a valuable seminar at any journalism institute because it has been so wide-ranging and because it involves both well-charted and new ground.

The majority of editors involved in the story, and in the discussions, were in agreement on one aspect: that Chronicle journalists directly and personally involved in a major news story - one in whose outcome they also have a personal stake - should not also cover that story.

It is that notion alone - being personally involved in such a specific way in the story one is covering - that drove our decision that Rachel and Liz should no longer cover same-sex marriage. Specifically, we believe that the central issue and defining moment of the same-sex marriage story is same-sex marriage, while it may or may not be a central and defining issue in, say, the tenure of Newsom as mayor, or in the gay and lesbian civil rights movement.

This story is about same-sex marriage, not same-sex couples.

The issue here is most definitely not the integrity of the journalists themselves. In this case, we have complete confidence in Rachel and Liz as professionals, beyond question. Nor is it about gay and lesbian rights, even as the story itself is. (Rachel and Liz disagree on this point in particular, and with the decision in general). Nor is it about the paper determining whether anyone should get married or not. We can’t, shouldn’t and won’t determine that.

In fact, personal happiness is something we wish for everyone at the paper.

But the issue is the integrity and credibility of the paper, as well as conflict and the perception of conflict. We want to protect the paper and all the journalists here from any allegations of conflict to the degree possible.

Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism and vice chair of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, the author of many books and articles about journalism ethics, said the following about this specific situation, without knowing who the staff members involved were:

“This is something Bill (Kovach, his frequent co-author, former Atlanta Journal-Constitution Editor, former New York Times Washington Bureau Chief and former Nieman Fellowships curator at Harvard) and I have thought about a lot. My view on this is that it's a pragmatic issue first: What will the audience of your publication think if these folks have done things that would cause that audience to believe their coverage was not independent? Does (Rachel and Liz covering the story) give readers who might not agree with same-sex marriage a reason not to trust your coverage? That’s reason enough to take them off the story.

“This is not a good situation for the paper. The issue isn’t, ‘can this reporter cover the story objectively,’ but will your audience believe she can." On the point that most readers wouldn’t know that Rachel and Liz were married, Rosenstiel said, “if we don’t tell readers, then we’re failing in our obligation to be transparent. The test you want to operate by is: How would this look if people did know?

“These are not high moral principles. They exist for a reason: your relationship with the public, which is sometimes described as the appearance of conflict.”

There are likely other ethicists out there with other views. Obviously reasonable people can disagree. Reasonably, we hope, though with the understanding that issues that are personal are often, by definition, also emotional.

Rachel and Liz did discuss with editors their getting married on the first day same-sex marriage licenses were being issued, but everyone involved agreed then that it could be perceived as a conflict and the two of them decided not to go ahead. Last week, they approached Narda and Phil to see if we felt things had changed, but clearly they were still aware that this might be considered a conflict. Still, they exercised complete good faith in making the effort; they did not want to put the paper - or themselves - in the position we’re in now.

Unfortunately there was a misunderstanding all around about those conversations. We all agreed that no one was acting in bad faith. But with Liz’ and Rachel’s marriage a fact, we then had to separate out how we got here and what we should do going forward.

So the process that led to this was certainly imperfect. And while we have a written conflict of interest policy, which spells out many things, other unforeseen and unanticipated issues arise, and we have to listen to all sides and use our best judgment.

There are arguments, points and analogies that could be used to support every position and competing opinion in this case, many of which we discussed.

But we decided that the tenet that you can't be personally and directly involved in a story and cover it at the same time applies here, and would apply in the vast majority of circumstances.

While we have made this decision and implemented it, as editors we would be remiss if we did not remain open to discussion and debate on this issue. We’re currently trying to arrange meetings next week so anyone with thoughts on this can express them. Emails and informal conversations also are welcome.

Phil, Rosey, Narda, Kenn

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