What’s the right way to ask whether someone is gay?

There used to be a common ethics guide to good journalism practices.
The problem is, the media has changed but the rule book hasn’t

By Nick Cimarusti

outing

Should you care if your celebrity crush is gay? When a journalist inquires about someone’s sexual preference, the question can seem intrusive. The awkward moment when Barbara Walters once pushed Ricky Martin to say he’s gay is best left back in 2000. Ten years later, Walters said publicly, “Unless someone is openly gay and happy to talk about it, it’s nobody’s business—including mine.” In a recent interview with Out magazine, Jack Falahee, an actor from How To Get Away With Murder, was asked if he’s gay. He described the question as “reductive.”

On the other hand, Diane Sawyer’s ABC interview with Bruce Jenner about his transgender identity exemplifies the potential for increasing diverse LGBTQ media representation. So isn’t it a journalist’s job to ask about their sources’ true identities, even if that means inquiring about who they sleep with? “That’s often the mistake. It’s not a question about sex,” says Lucas Grindley, editorial director and vice president of Here Media, which owns The Advocate and Out magazine. “It’s definitely a visibility issue, it matters,” says Grindley. The ethical challenge shouldn’t be about whether to ask or not, but about whether this question fits into the story.

The media has entered an experimental age. The means by which we gather information, filter our thoughts, write our stories or produce our videos, all of it has changed. But what has received far less attention is the basic ethical rules of the road that have governed journalism for decades. It is not just the conventionally forbidden “gay” question, but the media’s approach to privacy in general, its ambiguity over how to appropriately use social media as a reporting tool, and its vague frame for evaluating what the standard for “objective” ought to be.

These ethical dilemmas confront journalists on an almost daily basis. What details are necessary to the audience’s understanding of a story? What about getting information from tweets or by friending sources on Facebook or Instagram in order to gain information? The transparency of social media can easily turn salacious, or at least blur the lines between journalist and source.

The internet gives overlooked voices the ability to connect directly and in real time with journalists, or to publicly complain about what they read. And as a result, journalists are subject to a new system of checks and balances, not just from their editors but from an engaged and connected audience. And for journalism to better serve audiences, ethical standards that have bound us for decades must be re-evaluated. Do the old rules of keeping your opinions separate from your work still matter to modern consumers? How do journalists reconcile their increased access into the private lives of sources, through social media, and keep a professional distance?

Kelly McBride, vice president of academic programs at The Poynter Institute, says the ethical code of journalism is part of an ongoing conversation. “Ethics is not something that you fix and then you’re done with it,” says McBride. “The reason that you can get a masters degree in journalism but you can’t get a masters degree in plumbing is because journalism is this highly complicated, theoretical phenomenon that has real-life, practical, daily implications.”

In the category of what’s appropriate and what’s not during an interview, questioning both gender and sexual identity is clearly a current topic. Think transgender actress Laverne Cox, who is one of the most popular characters on Orange Is the New Black, or Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, the first openly bisexual governor in US history. Yet, asking about someone’s sexuality is still debated among journalists. Publications such as The Advocate and Out have specific political slants, and they lean toward asking. “The presumption is that it shouldn’t matter because it’s such a small detail,” says The Advocate’s Grindley. “But if it’s such a small detail, then why shouldn’t the question be asked?”

An individual’s sexuality isn’t always a key descriptor for every story. “I would almost always say that a person’s sexual orientation is irrelevant,” says Poynter’s McBride. “You have to demonstrate that the person’s sexual orientation is relevant to the story and in most cases it’s not going to be.”

Relevance is also the deciding factor for Mike Semel, local editor of The Washington Post. Semel says he would defer to the individual’s right to privacy unless sexual identity is directly relevant to the story. “If we’re doing a story about the cherry blossom festival, we’re not going to ask the sexual orientation of the guy organizing it,” says Semel.

The Washington Post’s coverage of the NSA shooting in Washington, DC in March presented Semel and his staff with a unique decision: “We didn’t have any names but we wrote that the two guys [who were actually trans women] in the vehicle had spent the night with another guy in a motel on Route 1 in Howard County and stolen his car.” Semel says the vehicle detail made this background relevant, but no assumptions were made about the men’s sexual activities or identities. “We say what we know and people might draw their own conclusions from that, but we did not say that there was sex going on,” says Semel.

There is, however, an important distinction to be made between sexual practice and sexual identity. Steven Petrow, a columnist for The Washington Post and former president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association, says, “For all too long, journalists have thought that questions about someone’s sexual orientation were off the grid—not to do so renders LGBT people invisible, which has other consequences, too.” Petrow recalls how The New York Times self-censored its obituary of Father Mychal Judge, a beloved priest killed during the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks. Though Father Judge’s sexual orientation was an important part of his identity, says Petrow, this detail was left out of the Times’ article.

Petrow’s work with the NLGJA involved reaching out to newsrooms to normalize this conversation around sexual identity. The solution, says Petrow, is asking about identity in a manner that applies to anyone: Do you have a partner or spouse? “If you’re going to do it for a heterosexual person, how do you do it the same way, and why shouldn’t you do it the same way, for an LGBT person?”

The problem is when we depend on a label as the only thing that defines us. Jase Peeples recently wrote an op-ed for Advocate.com in reaction to Out magazine’s February interview with Falahee, arguing that Falahee’s answer is flawed. Since Falahee plays a gay character, fans speculate about his sexuality in real life. In the interview, Falahee states, “I don’t think answering who I’m sleeping with accomplishes anything other than quenching the thirst of curiosity.”

But his interviewer, Shana Krochmal, also disagrees. “It matters for people who are still continuing to look for themselves or a version of themselves in media and representation and don’t see themselves there as much as they feel like they would want to,” says Krochmal. As a contributor to Out and executive editor of ETOnline.com, Krochmal’s business is writing for an audience that wants to know celebrities inside and out. And that includes sexuality.

“I don’t think there’s anything rude in a context where you’re talking about someone’s personal life to ask them about their sexuality or who they’re dating,” says Krochmal. “I don’t think it should be a question that is only asked by an outlet like Out.” As long as the question isn’t asked with some hidden agenda, says Krochmal, it’s a journalist’s job to ask the questions that everyone else is wondering.

Peeples says that we can’t afford to be cavalier and pretend it’s not a problem. It’s easier for people living in urban, progressive cities such as Los Angeles or New York to be open about their sexuality, says Peeples, but not every person has that luxury. “What about that 15-year-old kid in the middle of Kansas, who perhaps doesn’t have access to basic information about LGBT people and is afraid to look it up because their parents keep an eye on what they look at online?”

Beyond the ethics of directly asking about sexuality, journalists can now search Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms for information that a source might not want to tell a reporter. Is it appropriate for a reporter to peer into the lives of their subjects, just because social media gives them a wide-open window? Journalists now write for audiences that are increasingly socially active and capable of engaging with reporters and editors on their own turf. That 15-year-old from Kansas could tweet about something he believes the writer did wrong, and within an hour that tweet could go viral. What hasn’t changed is the philosophy around what social media material should and shouldn’t be used by journalists. This question is further complicated when sources are underaged.

McBride says journalists and editors for the most part no longer question the use of social media, but rather how the platforms are used. “It’s a tool just like the telephone or email,” says McBride. “You can’t just call people up on the telephone and trick them into talking to you, right? It’s generally accepted that you’ll reveal who you are.” Along those same lines, says McBride, a reporter can’t just walk into a high school cafeteria and start interviewing students without proper permission. So what’s the difference between that and walking into the social media life of a teenager through their Facebook or Twitter account?

On the other hand, public social media accounts can provide invaluable insight about a journalist’s subject. Semel says one of the first times The Washington Post first used social media was during the Virginia Tech shooting. People inside the building were posting on Facebook, giving reporters unique access. “Before we were able to make the four hour drive down to Blacksburg, we were interviewing these people on the phone,” says Semel.

For Nicole Santa Cruz, a Los Angeles Times reporter who writes The Homicide Report, social media is also useful but Santa Cruz says she doesn’t use it as a crutch in her reporting. “I’ve seen tons of stuff on social media which I could use if I wanted to, but how much is it going to add and what’s the public’s right to know versus the privacy of the individual?” In reporting for features on homicide victims, Santa Cruz says she has used information from public social media accounts, but only to supplement victim descriptions.

Santa Cruz has followed hashtags that memorialize a victim or link to gang member profiles because these windows are especially useful in reporting on closed-off communities. In a feature about two South LA men killed by gang violence, Santa Cruz included a description of a video from one victim’s Instagram account. Another Homicide Report article was about an Orange County shooting victim, and Santa Cruz reached out to the girl’s friends through Facebook to interview them.

Andy Carvin is another journalist whose reporting brings him in close contact with social media. Carvin’s coverage of the Arab Spring through Twitter received a lot of attention, mostly—but not all—good. “I think there are plenty of reasons to debate and critique my methods, but I only know of a few people who completely reject outright how I work—but I don’t lose sleep over them.”

At the end of 2014, Carvin launched reported.ly, a six-person social media reporting team based in the US and Europe. Carvin says he views his team’s work, which reports through social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, as a complement to traditional reporting rather than a challenge. “We managed to tackle the Charlie Hebdo story less than 48 hours after our launch,” says Carvin. “We’re taking bits and pieces of traditional newsgathering and production and figuring out how to make them work when dealing with social media.”

As journalists find smart new ways of benefiting from direct relationships with their audiences, they must also monitor their own digital personas. A common feature on the Twitter profiles of countless journalists is the phrase “All opinions are mine,” an effort to uphold that elusive goal of objectivity. But McBride argues that social media challenges objectivity since the whole point is to share your experiences and be transparent about who you are. “How authentic can you be as a journalist on social media?” says McBride. “Social media is your front yard, not your backyard, but it feels like your backyard.”

While the ethics of social media are complicated, there’s another question that has defined journalism up until now: How do we draw the line between our own opinions and the subject we’re reporting on? Our audiences can now choose from an increasing selection of information sources, some objective and some slanted. Perhaps the age of objectivity is ending. But for many news organizations, objective reporting is important for their business model. Advertisers are more willing to buy space when they know their content will reach a broad, rather than niche, audience. At The Washington Post, objective reporting is also an ethical requirement. “If you have some sort of personal stake in something, you’re not going to cover that issue for The Washington Post,” says Semel. “If you’re on the board of a college, you’re not going to cover higher education issues.”

But do these ethical standards still apply when an issue crosses over from opinion to personal experience? In February, Diane Rehm, host of the NPR-distributed The Diane Rehm Show, came under fire for contributing to fundraising campaigns for an end-of-life organization, a subject she reported on after her husband died last year due to Parkinson’s disease. Rehm’s support for the organization violated a newly clarified NPR ethics code that prohibits all NPR journalists from speaking at fundraisers that challenge the impartiality of their reporting.

McBride disagrees with this stance. “She lived this experience,” says McBride. “Why would you not let her act on it and then as an organization figure out a way to still present a neutral product to your readers or your consumers?”

NPR’s Ombudsman and Public Editor Elizabeth Jensen says the underlying issue of a journalist’s objectivity is earning the audience’s trust. “If you feel so strongly about an issue (one that you regularly cover) that you choose to raise money for it then your opinion has crossed a line,” says Jensen. “There’s a difference between opinion and advocacy.”

Objective journalism, without any slant, is a matter of presenting facts accurately, honestly, and with professionalism, says Jensen, but impartial reporting is a trickier concept. “The answer to a biased study from one side of the political spectrum is not an equally biased study from the other side,” says Jensen. “It’s one thing to state an opinion, another to state it constantly without acknowledging other opinions, or to spend excessive amounts of time on it.” On the other hand, Jensen says there’s room for both kinds of journalism, since known facts can be combined with opinion to form an argument with a point of view.

Ultimately, the ethical issues of journalism are best handled case by case, using what Jensen describes as those “ ‘you know it when you see it’ judgment calls.”

That’s no doubt true. But to see it, journalists must dare themselves to break from past protocols and establish a set of ethics in sync with today’s era of experimental media. CJR

Nick Cimarusti is a California native who covers LGBTQ issues, enjoys copy editing, and favors Instagram over Twitter.