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Chris Crain: Washington Post 'ins' gay soldier killed in Iraq

From Chris Crain's blog, Citizen Crain:

rogers_allen The Washington Post ombudsman has gently criticized the paper's editorial judgment for "inning" a gay soldier killed in Iraq, omitting his sexual orientation from a story about his life.

Deborah Howell tackled the issue after a Washington Blade story quoted friends of Army Maj. Alan G. Rogers who were upset the Post ignored that Rogers was effectively the first openly gay soldier killed in the Iraq war. Rogers was out to many friends and was active in AVER, a gay veterans group.

Howell's look behind the scenes in the Post newsroom was quite telling:

For The Post, Rogers's death raised an unanswerable question: Would he have wanted to be identified as gay? Friends also struggled with that question but decided to tell The Post that he was because, they said, he wanted the military's "don't ask, don't tell" rule repealed. …

[The reporter] first wrote a story that included his friends talking about his orientation; some at the paper felt that was the right thing to do. But the material was omitted when the story was published. Many editors discussed the issue, and it was "an agonizing decision," one said. The decision ultimately was made by Executive Editor Len Downie, who said that there was no proof Rogers was gay and no clear indication that, if he was, he wanted the information made public.

It's fascinating to see journalists aggressive as those at the Post deferring to (some) friends and family rather than applying the same standards of newsworthiness they would to any other story. The Post stylebook even incorporates the views of the story subject into the editorial decision:

"A person's sexual orientation should not be mentioned unless relevant to the story . . . . Not everyone espousing gay rights causes is homosexual. 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."

I'm not sure what "evidence" Downie needed to to prove Rogers' sexual orientation. Ex-boyfriends? Love letters? Did the reporter search for them? Yes it's true that heterosexuals can join gay rights groups and have gay friends, and that is true. But still why wasn't Rogers' participation in the group, which was confirmed, in and of itself newsworthy, along with what his gay friends had to say about him?

Howell eventually concludes in the last paragraph of her column that the story should have included Rogers' sexual orientation, but she cushions her criticism:

The Post was right to be cautious, but there was enough evidence -- particularly of Rogers's feelings about "don't ask, don't tell" -- to warrant quoting his friends and adding that dimension to the story of his life. The story would have been richer for it.

Cautious OK but the way the story was handled suggests a real double standard, however well-intentioned, is at work here. My own belief is that real reason for the omission -- which has been an ongoing issue with obituaries at the Post that I've written about a number of times over the years -- was signaled in the opening line of Howell's column:

What should a newspaper print about a person's most private life in a story after his death?

Rogers' being gay was his "most private life"? Why is the sexual orientation a gay person his "most private" secret when it is a routine fact treated with no privacy expectation whatsoever with heterosexuals? Howell acknowledges that Rogers kept his romantic life -- not sex life, which is private, but romantic life -- only as private as he needed to in order to comply with "Don't Ask Don't Tell."

I'm not of the school that the press "owes us" our heroes and thus should report sexual orientation more frequently. But I do believe the same editorial standards ought to apply to gay and straight alike.

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