Kelly McBride has a thought-provoking essay up in the Ethics Journal at www.Poynter.org dissecting the case of the lesbian journalists at the San Francisco Chronicle who were removed from major roles in coverage of the ongoing same-sex marriage story after they got married. Thus, the question everyone asked was: Should Rachel Gordon and Liz Mangelsdorf continue covering a controversial news event in which they had become participants? This issue started receiving major attention after a staff memo from Phil Bronstein, executive editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, hit the World Wide Web.
Now, the highly influential, very mainstream National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association is fielding all kinds of questions about what its members should and should not be covering. For reporters on the religion beat, many of these questions will sound very familiar. McBride notes that gay and lesbian journalists do have a unique connection to a story that pivots on legal questions that are still being sorted out in courts. However all kinds of people have strong feelings about this issue.
The journalist who gives money to a church where the minister preaches for or against marriage for gays and lesbians has a stake. The reporter whose sister or daughter is a lesbian has a stake.
Rather than searching for analogies, journalists must find the threshold where individuals are disqualified from reporting, editing, or influencing a particular story. One threshold should be when fairness cannot be achieved. Another threshold involves public perception. When a journalist enters into the public debate, he gives the public cause to doubt his ability to report the news fairly.
In most cases, it takes more than a person's identity to disqualify him or her from covering a particular story. Usually it takes a specific action, like giving money to a cause or taking a public stance by signing a petition or putting a bumper sticker on your car.
On the religion beat, it is often said that journalists should not be involved in covering issues that affect their own flocks. This immediately raises the question: How broadly do we define the word "flock"? Is that the parish? The regional diocese? The national church? The global Communion? The whole Christian faith?
There are editors who, for this reason, believe that people who are religious believers of any stripe should not cover the world of religion. Some do not even want reporters who have studied religion to be on the beat. This always amazes me. Try to imagine a similar approach being taken to coverage of, oh, football, politics or law. Try to imagine having opera writers who do not want to go to operas and have no desire to study the world of opera.
Let me stress that these issues are very serious. I know that from first-hand experience.
When I worked at the Rocky Mountain News I was constantly involved -- as a reporter, not just as a columnist -- in coverage of my own denomination. This disturbed me and I brought it up with my editors. We decided that I would never cover my own parish (my wife and I joined a smaller church, pronto) and that I would stay out of denominational politics, as much as I could.
But one of my editors made several points that I have always remembered. He said it was crucial that I not be involved in news events. Never cover your own story, he said. Also, he stressed that the issue was not the ideas in my head but the accuracy and the fairness of the information in my stories. He also said that it was good that I had raised these ethical questions about my work before others did. He would help me monitor my own coverage. I thanked him.
These are hard lines to define and McBride's essay probes many of the crucial questions. But its easy to find the bottom line: Never cover your own story.