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Should reporters ask a source if he's gay? News editors disagree.

Michigan Radio
News Director Vincent Duffy

The Boy Scouts of America recently reaffirmed their ban on allowing openly gay boys to participate in Boy Scouts, and openly gay or lesbian adults from being leaders.

(Full disclosure – I was a Boy Scout for many years during my teens, but that was decades before anyone was debating this issue.)

We live in an odd world where what side of the “homosexual agenda” you are on can now be demonstrated not only by your participation in scouts, but also where you buy your chicken sandwich.

And because of this, reporters are finding themselves in more frequent situations where individuals express opinions in public about gay rights through actions and statements, and it’s prompting a discussion in newsrooms: When is it OK to ask a source if they are gay?

This happened recently to news director at a radio station in northern Illinois. A man in his community was returning his Eagle Scout medal as a protest over the Boy Scout policy to exclude homosexuals. The former scout did not mention whether or not he was gay himself, and while covering the story, the news director didn’t ask. He wondered, but he didn’t ask.

He also wondered if he did the right thing, and as is the case for everything these days, he threw the question out on Facebook.

Opinions were all over the place.

Many journalists felt the question would have been out of line.

Some said the Eagle Scout’s sexuality was not relevant and compared it to other coverage situations. They wondered if a reporter should ask a pro-life protestor if they ever had an abortion, or asking someone at a Dream Act rally if they are in the country legally?

Others thought it was very relevant because it went to the motivation the man had for giving back his Eagle Scout medal. (They aren’t the easiest things to earn.) The feeling among these reporters was that the man is voluntarily making a public statement, and politely and respectfully asking if he is gay himself is appropriate.

My own opinion as an editor is that the question should be asked. At best, we don't want our audience to still have questions when a story is finished, and this would be a question almost any viewer or listener would have. If the person making this demonstration against the Boy Scouts policy believes being gay is no big deal, then being asked about it shouldn't be a big deal either. Of course if the person says it's none of your business, leave it at that and don't push it, but you should ask.

Also – asking the question doesn’t mean it has to be in the story. It may completely depend on the answer you get.

The GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Media Reference Guide instructs that a person’s sexual orientation should not be mentioned unless it’s relevant to the story. In this instance, while asking the question may be uncomfortable, I believe it is relevant.

My friend disagrees. Here is his response about it:

“Just gave the interview another listen, and I stand by not asking. It wasn't a factor in our discussion and I am completely comfortable telling any listener that I don't know if he is gay or not and I don't think it mattered.”

What are your thoughts? Should he have asked?

Vincent Duffy has been news director at Michigan Public since May 2007.