August 16th, 2011
Reporting on same-sex marriage in minority communities
By Abby Henkel
By Abby Henkel
The issue of marriage rights for same-sex couples has become a frequent topic in the news. When reporting on issues in the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, journalists will no doubt come across complex topics that require thoughtful consideration and different ways of approaching an increasingly common story.
Consider the Suquamish Tribe in Washington, which recently legalized marriage for same-sex couples. Effective, conscientious reporting on this story demands more than just correct use of terminology and a Who-What-Where-When-Why approach. Getting the whole story means taking into account not only the national discussions on same-sex marriage, but also the views on same-sex relationships and marriage generally held by the particular tribe and across Native American cultures.
SPJ’s Diversity Toolbox can be a good place to start for guidance in covering a story when the reporter is not fully familiar with the community or culture. One suggestion you’ll find is to “talk to new types of people – those with day-to-day knowledge about an issue, not simply formal expertise.” In doing so, you will give the source an opportunity to tell you what really matters to that person’s community.
Becky Tallent, a University of Idaho journalism professor and member of both the SPJ Diversity Committee and the Native American Journalists Association, explains a common misunderstanding by non-Native Americans, “that all tribes are alike. Nothing can be further from the truth. We are all separate and distinct.” She continues, recommending that “if a non-Native reporter were to go out and cover the GLBTQA community in Native America, they should first explore how the specific tribe views GLBTQA as part of their culture. Yes, this can mean significant leg work…They need to become a common sight in the tribe, not just someone who drops in for breaking news.”
In the case of the Suquamish Tribe, a reporter not familiar with the culture might initially expect that the issue of legalizing marriage for same-sex couples was heated and controversial, or that it came down to whether a majority of tribal members hold “traditional family values.” However, according to news reports, it appears the issue was more about timing and an assertive advocate for marriage rights. In an interview with The Associated Press, Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman explains: “I’m just happy that we’re able to get the work done that will allow the same rights and privileges to all people, regardless of sexual orientation. It was a process that took longer than expected. We have a lot competing needs.”
In the end, when one member stood up and asked for an immediate vote, the group was unanimously in favor of same-sex marriage rights.
Tallent explains another detail that could be lost.
“What most Native Nations do believe in is the right of everyone to speak,” she said. “Every single tribal member has a voice, and, for the most part, those voices are listened to and respected. It is the ultimate in free speech. Anyone covering Native America needs to understand this is the real power of the people.”
Helen Zia offers an insightful look into expecting one answer and receiving another, from a reporter’s point of view, published here on the website of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Like Tallent’s assertion that not all Native American nations support same-sex marriage rights just because some do, Zia explains that even among peers whom she believes share her beliefs (here, LGBT Asian Americans), there are differences of opinion and experience that make generalizations futile.
Reporting on issues in diverse or unfamiliar communities, then, is an exercise in asking open questions and listening to the complexities of the answers.
Abby Henkel is SPJ’s communications coordinator and a 2011 graduate of Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs master’s program, where she worked on diversity initiatives.