Post omits sexual orientation in coverage of Brian Betts case

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By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, May 9, 2010

If you've been following the murder of D.C. middle school principal Brian Betts through various local media, you know that he was gay. But if you've been tracking the case only in the news pages of The Post, you're reading that fact for the first time right now.

Betts, a beloved and acclaimed educator, was found shot to death inside his Silver Spring home on April 15. Five days later, reporter Lou Chibbaro Jr. of the Washington Blade, the weekly serving the gay community, wrote that Betts "was out as a gay man to a circle of friends and D.C. public school system colleagues."

Other local media followed with their own stories. The Examiner reported that police were exploring whether Betts's "gay lifestyle might have played a role in his shooting." A Montgomery County police spokesman, in an on-air interview with WUSA (Channel 9), said, "We realize that he was gay" and added that it was one factor in their probe. The Post was told the same thing but did not publish the information.

This week, as three teenagers were charged in connection with the slaying, The Post and others reported that hours before his death Betts had arranged to meet at least one of them through a phone-sex chat service. Still, The Post did not report that he was gay. Yet in comments on the newspaper's Web site, Betts was identified as gay, and a lively debate raged over whether The Post should disclose it.

Historically, The Post has been reticent to reveal sexual orientation unless it's relevant. In the Betts case, editors believe that threshold has not been reached.

"If at any point it becomes relevant, we would report it," said Mike Semel, the primary editor handling The Post's stories on Betts.

Semel said that even though Montgomery County police commented publicly on Betts's sexual orientation, the "news value of that information . . . was nil." Indeed, police did not announce that Betts was gay. Rather, spokesman C. Thomas Jordan told me, they merely responded to media questions about Chibbaro's disclosure. Jordan stressed that being gay was only one of many factors routinely explored in a homicide investigation. "We look at everything," he said.

This week's disclosure of the phone-sex chat added an important dimension. But Semel said revealing that Betts was gay is still not clearly relevant. He noted that police have said that Betts used a national phone-chat service, without specifying whether it catered to gays, and that it also remains unclear what was discussed in the chat. "If at any point we can say for sure . . . that [Betts] was in a gay chat room, soliciting sex from a male and that led to his death, then we'd report that," he said.

I agree with The Post's restraint -- but only to a point.

When police spokesmen initially confirmed that Betts was gay, they clearly were not signaling a direct link between his sexual orientation and the crime. At that time, The Post was correct in not following the media pack.

But the disclosure of the phone-sex chat shifts the balance to disclosing Betts was gay, for several reasons.

Mentioning it provides readers with a potential piece of the puzzle surrounding his murder. And disclosure highlights the dangers people can face in arranging liaisons with strangers through phone-sex chat services, as mentioned in a Post story Wednesday. Also, Betts's slaying is similar to others locally and nationally. "The fact that he was gay is not as important as the fact that he was most likely targeted because he was gay," said Kelly Pickard, co-chair of a local group called Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence.

But mostly, disclosure is important to The Post's credibility. Reader Glenn Merritt of Vienna complained about being kept in the dark. "Just about everyone now knows" that Betts was gay, he wrote me, "unless, of course, the reader relies solely on The Washington Post for news."

The line between privacy and disclosure is not always clear. The Post deserves praise for its protective instinct. But credibility suffers when readers feel deprived of information known and widely discussed in the community.

The fact that Betts was out to friends and co-workers mitigates concerns about invading his privacy. Disclosure in The Post needn't have been a headline; it could have been reported in context. And an editor's note could have mentioned The Post's history of discretion and explained the rationale for revealing his sexual orientation. Readers appreciate knowing the reasoning behind difficult judgment calls, even if they disagree.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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