In her column, Minority Reports, Jennifer Vanasco analyzes how the mainstream media covers social minorities.
In the first obituaries about former astronaut Sally Ride, the news was easy to miss - buried at the end of the stories, after many hundreds of words about her achievements, was a variation of this sentence: “Dr. Ride is survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy.”
Many readers didn’t understand, on first reading, that Tam was a woman. To the LGBT community, which had had no inkling that this American hero was in a same-sex relationship, the revelation was big news. But the question of what journalists should do when writing the obit of a semi-closeted public figure is one that comes up over and over again.
“I think we live in a time when it does still matter when somebody comes out, as we’ve seen with Anderson Cooper and Frank Ocean,” Geidner told CJR. “The reason I started looking into it is that initial tweets made it clear that people didn’t know this about her.”
When it became clearer to the general public that Ride had been in a longterm relationship with a woman, a spate of criticism was launched at the writers of the first obits, particularly The New York Times.
Andrew Sullivan, the Daily Beast writer whose blog hosted Cooper’s coming out announcement earlier this month, called the Times’s Ride obit a result of “homophobia.” He wrote, “The NYT does not routinely only mention someone’s spouse in the survivors section. When you have lived with someone for 27 years, some account of that relationship is surely central to that person’s life. To excise it completely is an act of obliteration.”
Achy Obejas wrote at WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station, that “No story was more awkward than The New York Times, which mentioned that Ride and her former astronaut husband, Steve Hawley, had decorated their bedroom with pictures of the moon 30 years ago but not, for example, that she and O’Shaughnessy had in the last few years co-authored several science books.”
Clearly, the Times obit and others like it had touched a sore spot.
Denise Grady, the science reporter who wrote the Times obituary on Ride, said that she was worried about sensationalizing the issue. In an email to CJR, she wrote:
The question was, how much of a fuss should we make about this nowadays? How much a part of the story is it? What’s appropriate? I think we wind up deciding case by case, because the circumstances vary and sometimes we have to make a call at the last minute. Personally, I would prefer to err on the side of appearing to have downplayed a person’s sexuality, rather than look back and feel as if we had sensationalized it … . if you publish something crass or boorish or unsophisticated, you can’t take it back. It’s out there forever. And in an obituary, it may be the last word on an extraordinary person and a remarkable life.
Nevertheless, Grady added that, since O’Shaughnessy was a coworker in addition to Ride’s partner (they co-wrote four books together and O’Shaughnessy is the chief operating officer of Sally Ride Science), “it would have been appropriate to mention” their work together in more detail. That did not happen at the Times because they found out that Ride had a partner very late, when they were up against a “desperate deadline.”
There have been many follow up stories since that have delved into Ride and O’Shaughnessy’s relationship, noted that the Defense of Marriage Act bans O’Shaughnessy from receiving Ride’s NASA pension, or talked about the debate over whether Ride can be labeled a lesbian if she, as her sister said in Buzzfeed, “didn’t use labels.”
Labels or no, Ride’s case seems fairly clear. The obit released by her family and published in Sally Ride Science included mention that O’Shaughnessy was her partner; Ride’s sister, Bear Scott, who is herself gay, said O’Shaughnessy “was a member of our family” and that her sister “never hid her relationship with Tam.” Though she wasn’t out in public beforehand and was by all accounts a very private person, Ride came out posthumously and was clearly willing to have her relationship acknowledged.
But the more usual case is that a semi-closeted public figure dies amid rumors that he or she is gay. The National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, which works to promote fair coverage of LGBT issues, doesn’t have an official policy or recommendations for how to proceed in such cases, according to group president David Steinberg. But he feels that obits should be handled with special care.
“I don’t know if an obit is the place to speculate about something that someone is not able to address,” said Steinberg, who is also the copy desk chief for the San Francisco Chronicle. “Other people feel differently. Reporters will come to me and say, ‘We’re encapsulating a life and that’s part of it,’ but I’m a copyeditor - our job is to take out things that aren’t verified.”
Striking a balance in an obituary is a tightrope walk. On the one hand, journalists don’t want to leave something out that gives a full picture of a person’s life. This is particularly important to LGBT people, who have long found their lives erased in public, often not by choice. On the other hand, journalists don’t want to elevate private details of a person’s life in a way that eclipses other accomplishments. If a straight person’s sexual orientation wouldn’t be mentioned, should a gay one’s be?
The fact is, said Keith Woods, a former dean of faculty at Poynter and currently vice president of diversity in news and operations, for NPR, that “straight people don’t have their lives pried into in quite the same way.”
He added, “You can’t escape the fact that today it still surprises people to learn that someone is something other than heterosexual. At the same time, there is an ordinariness about significant relationships. If someone has a lifelong partner, that belongs in the story as a simple fact of her life. “
Even so, Woods said, journalists need to be cautious. “We’re also really working against the notion that [being gay] is automatically relevant in journalism,” he said. “If someone fought hard to hold on to the secret of his sexuality, then that’s part of his story. But if someone is simply gay and chose not to tell anyone and that’s all you know, it’s voyeurism to make that the point of the story.”