The National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) is made up of working journalists and media professionals. We are not an advocacy group. Our mission is to ensure fair and accurate coverage of issues that affect the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Tuesday, April, 28 on whether a state may refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples or to recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. The National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association would like to remind journalists, bloggers, columnists and media analysts of the important role they play in giving citizens the information needed to understand the full impact these cases will have in their communities.
In the United States, same-sex marriage is now recognized by the federal government and has been legalized in 36 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and 22 Native American tribal jurisdictions. According to the U.S. Census Bureau more than 70 percent of the U.S. population now lives in jurisdictions where same-sex couples can legally marry.
Still, we realize that coverage of marriage presents obstacles for our fellow journalists. NLGJA offers these guidelines:
- Proper framing of stories is essential when considering potential sourcing. Marriage of same-sex couples remains controversial for some people. Many opinions may be individually valid, but less appropriate when played against one another. For example, legal and theological expertise should be differentiated.
- Journalists should consider diversity of opinion when bringing these stories to readers, viewers and listeners. Look beyond preconceived ideas regarding “pro” and “con” sides. Not all members of communities of faith are opposed to same-sex marriage; not all LGBT community members want to marry.
- Reporters should note the differences between marriage law and the legal designation of civil unions. Civil unions are presumed to extend many marriage benefits and protections; however, they do not include the federal protections and benefits available to married couples.
As NLGJA has previously noted, the oft-used term “gay marriage” is both inaccurate and misleading. “Gay marriage” implies the creation of a new set of legal standards and guidelines as opposed to what is being sought by most advocates – the extension of currently existing benefits and responsibilities to include same-sex couples. More appropriate terminology in discussing such legislation would be “marriage rights for same-sex couples.” Or, in those instances where a briefer description is necessary, “same-sex marriage” as “same-sex” is a more accurate and inclusive description than “gay.” Below are some terms that frequently come up during the discussion of marriage. They are from our stylebook, available at http://www.nlgja.org/stylebook/.
NLGJA has members in newsrooms big and small across the country. If we can help you navigate this story, please let us know.
Thank you for your time and attention.
The National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association
The NLGJA Stylebook on LGBT Terminology offers advice on many terms often used when reporting on LGBT individuals:
When covering a controversial or sensitive issues, it’s standard journalism practice to seek out opposing views to provide “balance” to a story. However, there are times when “balance” doesn’t further understanding of the issues or the story. Some things to keep in mind:
- Don’t create a false dichotomy. There may be more than two “sides” to a story and it may not be an all-or-nothing scenario. Some people might not have a strong position or might fall on a continuum of opinions. Don’t be afraid to seek multiple perspectives and report on nuances.
- Bring in experts. Be sure that the people you interview are qualified to speak on the subject matter and cite their expertise in your reporting.
- Be aware of your sources’ bias and framing. Someone’s position might be based on hatred, fear or irrelevant personal preference or conviction. Quoting them may give the impression that basic facts are up for debate. If you include them, consider how you are framing — or allowing them to frame — the information exchange.
- Consider any potential harm your story could have. By including individuals who speak only from opinion, you can authenticate their narrative or semblance of expertise.
- Remember to look for sources beyond the group with the loudest PR firm. Take time to develop contacts with experts who have deep and current knowledge of the issues at hand.
Advocates for the right to marry seek the legal rights and obligations of marriage, not a variation of it. Often, the most neutral approach is to avoid modifying the word “marriage.” For the times in which a distinction is necessary, “marriage for same-sex couples” is preferred. When there is a need for shorthand, such as in headlines, “same-sex marriage” is preferred because it is more inclusive and accurate than “gay marriage.”
See civil union, commitment ceremony, domestic partner, relationship
Legal status that provides same-sex couples some rights available to married couples in areas such as state taxes, medical decisions and estate planning. Recognized by some states but not the U.S. government.
See commitment ceremony, domestic partner, marriage, relationships
A formal, marriage-like ceremony in which two people declare their commitment to each other; individuals can be of the same or different sexes. Ceremonies may be religiously recognized but are not legally binding.
See civil unions, domestic partner, relationships, marriage
Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)
The 1996 law signed by President Bill Clinton that limited federal marriage recognition to those between one man and one woman; overturned in part by the 2013 Supreme Court case U.S. v. Windsor. Write out on first reference; may be referred to as DOMA in subsequent references.
Unmarried partners who live together. Domestic partners may be of different sexes or the same sex. They may register in some jurisdictions and receive some of the benefits accorded to married couples. “Domestic partner” and “domestic partnership” are terms typically used in connection with legal and insurance matters.
See partner, relationships
Proper term to identify families led by LGBT parents. Identify parents’ sexual orientation only when germane. Do not use “gay families” or similar because it assumes all members of the family are LGBT. Mention genetic relationships or conception techniques only when germane.
Acceptable term for a male, legally married partner of a man. Ask which term the couple prefers, if possible.
See lover, partner, wife
As a noun, a person attracted to members of the same sex. As an adjective, of or relating to sexual and affectional attraction to a member of the same sex. Use only in medical contexts or in reference to sexual activity.
See gay, lesbian
An inaccurate term sometimes used to describe the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Sexual orientation may be part of a broader lifestyle but is not one in and of itself, just as there is no “straight” lifestyle. Avoid.
See sexual orientation, sexual preference
Term preferred by some individuals for a gay, lesbian, bisexual or heterosexual person’s sexual partner. “Girlfriend,” “boyfriend” and “partner” may be acceptable alternatives.
See husband, relationships, wife
A commonly accepted term for a person of any sexual orientation in a romantic relationship.
See husband, lover, relationships, wife
LGBT people use various terms to describe their commitments. Ask the source what term he or she prefers, if possible. If not, “partner” is generally acceptable.
See husband, wife, lover, partner
Innate sexual attraction. Use this term instead of “sexual preference,” which implies a conscious choice.
Politically charged term implying that sexuality is the result of a conscious choice. Avoid or use only in quotations.
See sexual orientation
Politically charged term used by opponents of civil rights for LGBT people. Avoid. “LGBT rights,” “equal rights” or “gay and lesbian rights” are alternatives.
Acceptable term for a female, legally married partner of a woman. Ask which term the subject prefers, if possible.
See husband, lover, partner, relationship