In response to this post, National Public Radio’s Ombudsman Alicia Shepard has written her own thoughts about NPR’s identification of Judge Vaughn Walker as “gay and open.” She also raises some questions of how NPR identifies the sexual orientation of people in stories.

Saying matter-of-factly that Walker is gay, without his confirmation, violates NPR’s policy against publishing or airing rumors, allegations or reports about private lives of anyone unless there is a compelling news reason to do so.

Deciding when there is a compelling news reason to mention someone’s sexual orientation is a tough ethical decision.

But, in a case such as this, the first obligation is to verify that the person is gay and that can only come from Walker or close personal friends or family who are quoted by name. As far as I could determine, Walker has never openly said he is gay.

Shepard added this additional context to explain NPR’s inconsistencies:

In May 2009, NPR was criticized for not reporting charges in the movie review of Outrage that certain closeted gay politicians vote and campaign against gay interests and are protected by the mainstream media. Then, NPR said it would not use the names because the politicians are entitled to privacy about their sex lives unless it’s relevant to the news.

If NPR wouldn’t publish the name of a particular politician mentioned in the movie review of Outrage because he has not acknowledged he is gay, why is it OK to mention Walker’s sexual orientation? Similarly, why did NPR apologize for saying an actress is gay because she has not confirmed it?

In another story, when someone is openly gay and it is relevant to the story, NPR did not mention that fact.

This happened with Mary Kay Henry, who in May was elected president of the 2.2-million-member Service Employees International Union. Henry was the first woman elected to that post and has been out and fighting for gay rights throughout much of her life.

She is also a founding member of SEIU’s gay and lesbian Lavender Caucus. NPR did a May 12 mini-profile of her but didn’t include that fact. Correspondent Don Gonyea said he didn’t because the story was about challenges facing Henry and not a full-fledged profile of her. But it did have biographical material and, I think, mentioning she’s a lesbian would have added another dimension to the story.

NPR is not the only mainstream media outlet wrestling with when and how to identify the sexual orientation of people involved in new stories. The Washington Post has also wrestled with the issue and may be on the verge of changing its policies.

Sexual orientation can be a topic that is complicated to deal with, but it doesn’t have to be all of the time.  I wonder if newsrooms are caught in a 1990s view of how to handle sexual orientation–when it was something to be sensitive about–and that newsroom policies on identifying the sexual orientation haven’t caught up with the realities of life in 2010.

This may be a case-by-case issue, of course, because the Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle (as well as NPR) don’t have to have the same policy as the Boise Idaho-Statesman or The Oklahoman.  But identifying people as gay need not be treated as a state-secret or like you are putting a Scarlet-A on their chest.

On the same token, for people who are not “gay and open,” there is going to be a different set of criteria. If you are going to report the Judge Walker is gay, there are many public figures and politicians who have been the subject of much more reliable reporting and gossip yet NPR and other media don’t report that.

The discussion, as always, will continue.