Public Death, Private Life: Army Major Alan Rogers and the Washington Post


CSJ-09-0016.0 This case examines the challenges of reporting on a private individual’s sexual orientation. In March 2008, the Washington Post received a tip that Army Major Alan Rogers was the first openly gay military officer to be killed in Iraq. If true, the life story of the much-decorated and admired Major Rogers would be of significant interest to readers who follow the debate on the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy . But as reporter Donna St. George began her reporting, she discovered a murkier reality—that while Rogers was gay, it was far from clear that he was open about it, especially to his military colleagues. Post policy advised caution about identifying someone as gay who may not wish that fact to be published. Rogers had expressed no wishes on this matter. One senior editor said “the unknowable risk of dishonoring Rogers’ desires” was outweighed by the news value and public policy importance of his story. And Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie, Jr. was concerned that to report on Rogers’ death without mentioning his sexual orientation could be viewed as a major omission and could come back to haunt the Post . But to identify him as gay could violate the careful compromise by which Rogers had apparently lived his life. Ultimately, Downie had to make a decision.

Classroom discussion can focus on the tension between the historical record and the individual. When does one trump the other? Should a news organization embrace an opportunity to change public perception or influence public policy? What are the implications for a newspaper if it knows something to be true and does not publish it? Is that censorship, or respect for the individual? Students should come to appreciate the nuances that accompany the treatment of gender issues in news stories. They could also consider how useful editorial policy guidelines really are.

The case can be used in a course about reporting on gender, ethnicity or race; about editorial decisionmaking; or about ethics in journalism.

This case has an Epilogue and a Teaching Note, visible to faculty after they register.

This case was written by Julia Ioffe for the Knight Case Studies Initiative, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University. The faculty sponsor was Adjunct Professor Joe Cutbirth. Funding was provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation . (0709)

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