Friday, October 24, 2014

Herald’s same-sex marriage policy echoes back years later

7/12/2013

Four years ago today, The Herald announced what proved to be a controversial — albeit ultimately overblown — new policy: Ottawa’s hometown newspaper for the past 140 years would join with others in the region in publishing same-sex marriage announcements.

“Newspapers do their best to reflect the interests and lifestyles of their readers. Those readers fit a variety of racial, ethnic, gender, religions, demographics and lifestyles,” Jeanny Sharp, Herald editor and publisher, wrote in an editorial explaining the policy. “What meets acceptable community standards is a moving target. At one time, recognizing the birth of an illegitimate child would have been unheard of. Likewise, inter-racial marriages and even divorces were no-nos. Times change, and the media follows suit.”

Four years ago today, The Herald announced what proved to be a controversial — albeit ultimately overblown — new policy: Ottawa’s hometown newspaper for the past 140 years would join with others in the region in publishing same-sex marriage announcements.

“Newspapers do their best to reflect the interests and lifestyles of their readers. Those readers fit a variety of racial, ethnic, gender, religions, demographics and lifestyles,” Jeanny Sharp, Herald editor and publisher, wrote in an editorial explaining the policy. “What meets acceptable community standards is a moving target. At one time, recognizing the birth of an illegitimate child would have been unheard of. Likewise, inter-racial marriages and even divorces were no-nos. Times change, and the media follows suit.”

The newspaper said it wouldn’t seek out gay marriage announcements to promote a particular political or social agenda, but neither would it turn away couples who came forward wanting to announce their commitment to each other. Editors took into account the reality that such unions would not be legally recognized in Kansas because of the state’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriages. Though a somewhat taboo topic in Franklin County, other newspapers in the state — including The Herald’s sister newspaper, The Salina Journal — had been publishing gay marriage announcements for decades.

Public reaction was swift to our 2009 policy announcement, with readers expressing a range of emotion — from concern and outrage to support and gratitude. Others rolled their eyes and said they didn’t understand what was so controversial.

In the four years since, tensions have settled (though continue to percolate). Mainstream cultural acceptance of gay marriage has jumped. President Obama’s position on same-sex unions “evolved.” The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

The Herald has followed national headlines and written local stories on same-sex benefits, possible changes to Kansas’ law banning gay marriage and potential constitutional challenges for those supporting traditional marriage-only in the Sunflower State. For that coverage, we’ve been called a “homosexual lifestyle magazine,” as well as blasted as a “far-right” and “bigoted” rag. (Perception apparently varies from reader to reader depending on their own biases.)

What hasn’t happened?

The Herald hasn’t published a single gay wedding announcement — again, not as a political statement, but because none have been submitted.

Acknowledgements of same-sex relationships, however, haven’t been completely absent; they’ve simply come from a surprising place: Obituaries.

Several obituaries in the past few years — typically from Ottawa and Franklin County natives who had been living elsewhere in the country — have noted, both directly and implied, partners of the same gender, along with the standard information about education, work history and interests.

Remarkably, no one has batted an eye over those mentions.

“Births and deaths, marriages and divorces, crimes and good deeds are among the many items treasured and preserved in the past and still today as the county’s permanent chronicle,” Sharp wrote in 2009. “The newspaper remains the community’s diary of the people and events that shape its existence — whatever shape and form those take.”

The Herald’s now-4-year-old policy wasn’t intended to remake or change its audience. It was meant as an acknowledgement that our content would reflect our readers — their passions, celebrations and stories. The lack of same-sex marriage announcements in The Herald, despite the policy, also is a reflection of the community — showing that perhaps Ottawa and Franklin County aren’t on the same page as others in the country and pop culture.

Such a reality likely is disconcerting to some, comforting to others.

What will we be publishing four years from now? That’s for our readers, and the communities we cover, to decide.

— Tommy Felts, managing editor

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