RELATIONSHIPS ON THE RECORD
But gays and lesbians often find themselves left out, or referred to euphemistically, in these notices that spell out relationships to other people.
In Vermont, however, newspapers are having to come to grips with how to refer to gays and lesbians who have entered into same-sex civil unions when it comes to matters of public record. Kevin Menken, an SIUC doctoral student in speech communication, recently surveyed Vermont newspaper editors about their policies regarding obituaries and civil union announcements since a state law recognizing same-sex civil unions took effect July 1, 2000.
For most of the respondents, he reports, the new law has affected the way they cover their communities: it is giving more recognition to gay and lesbian citizens.
"This study provides a good opportunity to explore ways legal definitions and changes both subtly and directly affect newspaper policies," he says. "These are departments of a newspaper that are widely read on a community level, and the way this group is defined is in transition, especially with this new law."
Menken’s survey, endorsed by the Vermont Press Association and the first of its kind, garnered a good response rate—55 percent—from the state’s 63 daily, nondaily, and specialty papers.
It was inspired by the experience of a friend in his hometown of Bloomington, Ill. The man's partner had died of AIDS, and as the last in the list of survivors in the obituary, the man was described as "a friend with whom he lived."
These words, and their placement, spurred Menken to look at how people's lives are defined. Newspapers, he says, seem to be torn between the accuracy required to be the keepers of the public record and the perceived offensiveness of what they print.
Terms deemed most acceptable in obituary wording to the Vermont editors included "partner" and "companion." A few publications indicated they would use the term "spouse" if a couple was actually registered with the state in a civil union.
Many newspapers get obituary information from the funeral home, which often has a set format provided by the paper. But information may also come from family members. In Vermont's case, the civil union law changes who can be defined as next of kin, giving more of a voice to same-sex partners.
The newspaper and funeral industries, Menken suggests, should take advantage of studies like his to evaluate how they define relationships and report the events of a person’s life.
"It's one of those mundane types of representation that matters," says SIUC assistant professor Jonathan Gray, who is Menken's adviser.
Also as a result of the new law, many Vermont "society pages," filled with notices of engagements, weddings, and anniversaries, now include civil union announcements. Some, such as the Burlington Free-Press, mingle civil union announcements with wedding announcements in a "Couples" section of the paper.
Others give them "separate-but-equal" treatment, running them on the same page but under a separate heading. A small number of newspapers responded that they would either put them on a separate page or not print any at all.
"Some felt their community wouldn’t support printing them," Menken says.
None of the newspapers responding to this survey had ever published an announcement of a non?state-sanctioned commitment ceremony—although many editors said they’d never received a request to publish one before civil unions became recognized, Menken says.
"Clearly, the law has suddenly provided access for these couples to published recognition for the first time."
Menken’s 1995 master’s thesis in journalism, done at the University of South Carolina, compared obituaries in gay newspapers in the Chicago area with the same people’s obituaries in hometown newspapers. Gay and lesbian partners were largely excluded from the hometown coverage, he says.
"It opens an interesting discussion" of how language use reflects and is affected by community attitudes, he says, as well as how both are changing.
Menken plans to continue his doctoral research with some comparison studies of newspaper obituary wording in other states.
"I expect in other states we’ll find more different terms used, especially ‘friend,’ and more exclusion," he says. He also anticipates finding "a big disparity" between big-town and small-town community papers in what’s considered acceptable obituary wording.
He adds, "I can’t tell you how many people
have come forward, since I did this study, with family stories about [exclusion]
like this. We have to start thinking about how we’re going to let people
define their lives."
—Michelle Cunningham, Media & Communication Resources; Marilyn Davis, ed.
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