The reporter who went undercover at a Catholic support group for gay men and outed a controversial, anti-gay Lutheran minister broke his silence in a letter to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune saying his behavior was justified and that his critics, including me, were unfair.
John Townsend, a writer for the LGBT magazine Lavender in Minnesota, has found himself in the spotlight after he attended a meeting of the Catholic support group Courage and outed Rev. Tom Brock, a Lutheran minister who is famous for anti-gay comments.
The story quickly went viral, largely because of a mention by Romenesko of an analysis by media critic David Brauer at MinnPost and a blog post I wrote for the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. The controversy was soon picked up by the Strib, the New York Times, Andrew Sullivan, and others who criticized the reporting on the group that operates similar to a 12-step program.
In his letter, reported by the alternative weekly City Pages and yet unpublished by the Strib, Townsend said that he went undercover at Faith in Action (Courage) based on tips from people who attended the meetings and that it was the only way he could get the story.
For some time, I had been fielding tips about psychological abuse in the St. Charles Borromeo group, including a participant who said he felt tempted to commit suicide. One victim took his complaint to various local media and was summarily rejected each time. So for me, it was clear that becoming an embedded whistleblower was the only option left. That way I could more accurately verify the truth than to write about it from the outside. To my mind, quite reasonable suspicion of real danger trumped confidentiality.
Townsend complained that critics also failed to focus on his accompanying story about what he found at Faith in Action meetings where he described what people said, how he started attending the meetings, and where he lays out his concerns about how they function.
He also took a whack at me and NLGJA:
As for handwringing by Michael R. Triplett, overseer of the National Gay & Lesbian Journalists Association, of which I am not a member, clearly his careerist club members have ignored this situation. Be a journalist first, a gay second.
Townsend’s first public comments on the stories lay out a defense that others—including progressive media watchdog Media Matters–have made in defending the story: Brock (and the ministry) was doing harm and that the story needed to be told to protect others and to expose the hypocrisy. This is a perception echoed by many in the gay community and by those who have commented on stories that have covered the controversy.
I’m still unconvinced.
Outing has always been a controversial topic, both inside and outside the LGBT community. The ethics of when it is appropriate to identify someone as gay, especially when it’s done to expose alleged hypocrisy, are murky at best.
What makes the Lavender story even murkier is the fact that Townsend went undercover to attend the meetings, which operate on principles similar to a 12-step program. He agreed to maintain the confidentiality of what he heard and saw but reported it anyway.
Townsend’s letter articulates the problems with “ex-gay” or “conversion” programs for gays and lesbians, but his reporting fails to show that’s what was going on. Based on his reporting–and Courage is a program that is cloaked in secrecy–the meetings appear to be made up of troubled people who want to abide by traditional Catholic teaching on homosexuality and find that situation difficult.
Is that dangerous enough to the participants to justify a reporter going undercover and reporting what he finds? Did Brock’s inflammatory comments justify breaking the confidentiality of those participants in order to expose him? For me, the answer is no.
Journalists, gay or straight, have an ethical obligation to the people they are reporting on and to the people hearing and reading what they report. Whether you believe Courage is a 12-step program or an ex-gay program, there is a duty to protect the confidentiality of participants even if you don’t agree with the values of the participants.
Despite his protestations, there is no ticking-time bomb scenario to justify Townsend’s reporting. Brock’s alleged hypocrisy is not enough to explain away the reporting, especially by a professional journalist.
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