Last edited: February 14, 2005

Protest Surrounds Providence Journal Sex-Arrest Coverage

Boston Globe, February 6, 2002
Box 2378, Boston, MA 02107
Fax: 617-929-2098


By Mark Jurkowitz, Globe Staff

A group of gay activists gathered at The Providence Journal yesterday to protest what they called "salacious and unbalanced reporting" and "homophobia" that they believe drove its coverage of the arrest of seven men for engaging in sexual activity at an adult video store in Johnston, R.I., on Jan. 16.

The question of what kind and how much attention this kind of news warrants took on dramatic import when one of the men arrested committed suicide a few days after the story broke. Some activists and several top Journal editors have agreed to hold a meeting Monday on the subject.

"Nobody is asking the the Journal to ignore the news," says Glennda Testone, interim director of regional media for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "What weíre asking for is fairness and balance. The coverage has just been so above and beyond what I think is warranted by a story like this. ... We think it crossed the line into sensationalism."

"The arrest of the seven men ... has to be seen in the context of a much larger battle between the town of Johnston and the regulation of adult entertainment," says Journal deputy executive editor Carol Young. "In that context, it was clearly a story for us." Young says the sexual orientation of the men wasnít initially clear to Journal staff, "and the fact that they were heterosexual or homosexual was not an issue."

Starting on Jan. 18, the Journal published six stories on the undercover police investigation that had led to the arrest of the seven men on misdemeanor charges. The first story named the men, gave their ages, listed their addresses or home communities, and stated their occupations or employment status. The Norwich Bulletin also ran a story indicating that local officials had expressed "shock" over the arrest of one of the men, Stuart Denton, who was the planning and zoning chairman in nearby Plainfield. On Jan. 20, Denton committed suicide. (Bulletin executive editor Keith Fontaine did not return a phone call.)

A Journal piece on Jan. 27 provoked the most controversy and anger. A lengthy Page One story described the allegations in detail and included photos of the men.

"[If you are] publishing names, addresses, and photos, at least come to an ethical understanding about why you do it," says David Abbott, a gay activist in Providence who plans on attending the Monday meeting. "At least elaborate a standard. ... How far do you want to go?"

Bob Steele, ethics director at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, says, "Just because the arrests were made and the police publicized it doesnít mean we have to go big-time with the story. Iím troubled ... anytime a small group of individuals pays such a profound price in public for their misdeeds, when those misdeeds are not so horrific."

Asked about Dentonís suicide, Young said the paper also publicizes drunken-driving arrests and the names of those arrested on charges of soliciting prostitutes: "Every time we write a story about someone arrested for anything, I guess the potential for shame and someone committing suicide is there. We donít debate at all whether someone is going to commit suicide."

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