Advocacy at expense of the truth

samesexmarriage 01Yesterday I pointed out the laughably biased spin the Los Angeles Times put on its own poll about support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. While the pro-marriage amendment folks had a 19-point lead over the nays, the Times made it sound like it was hanging by a thread and doomed to fail.

In addition to using the headlines “Californians slimly reject gay marriage,” “Californians reject gay marriage by a bit,” and “Californians narrowly reject gay marriage,” the article also made the claim that the numbers were even worse than they seemed for proponents of traditional marriage. Times staff writer Cathleen Decker wrote:

But because ballot measures on controversial topics often lose support during the course of a campaign, strategists typically want to start out well above the 50% support level.

“Although the amendment to reinstate the ban on same-sex marriage is winning by a small majority, this may not bode well for the measure,” said Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus.

It may be true and in fact sounds plausible that constitutional amendments lose support as campaigns proceed. But some of the commenters in the post below, including Chairm, pointed out another factor that was curiously left out of the Times story. Here’s how the Baptist Press put it:

Although 54 percent is a slippage in support for traditional marriage since 2000 — when a law banning “gay marriage” passed 61-39 percent — marriage amendments typically do better at the ballot than they do in polling. For example, a Wisconsin amendment in 2006 polled anywhere from 48 to 51 percent in pre-election polls but passed 59-41 percent, and an Oregon amendment in 2004 polled around 50 percent but passed 56-44 percent.

This blogger has more examples to buttress the claim that marriage amendments poll worse than they perform at the ballot box. This response bias exists because respondents to polls feel that they are under societal pressure to answer a certain way. It’s magnified in high-profile, controversial areas such as same-sex marriage to the point of having the catchy name “Spiral of Silence.” I wish I had a better reference than Wikipedia, but here’s how they describe the phenomenon:

Mass media plays a large part in determining what the dominant opinion is, since our direct observation is limited to a small percentage of the population. Mass media has such an enormous impact on how public opinion is portrayed, and can dramatically impact an individual’s perception about where public opinion lies, whether or not that portrayal is factual (Scheufele and Moy 1999). Noelle-Neumann describes the spiral of silence as dynamic process, in which predictions about public opinion become fact as mass media’s coverage of the majority opinion becomes the status quo, and the minority becomes less likely to speak out (Miller 2005:278). The theory, however, only applies to moral issues, not issues that can be proven right or wrong using facts.

Now the majority opinion actually happens to be in support of traditional marriage. But the majority opinion in newsrooms is quite different. As reader Darel pointed out:

In 2004, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 51% of the American public believed that “homosexuality should be accepted by society”. Among the national press, a whopping 88% felt that way. More notably, 42% of the American public believed “homosexuality should be discouraged by society” while a mere 5% of the national press felt that way. Among self-described “liberals” in the media, 95% believed homosexuality should be “accepted by society” and even 84% of so-called “moderates” in the media agreed! I can’t imagine there are anything but self-identified “liberals” and “moderates” reporting for the Los Angeles Times.

The normalization of homosexuality is a core value of the American professional class (of which the national press is an important part). None of us should be the least surprised by this story.

I’m thankful to Darel for finding that survey. I was trying to find it when I first started writing about the Los Angeles Times‘ cheerleading for same-sex marriage.

The extreme bias and manipulation of this story is unconscionable and must stop. Reporting this poll in this fashion is advocacy, not journalism.

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  • Stephen A.

    That this is anything BUT advocacy and cheerleading is almost beyond doubt, but it’s still mind-numbingly entertaining to see those in the last blog posting about this story try to first deny it and then try to say that it wasn’t actually related to religion, and therefore wasn’t a legitimate part of this blog’s mission to discuss.

    Warping a poll’s results because the newsroom is uncomfortable with them is clearly something in the scope of this blog’s mission, and I’m glad you’ve taken another crack at it, Mollie.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    When the New York Times’ readers rep calls this kind of coverage “cheerleading” you know something is up.

    But I have already said that before. Sorry.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    I wish I had a better reference than Wikipedia, but here’s how they describe the phenomenon:

    Since I’ve seen Wikipedia cited in medical journals and papers, I’ve been more accepting of the information on that forum. They do have caretakers who are responsive to problems.

    It seems clear that the MSM is trying to create its own news. I’m not sure what number they would need to acknowledge a resounding “no.”

    I remember the constitutional change in Wisconsin. I actually struggled with it. Not that I believe the gay lifestyle is God-pleasing. But being Lutheran and cognizant of the “two kingdoms,” I wondered if there was a reason why such marriages couldn’t be OK’ed by the state. Churches sometimes deny marriage to male-female couples for various reasons. There was nothing stating a church had to perform or accept such a marriage. Yet it could be a mechanism for the state to regulate matters of family, estate, patient rights, etc. I know, power of attorney is available to address some of these issues. And I’m not sure which is more convenient–marriage or power of attorney. God does not like divorce, yet his Law to Moses provided mechanisms to regulate matters when a marriage ends. Jesus pointed out it was because of the hardness of the human heart.

    The anti-amendment crowd did run ads with their reasons why Wisconsinites should say “no” (to the amendment). It would affect couples not married, for one. But as I looked into the reasons they gave (all heterosexual examples, BTW), I did notice that the examples cited were examples rooted in what I consider sin–co-habitation and the like. To me the anti-amendment crod did not make its case for me to vote “no.”

    Has anyone does an expose on why marriage is so important again suddenly? I remember in the 1970′s/80′s when people “shacked up” and claimed that they didn’t need a “piece of paper” to prove or back up their love. Now, suddenly, marriage has importance again. Me wonders….

  • Dave

    Stephen A. writes:

    [...I]t’s still mind-numbingly entertaining to see those in the last blog posting about this story try to first deny it and then try to say that it wasn’t actually related to religion, and therefore wasn’t a legitimate part of this blog’s mission to discuss.

    Don’t paint with too broad a brush, Stephen. I had no part in trying to deny the West Coast media bias at work, but strongly felt, and still feel about this post, that disagreeing with conservative religious positions — even to the extent of doing poor journalism about it — is not a failure to Get Religion.

    Mollie has earlier stated that she enjoys the breadth of the diversity among the commentators here. Constantly portraying rejection of conservative positions as a failure to get religion is not the way to preserve that diversity.

  • Matt

    Since I’ve seen Wikipedia cited in medical journals and papers, I’ve been more accepting of the information on that forum. They do have caretakers who are responsive to problems.

    Mollie is right to wish for something better. Wikipedia (which I love and to which I contribute) is more or less trustworthy on non-controversial matters, though I would be appalled to see it as a source for a technical paper. On political and religious issues, however, Wikipedia is sometimes guilty of spin or slanted coverage. Read it, but verify with other sources before you believe it.

    Kind of like the L.A. Times. :S

  • Jerry

    On political and religious issues, however, Wikipedia is sometimes guilty of spin or slanted coverage.

    I suspect that Wikipedia does better at political and religious issues than the MSM.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    DAVE:

    Inaccurate coverage is a failure to GET something, in our definition. Ditto for consistent, glaring bias.

    Period.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Before Dave fires back that the bias is in our imaginations, let me again share a link to a tribute to the late David Shaw of the LA Times and to his great series — for the Times — on MSM bias on abortion coverage.

    http://www.getreligion.org/?p=966

  • danr

    Not to sound Clintonian, but part of this whole debate about the validity of this post on getreligion seems to me to hinge on what your definition of “get” is. Get could mean 1) understand, 2) sympathize, 3) acknowledge (though not necessarily agree), perhaps others…

    By characterizing a poll result in a way that clearly reveals bias, the LAT is giving at least the appearance of not sufficiently acknowledging (#3 above) the depth of remaining opposition to gay marriage in CA. To say that such opposition is largely (not completely) based on religious convictions is virtually beyond debate, and LAT certainly knows that.

  • FW Ken

    “homosexuality should be accepted [discouraged] by society”

    Hope this isn’t off topic, but this sort of language drives me nuts.

    What is “homosexuality”, anyway? You think you know, but give me a clear definition. Is it sexual preference? An innate orientation” – something changeable or unchangeable, genetic or psychogenic, but psychologically intrinsic to a person’s identity? Or not. Is it sexual/genital acts apart from the concept of orientation/preference? Is it a way of life chosen on the basis of one’s unchosen psychosexual tendencies? Is it all of these things? Or none?

    How do you encourage or discourage something so vague and changeable? What, exactly, am I encouraging or discouraging? Decency toward persons who experience same-sex attractions? A live-and-let-live tolerance of what people do in their own bedrooms? Positive affirmation and public support for same-sex couples?

    What is “homosexuality” and how do you conduct a valid poll or write a story around such a vague concept?

  • http://optimus-stoo.livejournal.com stoo

    I never meant to deny the bias exists, sorry it seemed I was implying otherwise.

    “Inaccurate coverage is a failure to GET something, in our definition. Ditto for consistent, glaring bias.”

    You have a weird definition of “getting”. I see how this is biased and slightly dodgy reporting of something relevant to the interests of religious people. I don’t get how it is an indicator of lacking understanding of religion.

    But, fine. Bias against views held by religious types is fair game for posts, even when there’s no specific mention of religion in a media item, I’ll accept that now. Your blog, your rules!

  • Dave

    Terry (##7&8):

    I’m certainly not saying the bias is in your imagination. I can read.

    What I am saying is that bias on a topic with religious overtones, howsoever sensitive, is not a failure to get religion. It’s a failure to agree with one side in a religious debate.

    If the media in question didn’t know that Catholic doctrine is opposed to gay marriage, or that Unitarian Universalist doctrine favors it — that would be a failure to get religion.

    As stoo says, your blog, your rules. But a stream of complaints about anti-conservative bias alone is no longer a blog about the failure of the press to get religion, in the sense that I can tell friends, “Hey, there’s a place where you can discuss the media/religion nexus with people of a wide variety of faith backgrounds, on the shared ground that you all agree the mainstream media do a shoddy job of understanding the religious dimension of life.” The common ground is being eroded away.

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    Thank you so much for the analysis. I found the actual poll results fascinating.
    For the first question on whether same-sex couples should get marriage, civil unions, or neither, the people in the 35-44 age group had a large percent saying “don’t know” compared to the other groups. Could this be because they are concerned stating their true opinions to a stranger over the phone?
    Also, among the 18-34 year olds, 38% didn’t think think same-sex couples should get either marriage or same sex unions. This was a larger percent than any other age group. And this youngest group surveyed has the lowest percent that approves of same-sex marriage, except for those 65 and over. So, the claims that there is more support for same-sex marriage among the younger generation are not supported by this survey.

  • http://optimus-stoo.livejournal.com stoo

    I wonder, is there some expectation for newspapers to be neutral in the states? Is that what i’m missing here?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Dave:

    If you want to argue about accurate reporting, then this is a place to do it.

    Biased reporting lacks accuracy and balance.

  • Jonathan

    stoo (#14),
    As has been pointed out repeatedly since this blog was started, there is a philosophical distinction between American-style journalism and European-style journalism, that is, an expectation of some sense of neutrality/objectivity vs. advocacy journalism. Based on the shift in cultural expectations, e.g. postmodernism, literary deconstruction, etc., it seems that fewer and fewer people feel that American-style journalism is possible (or even a legitimate enterprise to pursue). Perhaps part of the disagreement between you and Dave on one side, and Terry and Mollie on the other side, concerning this LAT storyline on gay marriage is a larger philosophical disagreement along these lines.

    You seem to suggest that bias in and of itself doesn’t seem to be a reflection of the media “not getting religion”, whereas Terry & Mollie suggest that “cheerleading” and bias demonstrates “not getting religion” because the lack of neutrality betrays a lack of understanding of the issue in its entirety.

    I tend to agee with Mollie and Terry with regard to this topic.

  • Dave

    Jonathan wrote:

    Perhaps part of the disagreement between you and Dave on one side, and Terry and Mollie on the other side, concerning this LAT storyline on gay marriage is a larger philosophical disagreement along these lines.

    No, I prefer the American style of journalism, as does Terry.

    You seem to suggest that bias in and of itself doesn’t seem to be a reflection of the media “not getting religion”, whereas Terry & Mollie suggest that “cheerleading” and bias demonstrates “not getting religion” because the lack of neutrality betrays a lack of understanding of the issue in its entirety.

    That attitude you attribute to Terry and Mollie tends to blur the difference between “they don’t get it” and “they don’t agree with me.”

  • Sarah Webber

    Perhaps what Mollie and Terry find that exacerbates the bias is the implication in MSM is that if you don’t agree with them on issues they “cheer-lead,” you’re just stupid. I don’t find that attitudes such as is behind this particular article in the LAT allow that there is a “reasonable” objection to gay marriage, just bigoted ones. So while Terry and Mollie and many commentators on GetReligion would like to have a calm and reasonable conversation about things we disagree about (another reason for the existence of this site), that doesn’t seem possible in the MSM and even in the wider American culture. And that makes me sad. But that’s also why I tend to spend time here regularly. That and reading Martha’s comments; she’s always good for a laugh.

  • Dave

    Sarah:

    I think you have something here. In which case I would politely invite Terry and Mollie to join the club. There are voices in this country screaming from the right, both political and religious, to the effect that those who don’t agree with them are not only stupid but traitors (political) or intent on destroying the church (religious). The presence of those voices may even subconsciously inform that part of the press that’s unreasonably pro-left.

    I don’t mind the occasional posting that has no clear get-religion content, though I will reserve the right to comment upon it as I did with the post about abortion clinics and the one about the Intelligent Design movie. (Those comments did not develop into debates, perhaps because no one else chimed in on my side.) But I would hate to see this site devolve into a conservative complaint list. There are plenty of places to go in the blogosphere for that.

  • Stoo

    Jonathan:

    ” whereas Terry & Mollie suggest that “cheerleading” and bias demonstrates “not getting religion” because the lack of neutrality betrays a lack of understanding of the issue in its entirety”

    See there’s an implication here that taking a stance against religion must mean not understanding it! Which i don’t like the sound of, but forgive me if i’ve misread.

  • michael

    I’d like to suggest that interpretations of ‘bias’, ‘cheerleading’ etc are beside the point. I think the most important point is that the Times described a 19-point gap as ‘slim’ or ‘narrow’, which it is not, by any reasonable definition. In an election it would be called a landslide. The LA Times was guilty of gross inaccuracy in language, which should be embarassing to reputable newspaper.

  • Jonathan

    Stoo and Dave,
    I don’t think I stated things well, but I understand what both of you are saying. I think that michael (which one? There’s like 4 or 5 michaels posting now, it seems) perhaps suggests why there is grousing about the story. Better yet, I think Sarah did a good job of pointing out why it was a legitimate post on GetReligion. Dave, I appreciated your reply to Sarah. I don’t think that overall GetReligion is going to devolve into a conservative complaint list, although the GetReligionistas have always been upfront about their traditional/orthodox viewpoint, which is in contrast to that of The Revealer, which provides good critique of media coverage of religion froom a different vantage point. In general, I trust that both sites will take reporters to task whenever there’s a clear case of bias in their reporting of religious issues, though because of their vantage points, each site is going to be more attuned to some instances of bias over others.

    So, if the Washington Times were to report a poll that a mere 54% are opposed to the death penalty vs. 35% for it, I would like to think that the GetReligionistas would also cite that as the media “not getting religion”. But I could be wrong.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    One more time to Dave:

    You really need to read the New York Times self studies.

    Then write us with your reactions.

  • Dave

    Tmatt:

    Link, please?

  • Dave

    Tmatt:

    Never mind, I found it. Reaction later.

  • Dave

    Terry:

    First I want you to know that I bent a personal rule of long standing by going to the Shaw link. When, in a discussion with some disagreements, someone offers me a link in lieu of an argument, I blow them off. That is a fallacy in formal debate known as the Scholar’s Ploy (the original form was, “You have to read my book to understand why you are wrong”). But in our brief exchanges you’ve seemed genuinely interested in where I’m coming from, so I made an exception. (Others need not expect the same.)

    The Shaw piece was a sobering disclosure of ingrained bias. That the bias favors my side of the issue makes it no less sobering. There was even a GetReligion moment in it, in the finding that reporters often classify abortion opponents as Catholic or evangelical without foundation, and do not note the religion of abortion-choice supporters at all.

    The latter is a hint as to the bias behind the bias. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights has tried for decades to break into print that there are religious people on both sides of the issue, that it’s not all religious folks on one side and all non-religious types on the other. That this has bounced off the media like rain on a roof suggests that the ur-bias is secularism.

    The piece was laughable at moments. I’ve been around abortion clinics in my checkered career, and they’re run and regulated as clinics. The idea that it would be just as fair to call them “abortion mills” is risible.

    Don’t btw expect any changes in my personal vocabulary as a result of reading the Shaw piece. I refer to the two movements as anti-abortion and pro-choice because I regard those as the most accurate labels around. But I’m not the editor of a newspaper.

    The Shaw piece did nothing to merge in my mind the categories of not getting religion and having a bias on an issue with strong religious overtones. I can even stipulate that the LAT is as deeply biased on gay issues as it was found to be on the abortion issue, and that distinction remains. I admit I hadn’t expected the latter bias to be so readily documentalbe, so it was a worth-while read. Thank you.