Refereeing gay marriage wars

sullivanbookYesterday I criticized a Los Angeles Times story on same-sex marriage. While the post received tons of comments, very few — very few — managed to stay on topic to the purpose of this blog. Some posters used the comment thread as a forum to argue against same-sex marriage. Many others resorted to calling supporters of traditional marriage bigots.

Sigh. It was all extremely disappointing. This is not the forum to debate same-sex marriage — it is the forum to debate media coverage. We have a great community here of people who don’t agree on much politically or religiously. Please respect that and keep on topic. I will be more trigger-happy with the comment delete button if necessary. And don’t worry, there’s plenty to fight over even when simply analyzing media coverage of the issue.

The latest news in the gay marriage wars comes as a result of a new Field Poll which shows some interesting results. Over half of Californians would oppose amending the state constitution to bar same-sex couples from marrying according to the poll. When last week’s Los Angeles Times poll showed only 36 percent of Californians supportive of same-sex marriage, that result was downplayed as a narrow, slim victory for supporters of traditional marriage — so you can only imagine how much the mainstream media hyped this result. As in, there are thousands of stories on GoogleNews about the poll.

It’s definitely newsworthy and I’m glad to see so much coverage of the poll. But it is interesting that so few of the stories I read thought it necessary to explain the sudden shift (from Friday, even!) in popular opinion. Rather than look at any of the weaker coverage, I’ll highlight a story from the San Diego Tribune that actually addressed the change:

In 2006, the last Field Poll on the issue, 44 percent approved of same-sex marriage and 50 percent disapproved.

Since then, several things have happened.

In 2007, the Legislature passed for a second time a law approving same-sex marriage, which was again vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. For years, California had already allowed same-sex couples to register in domestic partnerships that confer many of the same rights and responsibilities that go with marriage.

Last fall, a gay-rights group, Equality California, conducted a campaign that included television and Internet advertising along with house parties in support of making same-sex marriage legal.

Most significant, the state Supreme Court on May 15 ruled 4-3 that statutes banning same-sex marriage violate the right to marry embodied in the state constitution.

The decision overturned a law passed by the Legislature in 1977 and Proposition 22 approved by 61 percent of California voters in 2000. The ruling made California the second state after Massachusetts to legalize same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriages may begin in the state as early as June 14.

While some predicted a backlash from the court’s decision, DiCamillo suggested the court might have helped increase support for same-sex marriage.

“The court is held in high esteem in California,” he said.

So not only does this poll show an 18-point shift from the Los Angeles Times poll from last week, the poll director completely contradicts the Los Angeles Times story from yesterday arguing that the California court ruling would have no ripple effect. This New York Times story breaking the news that New York plans to recognize same-sex marriages in California also undercuts that silly “don’t worry about same-sex marriage ruling” story from the Los Angeles Times. This Associated Press story credits the court ruling for the entire recent shift in attitudes. I only point that out to show how imprecise and all over the place the coverage of this issue is. It’s also worth noting, and I didn’t really see this discussed in any of the coverage, that someone could be opposed to same-sex marriage but not feel that it should be prohibited by an amendment to the constitution. As I mentioned, constitutional amendments are hard sells to the public. And yet that distinction was not mentioned by media coverage. Instead the storyline was that Californians now love same-sex marriage.

Football RefereeAnother piece of coverage completely lacking in all of the 1,400 stories on the matter is the issue of the Spiral of Silence.

The Field Poll is generally trustworthy, but we’ve discussed before the problem with mainstream media advocacy for positions skewing the results of polling. It was in 2000 that over 60 percent of Californians voted to ban same-sex marriage, after all. Generally speaking, of course, amendments to the constitution are a harder sell to the public than regular ballot initiatives, but it is also true that respondents to media polls tend to under report their opposition to same-sex marriage. I didn’t see any story address that fact. And, of course, this problem will only be compounded by the media hyping of this story.

The poll did ask respondents for their religious affiliation and this Sacramento Bee story did a good job of including that data:

Born-again Christians objected to gay marriage, 68 to 24 percent. Protestants were opposed, 57 to 34 percent. Catholics were nearly evenly split. Voters from other religious groups favored gay marriage, 61 to 33 percent. Eighty-one percent of people with no religious preferences supported gay marriage.

“There are huge, substantial differences — whether you live in the Central Valley or on the coast, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, Protestant or no religious affiliation,” DiCamillo said. “It’s a divisive issue.”

That should provide some interesting fodder for religion reporters to dig into. Why are people without religion the most uniform in their thinking? Why are Protestants opposed while Catholics are nearly evenly split? Rather than focus, as the Los Angeles Times has, on those “other religious groups” that favor gay marriage, I’d be interested in a story on these other questions.

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  • Dave

    Why are people without religion the most uniform in their thinking?

    I would ask those folks about their background. Did their parents have no religion either? Or did they come to their present position by rejecting the religious traditions of their upbringing? I suspect it would mostly be the latter, and that their uniformity is because one of the most important things they rejected — lock, stock and barrel — were the sexual conduct guides of their upbringing.

    BTW I don’t believe anyone has “no religion.” Your religion is that which connects you, in the deepest level, to the larger universe of which you are a part. But I know what the concept “no religion” means when I see it in print.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Dave,

    Another thing is that “no religious affiliation” can mean very different things. I have many friends with no religious affiliation or no religion. But almost all of them have an underlying moral framework. Those moral frameworks can vary quite significantly. Lumping them all together obscures that.

  • Michael

    the poll director completely contradicts the Los Angeles Times story from yesterday arguing that the California court ruling would have no ripple effect. This New York Times story breaking the news that New York plans to recognize same-sex marriages in California also undercuts that silly “don’t worry about same-sex marriage ruling” story from the Los Angeles Times.

    Actually, it does neither. The ripple effect story was on the impact on other states and whether we could expect a sudden shift towards gay marriage. The Tribune story was saying that support in California–as opposed to other states, which was the focus of the ripple effect story–increased because of the reputation of the court.

    The NYT story explains how one state is going to respond, but actually affirms the thesis of the the LAT story because it points out the rocky road same-sex marriage will have in New York.

  • m

    One aspect of the recent spate of same-sex marriage stories that has bothered me most is the almost ubiquitous comparison of same-sex marriage with interracial marriage. Mainstream journalists — along with a whole lot of commenters on yesterday’s disastrous post — seem to have made up their minds that the two issues are identical and should be decided differently.

    The problem, of course, is that the two issues aren’t entirely identical. There are striking similarities, but there are also striking differences. A news story shouldn’t assume the conclusion (same-sex marriage should be legalized just as interracial marriage was legalized, and for the same rationale), and it certainly shouldn’t be quoting only from those scholars who reach that conclusion. That conclusion is a matter of great debate these days.

    I think that same-sex marriage probably will be legalized in the United States eventually, but I really dislike the media stories that make it seem like public debate is futile. Public debate is never futile. We indeed ought to be discussing what the nature of marriage is, whether marriage can/ought to be extended to same-sex couples, what the effect of extending domestic partnership benefits is, whether domestic partnership laws are equivalent to marriage, whether there is any effect on society or the family by allowing same-sex couples to marry, how to address issues of comity if not all states recognize same-sex marriages, etc., etc.

    Perhaps it’s true that someday (relatively) soon those questions will be answered in the same way by a majority of the American public. But for now, those questions remain rather controversial. I think that media portrayals of the issue of same-sex marriage tend to do all of us a disservice by assuming or even outright stating that there are no questions to be answered. There are questions, and the media coverage is sorely flawed by pretending that there aren’t.

  • m

    OOPS! Second sentence should read: “…seem to have made up their minds that the two issues are identical and should be decided identically.”

    That’ll teach me to post without proofreading.

  • Thomas

    For every bit of media coverage that presents gay marriage as an desirable inevitability, I can point you to several outlets that do the exact opposite on a regular basis.

    Here’s how. Go to Google News and enter “gay marriage” into the search field. You will find (mostly) positive coverage. However, if you enter “homosexual marriage”, it will produce results that are virtually all pejorative.

    So Mollie n’ friends – if you’re truly interested in unbiased coverage, you might want to examine things like this ridiculous bit of “reporting”: http://www.catholic.org/politics/story.php?id=28084

    Note that the author confused outgoing NY Governor Eliot Spitzer with NJ’s ex-governor Jim McGreevey. Probably a case of gay poisoning.

    Then this gem from FOX: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,357841,00.html

    I remain unconvinced that there is no forum for those who are advocating against gay marriage. The problem is not a lack of forum – it’s a lack of cogent argument on their part. If those who oppose gay marriage truly wish to be heard, they should start by saying something worth repeating on the news. So far it’s been pretty mock-worthy.

  • Thomas

    If the real issue is how the media is covering this issue, I offer this.

    If you go to Google News and type in gay marriage, you get largely positive coverage that seems to suggest that support for gay marriage is on the rise.

    If you type in homosexual “marriage”, you get largely pejorative coverage which is often fraught with overboiled rhetoric and statistical inaccuracies – both signs of desperate authorship (and readership).

    Perhaps, if those who oppose gay marriage truly hope to be taken seriously, they should say something worth saying and repeating.

    Examples will be provided upon request.

  • Dave

    m writes:

    Public debate is never futile. We indeed ought to be discussing what the nature of marriage is, whether marriage can/ought to be extended to same-sex couples, what the effect of extending domestic partnership benefits is, whether domestic partnership laws are equivalent to marriage, whether there is any effect on society or the family by allowing same-sex couples to marry, how to address issues of comity if not all states recognize same-sex marriages, etc., etc.

    I’m a supporter of marriage equity (“same-sex marriage”) and I would love to see a public debate on the nature of marriage. What I do see is a lot of screaming that “gay marriage” is a threat to “traditional marriage” without a shred of objective evidence. I don’t think the mainstream media can be blamed for this; I think it’s their sources on the anti side. The pro side may be just as guilty of bumper-sticker logic, but at least their bumper stickers reflect values like tolerance and equality.

    For an excellent review of what the impact of marriage equity can be once the wedding cake has been consumed, there was a good Weekly Standard piece linked from an earlier discussion of this issue. The magazine’s site is http://www.weeklystandard.com and the article title is “Banned in Boston”.

    BTW the parallel to mixed marriage law arises, among other reasons, because both restrictions are seen as part of a web of discrimination formerly keeping a people down, and because both changes are seen not as modifying the meaning of marriage but as extending it to a greater number of deserving couples.

  • Thomas

    What the heck. Here’s one:

    http://www.catholic.org/politics/story.php?id=28084

    From it:

    Gov. David Patterson, who replaced the former Governor James McGreevey, who left office in a cloud after claiming to be a practicing homosexual in the midst of a corruption scandal, issued an order to all State Agencies.

    Oops. NY Governor David Patterson replaced outgoing Governor Eliot Spitzer, who left office under a cloud after proving to be a rather overactive heterosexual. James McGreevey was the Governor of New Jersey. And, when I read the overheated prose in the rest of the article, I know that the author was picturing McGreevey flying out of Albany in cloud of glitter and rainbows, which is why he got the state wrong.

    Here’s another, this time from FOX: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,357841,00.html

    In so doing, the California Supreme Court disregarded the will of the people of California as expressed by 61 percent of the voters, who in 2000 passed an initiative defining marriage as involving one man and one woman. Now, it’s true that in constitutional systems of government, the will of the majority is not supreme if it is contrary to the constitution.

    Citing to data that’s 8 years old may be fine if that’s all one has. But since the current poll data shows a different result which contradicts the underlying premise of strong support for banning gay marriage… well, let’s just ignore it. Maybe it will go away!

    Face it, folks. The reason the media isn’t sending bright sunshiney love to those who oppose letting gays get hitched is because much of what they say is embarrassing. This is not to say they don’t have a voice. They do.

    It just isn’t saying what thinking people want to hear.

  • Martha

    “Voters from other religious groups favored gay marriage, 61 to 33 percent.”

    I’d love some clarification on that. Seeing as how the groups mentioned just before that sentence are born-again Christians, Catholics, and Protestants, does this refer to other Christian denominations or to non-Christian religions?

    And if the latter, I have a wild crazy notion that maybe possibly some Jews, some Muslims, some Sikhs (for example) may not skew 61 to 33 in favour.

    Call me nuts…

  • Michael

    Thomas, neither of those stories are from the objective, mainstream press. Fox has a lot to atone for when it comes to bias, but they can’t really be blamed of bias in a column by someone from the conservative Heritage foundation. The story from the Catholic website sort of speaks for itself.

    While I don’t agree that the LAT is cheerleading the decision to the extent alleged by Mollie and TMatt, the coverage does demonstrate that winners in court–like in sports–tend to get better coverage than those who lose. The winners create precedent; the losers create press releases and fodder for the ideological press and blogosphere. In some ways, that’s the way news works.

  • Tom Stanton

    The thing that bugs me about this – and it is no way unique to religious, sexual, or moral biases – I have yet to see, hear, read even 1 story mention (in something other than a footnote to the graph from Field), that the margin of error on this poll of only 1,052 people is 3.2%. Which means the whole statement of a majority is misleading. If they took the same pole tomorrow – the 51% might not hold up day over day. Seriously – we’re talking statistics 101.

    I’m fully aware that there might still be a good news hook here. But I think the ‘majority’ news hook is a little weak without some caveat relative to the statistical strength of the poll results. Since the hook IS the majority issue, the weakness of the statistical evidence ought to be relayed in the meat of the story.

  • Jimmy Mac

    Speaking of (growing) support for same-sex marriage:

    http://www.bayareanewsgroup.com/multimedia/mn/news/fieldpoll_052808.pdf

  • Thomas

    Michael says:

    While I don’t agree that the LAT is cheerleading the decision to the extent alleged by Mollie and TMatt, the coverage does demonstrate that winners in court—like in sports—tend to get better coverage than those who lose.

    I say that losers in cases which are unjust (or perceived by the public to be) frequently get cheerlead-y coverage when they vow to appeal. We are not seeing that here, perhaps because the well-crafted majority holding makes more sense. And in fact, the dissent is merely a warmed over version of the State’s case and some of the more rational amicus briefs. I can assume that at least some of the LAT reporters read the holding in this case. It’s a rather compelling beatdown of gay marriage opponents and their motives and logic.

    Is it possible that the reporters were persuaded? Is it possible that some of that persuasion is reflected in the reporting?

    Sure.

    Now let’s fight about whether that’s bad or obscures debate on the issue in any way, shape or form.

    It won’t.

    Anyone who cares about this issue isn’t going to be swayed by what Mollie n’ friends contend are skewed reporting on poll results. They will be running around yelling: “Finally! Californians are getting a clue!” or, in the alternative: “The world’s gone mad! If everyone else’s mother let them jump in front of a county clerk to get gay married, would you do it too?”

    I know it makes some people squirmy inside, but the fact is that the qualities of the coverage are a reflection of the quality of the argument. It’s not about who wins in court – it’s about who has the better argument to make.

    In this case, it’s gay couples and their staunch supporters.

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

    Mollie,

    I think you are right that the story being ignored by the mainstream press is why the poll results were so different and the issue of the Spiral Effect.

    Looking back through the questions asked in the two polls, the reason for the difference is clear. It’s the Way They Ask The Questions

    In the LA Times Poll, before Californians were asked the yes or no question about voting on the Marriage Amendment, they were asked this question: “Which of the following statements comes closest to your view? “Same-sex couples should be allowed to legally marry”, or “Same-sex couples should be allowed to form civil unions, but not marry” or “Same-sex couples should not be allowed to either marry or form civil unions”

    But the Field Poll only gave the question with the stark contrast — Yes or No on same-sex marriage.

    Oddly enough, in the previous Field Poll conducted in 2006, the question was asked “Which of the following most closely resembles your own view about state laws regarding the relationships of two people of the same sex … Gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to legally marry, Gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to form civil unions or domestic partnerships, but not legally marry, or There should be no legal recognition of a a gay or lesbian couple’s relationship?”

  • Thomas

    Um, Perpetua? The judges in the court case being reported on found the prior law allowing civil unions to be separate and unequal. It’s fair for reporters to ask questions based on the holding, without necessarily including the prior state of the law. The 2006 question no longer reflects the issue.

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

    Hi Thomas,

    I’m comparing the questions asked by the LA Times Poll vs. the Field Poll. So, I’m looking at the questions that were asked on the telephone for the survey research.

    P.S. And these are questions about people’s views. Other questions included whether they approved of the court decision and whether they approved of the governor’s statement.

  • Chris Bolinger

    It just isn’t saying what thinking people want to hear.

    No bias in that statement. None at all.

    We now return you to the fantasy world in which Thomas and many in the MSM reside.

  • Thomas

    It is amazing to me, Chris, that you simply can’t accept that people can consider this issue and reach a conclusion that’s different from yours. If you’d care to engage in debate on how articulate or well-reasoned the oppostion to gay marriage really is, I’d welcome it. The examples of their gibberish I provided above are hardly isolated.

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

    The question reporters should be asking is: Why did the two polls, the LA Times Poll and the Field Poll, conducted at the same time and among the same survey population, provide such different results?

    News reporters should be taking the poll questions and results to professors in the field of survey research. I think they will find the answer is in the new Field Poll design.

    It really relates to what Molly has been saying about the Spiral Effect. The underlying premise of the Spiral Effect is that people are trying to fit in to moral norms.

    What I notice is that the Field Poll differs from its own question format from two years ago. And that the LA Times Poll questioning was actually more in line with the way the Field Poll had been conducted two years ago. Both included civil unions as a choice preference.

    So, my hypothesis is that the new Field Poll methodology intimidated the residents surveyed by not first letting them tell the survey taker that they favored civil unions as a choice preference, before the survey taker asked how they would vote on the marriage amendment.

  • Michael

    Is there any evidence that the “spiral of silence” theory has played out in recent votes on same-sex marriage. Since these voter referendums are winnning by much smaller margins (and losing, in the case of Arizona), it’s not enough to shout “spiral of silence” into the air but instead there needs to be some evidence to back it up.

    And in a state like California, where there has been almost a decade of discussion about same-sex marriage and multiple elections where it has been an issue, what does the data tell us?

    I’d like to see stories about the theory only because it’s becoming clear it is part of the rhetoric of the anti-gay marriage forces.

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

    Well, what we have right now is two polls taken in the same time period from the same population with strikingly different results.
    These are facts. If we focus on these facts and examine the difference in the polling techniques, perhaps we can learn something.

  • John

    I don’t understand any of this in that if the people (majority) doesn’t want it, then how did it get passed? Remember parts are parts and those of the same sex don’t fit. Have a nice day.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Thomas,

    We don’t cover opinion media! Your links to op-eds and Catholic sites are of no interest to us.

    We only cover mainstream media — the stuff that is SUPPOSED to be objective.

  • Chris Bolinger

    It is amazing to me, Chris, that you simply can’t accept that people can consider this issue and reach a conclusion that’s different from yours.

    It is even more amazing that you reached that completely erroneous and irrelevant conclusion about me from my pithy statement. The point I was making is that you believe that the MSM gives better play to one side in a debate because that side is correct and has the more articulate spokespeople. There is a simpler explanation: the MSM agrees with that side…as do you, of course. Mollie’s point is that the MSM is engaging not in reporting but in advocacy. This is a frequent problem in the MSM and is costing the MSM readers and viewers by the millions.

    If you’d care to engage in debate on how articulate or well-reasoned the oppostion to gay marriage really is, I’d welcome it. The examples of their gibberish I provided above are hardly isolated.

    You’re on the wrong board, Thomas. Besides, the debate that you have framed interests me about as much as catching a cricket match on the telly next time I’m in the UK. (Sorry, Martha.)

  • Dave

    Chris Bolinger writes:

    [...T]he debate that [Thomas has] framed interests me about as much as catching a cricket match on the telly next time I’m in the UK.

    Hey, I thought you were a sports fan? ;-)

  • Thomas

    Molliue and Chris: In an arguably less-biased way, the MSM routinely reported poll results regarding anti-miscegnation laws showing that the public largely approved of them at the time of the Loving v. VA case. (references upon request)

    However, after the SCOTUS ruling in 1967, distinctions emerged in the coverage, largely varying by region.

    I really do hope that neither of you are suggesting that nefarious bigotry deserves “a fair hearing” or “equal time”. It doesn’t. Every story on this issue does not need to reflect both viewpoints as though they have equal merit when they clearly do not. The Phelps clan is roundly mocked, even by Fox. All they are is a higher-octane version of gay marriage’s opponents.

    Chris, your statement was as pithy as a dish of Jello pudding – I can easily provide MSM coverage showing my point, as I did on a prior thread. That one had Bill O’Reilly – of ALL people – telling an anti-gay marriage attorney that he would “have to do a better job” of articulating WHY gay marriage is wrong if he hoped to prevail in California. The attorney came off like a spoiled, stupid child… and that was in a friendly forum.

    Blithering idiots don’t get taken very seriously or receive the same media coverage on social issues. I doubt you’ll see a KKK leader interviewed for The New York Sun in full Wamsutta anytime soon for his views on immigration, however rational they may seem and however much The Sun editors might consider them to have a grain of truth.

    I think they you’re on the wrong board, Chris. Try Free Republic. They’ll adore your arguments.

    When the anti-gay lobby gets better ones, they might also get a fair hearing. They got one without having to articulate what their reasoning was for a long, long time.

    All bad things must come to an end also.

  • Gary47290

    As this contentious issue is refereed, I’d like to see the media force people on both sides to defend their position better. The Anti-Equality side basically says “I don’t like Gay people, and neither does my god” sometimes adding “And they are icky too.” Obviously more discretely worded in our politically correct era, but those are the anti-equality arguments.

    The pro-equality side basically says “It’s about 2 people in love.”

    I support marriage equality for same-sex couples, but both sides fail to make sound arguments for their position.

  • Dave

    Gary47290 writes:

    The pro-equality side basically says “It’s about 2 people in love.”

    What the pro-equality side says in court is that it’s about the state not discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. That’s a sound argument; whether you find it convincing or not is another matter.


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