Here’s the thought for the day, as you ponder the headlines out of Maine. This famous quote is taken from “The Press and Foreign Policy” by Bernard C. Cohen:
” … (The) press is significantly more than a purveyor of information and opinion. It may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think ABOUT. And it follows from this that the world looks different to different people, depending not only on their personal interests, but also on the map that is drawn for them by the writers, editors, and publishers of the papers they read.”
I thought of this quotation while reading some of the early coverage of the not-so-stunning vote in Maine, which became the 31st state to reject same-sex marriage at the ballot box. Of course, it was also a stunning outcome because of Maine’s reputation for independent, enlightened, not-so-religious thinking as a state in true-blue New England. That second sentence, of course, reflects most of the mainstream news coverage leading up to the vote.
This leads us to the top of an early New York Times report (and you can expect in-depth sequels):
In a stinging setback for the national gay-rights movement, Maine voters narrowly decided to repeal the state’s new law allowing same-sex marriage.
With 87 percent of precincts reporting early Wednesday morning, 53 percent of voters had approved the repeal, ending an expensive and emotional fight that was closely watched around the country as a referendum on the national gay-marriage movement. Polls had suggested a much closer race. …
The Maine vote was particularly discouraging for gay-rights groups because it took place in New England, the region that has been the most open to same-sex marriage, and because opponents of the repeal had far outspent backers.
In other words, this was a lose for gay-rights activists, not a victory for groups that wanted to repeal the law. That’s what journalists call a news “template.” It’s what Cohen called a “map.”
This is also the principle that dominated the late David Shaw’s justifiably famous series in the Los Angeles Times about mainstream media coverage of abortion. He found, time and time again, that journalists tended to frame stories in a way that presumed the rightness of the pro-abortion-rights cause.
You see, reporters and editors often forget that they have a choice to frame coverage in a way that favors one side or the other. But we also have another choice, which is to do the hard work to find ways to frame a story in a way that balances the two interests — creating a debate, instead of electing to favor one side or the other.
In this Maine vote, the implication is that (a) the result was a shock because newspapers thought the vote would go the other way and/or (b) the result was a shock because the wrong side won. Or is the story that it was a shock (c) because voters keep voting for the status quo on marriage?
Before you click “comment,” please wait to hear my point. I think that this is a case where the Times basically got the story right, but buried a different lede that was also justified. Would it have been “conservative” to have led with the fact that this was the 31st ballot win in a row for those who oppose gay marriage, and then allow the leaders on the cultural left to respond that they will not back down, but carry the issue back to voters again and again until they find a way to win?
In other words, is it possible to write this story in a way that says — right up front — that someone won and someone else lost, instead of strictly framing it in terms of the loss for the gay-rights side? Yes, the loss is major news. But was it news that someone won?
And what about the story that most Americans will be reading online this morning, which would be the basic Associated Press report?
This story led with the loss for the gay-rights side, but quickly attempted to offer perspectives from both the winners and the losers. Here is what that looked like in practice:
PORTLAND, Maine – Maine voters repealed a state law Tuesday that would have allowed same-sex couples to wed, dealing the gay rights movement a heartbreaking defeat in New England, the corner of the country most supportive of gay marriage.
Gay marriage has now lost in every single state — 31 in all — in which it has been put to a popular vote. Gay-rights activists had hoped to buck that trend in Maine — known for its moderate, independent-minded electorate — and mounted an energetic, well-financed campaign. With 87 percent of the precincts reporting, gay-marriage foes had 53 percent of the votes.
“The institution of marriage has been preserved in Maine and across the nation,” declared Frank Schubert, chief organizer for the winning side.
Gay-marriage supporters held out hope that the tide would shift before conceding defeat at 2:40 a.m. in a statement that insisted they weren’t going away.
“We’re in this for the long haul. For next week, and next month, and next year — until all Maine families are treated equally. Because in the end, this has always been about love and family and that will always be something worth fighting for,” said Jesse Connolly, manager of the pro-gay marriage campaign.
Please help your GetReligionistas watch the coverage today. I would be especially interested if anyone in the mainstream actually framed the story as a win for the cultural right, which would be flipping the template issue the other way. I don’t expect to see that and, besides, it would be the same principle in action — only with a conservative bias.
What I’m looking for is newsrooms that opened with a lede that tried to do justice to the feelings and beliefs of the left and the right, the losers and the winners. In other words, a strictly journalistic approach.