Maine point: Someone loses, someone wins?

lesbian-wedding-cake-topperHere’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?

120000-main_FullAnd 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.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Stoo

    Well the conservative Telegraph said “The defeat was seen as a major setback for homosexual rights advocates.”

    On the other hand down the bottom they write

    “The federal government and most states do not recognise what is often referred to as gay marriage”

    Emphasis mine, kind of sneerily put I thought. If sneerily is a word.

  • http://finley.im James Finley

    @Stoo, you could take the remark “what is often referred to as” to be saying that it isn’t really marriage.

    This issue isn’t about civil rights, but about redefining marriage. Gays have the same right as everyone else, including marriage. However, marriage being 1 man and 1 woman, they want to redefine marriage. …

  • Stoo

    Understood, but again with the sneery in that last sentence.

  • Lymis

    Tmatt
    I understand your point, but in this case, one side lost far more than the other side won. WIthout discussing the merits, the gay couples who were (or would be potentially) affected lost significant financial, social, and political benefits. The religious groups who supported marriage equality also lost their right for their beliefs and practices to be as recognized as those who limit marriage to opposite sex couples only.

    The opponents stood to lose nothing whatsoever had it passed, other than their ability to deny to others something that they don’t deny themselves. As it stands, the previous status quo stands.

    Given that, and that until a few days ago all the polls showed the likelihood of the referendum failing, framing this as a loss makes a lot of sense.

  • http://crappychristian.com Marie

    In these votes, don’t we tend to say group A for whatever cause won or loss if what they were advocating gets voted up or down? And then there is a hyperbole. Is it really a major set back? Does it stop them from raising money and advocating? No.
    tmatt, in your posting I take it from your tone that you don’t see the Maine voters rejection of same sex marriage as a win for het marriage.

  • Martha

    Does anyone have an opinion on the language of “foes” versus “opponents”?

    “Foes” seems to me a much more loaded word, but that could be personal interpretation.

    Never mind the heart-tugging with the use of “heartbreaking”. I know, I know: all papers liven up coverage with these touches because otherwise it’s too dry, but in an election result, I *want* dry and formal and official. I’m interested to know Candidate A won by a margin of 8%, or the referendum result very nearly balanced out at 51%-49%, not how Candidate B clutched his cute little puppy and sobbed into its fur as the results were announced.

    Well, okay: I lied there. I did relish seeing Michael Portillo having the smirk wiped off his face in the 1997 election :-) But in general, I want facts in my news reporting, and leave the opinionating for the editorial and the columnists.

    It was a loss for one side and I’m certain that they are extremely disappointed. But would any reporter even consider writing it up as a “heart-warming win” rather than a “heart-breaking defeat”? I don’t think so.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Marie, Martha, et al:

    My whole point is that journalists need to find a way to do justice to both sides of the debate. It’s a win and a loss; that’s hard to put into a SINGLE LEDE or the top of a story, but it can be done.

  • http://www.gaelicgopher.org Greg

    “The Press and Foreign Policy” by Bernard C. Cohen

    Nice book choice. I feel like I’ve heard that quote before…Good post Tmatt!

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    Another way the story could be framed is as a loss for professional government and a victory for the people. Maine is not just a state that outlawed homosexual marriage, but a state that rejected the decision of the governing elite. The repudiation of politicians’ hubris is an important angle of the story that, I think, is under reported.

  • http://twitter.com/jonni21 Jonni

    Lymis – “The opponents stood to lose nothing whatsoever had it passed, other than their ability to deny to others something that they don’t deny themselves. As it stands, the previous status quo stands.”

    There are at least two groups who would strongly disagree with that statement. Whether you agree with them or not I think it is important to see how their understanding of what is at stake makes this a battle not for “status quo” itself but for vital religious or moral distinction.

    1) Many Catholics support civil unions but wish the language to be different because they see marriage as a distinctly creative bond which (whether LGBT unions are desirable or not) cannot be shared gay couples. In this way it is primarily a battle over language, not over tax breaks or other political benefits. Some even go so far as to say that it would be better if marriage was in no way recognised by the state and solely the province of faith groups, in which cases many churches would happily marry LGBT couples but nevertheless the state’s presumption to define what was appropriately called “marriage” would cease. [I will own my bias and say this is where I stand.] The loss of social recognition of the difference between same-sex and procreative bonds would be a very great loss to them.

    2) Despite the establishment clause many conservative Christians would argue the law does have a _moral_ position (and in fact those arguing for gay marriage as a “human right” show their agreement on that at least). Thus the argument against allowing gay marriage in this context is that for it to become legal is a concession to a new understanding on morality, something those who consider it immoral would clearly fight. In their minds gay marriage is not a human right, nor is it something they don’t deny themselves, it is of a different kind altogether than “true marriage” and should be as illegal as polygamy (often consensual). …

  • Jay

    It looks like anything I write will be spiked, but the real religious ghost in this story is the way Mormon money and Catholic personnel fueled the Yes on 1 campaign. Is it appropriate for churches to laundry money that funds political campaigns? How does this affect the churches that supported marriage equality? Don’t their beliefs matter? What about the hypocrisy of the Roman Catholic Church whose spokesperson in Maine said that the Church was all in favor of domestic partnerships, but opposed to marriage; yet the Church in Washington state funneled money into the campaign to defeat Washington state’s domestic partnership law? Shouldn’t these religious issues be reported in this story?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JAY:

    Valid journalistic questions.

    They have been covered quite a bit, actually. Now looking for similar coverage of the funding on the other side, since the left had much more success raising money.

    Explore: http://www.google.com/news/search?aq=f&pz=1&cf=all&ned=us&hl=en&q=Maine%2C+marriage%2C+churches%2C+funds

  • blestou

    tmatt, very good article. I’ve been reading GetReligion for a few years now and haven’t seen the issue presented in quite this way before. I learn a lot by reading the site. Thanks for all you do here.

  • Jay

    It seems to me that there’s no news here: this is exactly the East Coast analog to the whole California Prop 8 story. Instead of the LA Times and SF Chronicle, we have the NY Times and Boston Globe — an identical story playing out at opposite ends of the country (literally).

    Then as now, the template is the same: 1) Only one side is legitimate and thus only one side’s perspective is legitimate 2) “How could this happen? All the intelligent people I know were opposed to it.”

    Perhaps the next step will be the pith helmet reporters (Roland Hedley, Jr.?) parachuting behind enemy lines to study these Noreastern right wing kooks.

    Of course, if gay marriage had gotten on the ballot in Massachusetts (instead of being spiked by the legislature) reporters would have had this epiphany earlier.

    Which raises a final point: why is the Northeast said to be more friendly to gay marriage? Has it ever won a public vote there, or is it just that politicians (or judges) have voted to impose it without fear of losing their jobs? (As might happen in a 2-party state).

    Jay-the-ex-reporter (nott Jay #11)

  • Davis

    “why is the Northeast said to be more friendly to gay marriage? Has it ever won a public vote there, or is it just that politicians (or judges) have voted to impose it without fear of losing their jobs? (As might happen in a 2-party state).”

    Same-sex marriage has been approved legislatively in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine and affirmed legislatively in Massachusetts. New Jersey has legislatively approved an “everything but the name” version of marriage with New York also slated to consider same-sex marriage. It is the only part of the country where same-sex marriage has been approved without court intervention. All have two (or more) healthy political parties.

  • Jay

    tmatt: in response to your question about fundraising. Yes, No on 1 raised more funds than the Yes on 1 campaign did. But practically all the Yes on 1 money came from the Catholic Church, the Knights of Columbus, and the Mormon-front organization, National Organization for Marriage. In other words, the contributions to Yes on 1 were tax-exempt. The contributions I and thousands of others made to No on 1 were not. In order words, those of us taxpayers who contributed to No on 1 also were forced to subsidize the Yes on 1 campaign. …

  • dalea

    I found it interesting that the AP story tacked on some miscellany about other Gay related votes and then covered other referenda. It seems to me that a separate article covering referenda would be better journalism. After all if I wanted to know about the casino vote in Ohio, an article about Gay marriage in Maine would not strike me as an obvious place to look.

    As is usual for the MSM, two important Gay victories yesterday were left out. An openly Gay man was elected mayor of Chapel Hill NC. And a Lesbian was the leading vote getter for Mayor of Houston, the top two will face a runoff election.

  • Dave

    Heh, I forgot to complete my journalistic point in my comment above.

    Because one side contains couples whose right to marry rises or falls on the outcome, and the other contains nothing like that, the former makes the vote a human interest story as well as a political story. The frame that they win or lose is therefore understandable as a journalistic choice. I agree with the general point that frame should not always be on one side.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Terry:

    I believe you’re focusing too much on framing and not enough on facts.

    Did you see the text of the question that Mainers voted on yesterday?

    Here it is: “Do you want to reject the new law that lets same-sex couples marry and allows individuals and religious groups to refuse to perform these marriages?”

    Given that question, the Times loss lead makes sense. It was a vote to repeal the law which granted same sex right. They lost a right — that’s the news in this story.

    Prop 8 was similar: “Changes California Constitution to eliminate right of same-sex couples to marry. Provides that only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

    By contrast, Arizona’s Proposition 102, to amend the state’s constitution, read: “Only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state.”

    If that had been on the ballot in Maine–and headlines or ledes framed it as a defeat for gay rights, that’s an issue.

    In this case, the reporters reported what happened.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    BOB:

    Sorry. I stand by my point.

  • Martha

    tmatt, that’s why I think using loaded language like “foes” rather than “opponents” is not being fair to both sides.

    And I’d be saying the same thing if this kind of result had gone the other way and it was reported as a victory for “foes of traditional marriage”.

    I agree, I’d like to see a story where there was a balance between X lost/Y won – but what’s wrong with simply saying it like that? X lost, Y won?

  • http://kevinjjones.blogspot.com Kevin J Jones

    tmatt: “this was the 31st ballot win in a row for those who oppose gay marriage”

    In the interests of accuracy, Arizona defeated a proposed SSM ban in 2006 before passing a revised version in 2008.

    I forget the details, but a brief search indicates that the first version’s ban on benefits for opposite-sex or same-sex domestic partners may have been an issue.

    As for other angles:

    What were the liberal Protestant and liberal Jewish responses to the defeat? Why are *defenders* of the status quo seen as imposing their religion, when it is liberal Protestants and Jews who have created new rites for same-sex unions?

    It’s fine to be suspicious that “conservative” non-religious claims are just cover for religious sentiment. But can’t the same often be said for the “liberal” position?

  • Dave

    I have to back tmatt on the matter of framing, because I’ve been on the other side of it. I’ve seen a cub reporter shovel the pernicious blather of an “occult expert” into print, talking about Samhain (Hallowe’en) as a Satanic holiday. Samhain is my holiday, I am nothing like a Satanist, and I resent that association being the only thing the reporter says about it. Framing is important.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Matt K had an excellent point about how maybe the template of coverage should have been the people winning against the government (and media) elite classes. ….

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    FOLKS:

    Please do not post second-hand quotes and claims at this site — especially those accusing people of dishonesty or errors — without backing your quotes with names, places, URLs, the works.

    Thanks.

  • Stoo

    Government as some oppressive force that must be fought and reduced is a rather right-wing framing.

  • Stoo

    And, wait, doesn’t make sense anyway. If you don’t want the government elite (i take it being elite is bad?) telling people what to do, you shouldn’t cheer on its involvement in marriage.

    Heading offtopic here but no, if you’re after a neutral template then “big bad gub’mint” is not the way to go.

  • wess

    Just perhaps, newspapers, being leading recorders of events, have an uncommon sense of the greater scope of history and their place in it. In that larger view, the setback in Maine is inevitably only that. …

  • http://goodintentionsblog.com Bob Smietana

    Terry:

    You’re thinking too much like a professor and not enough like a journalist. These first day stories on the vote in Maine are not in-depth analytical features on the debate over gay marriage.

    They are news stories about an event that took place. So the details matter. In Maine, same sex couples lost the right to marry, which had been granted them by the legislature. There’s a concrete consequence to the vote.

    For the anti-gay marriage folks, there’s no consequence. They aren’t denied the right to marry. I suppose there’s a spiritual/psychological consequence from upholding traditional marriage. But there’s no consequence.

    The headlines in this case were right. If the vote had been for says, a defense of marriage amendment, then there was a winner and a loser, both with equal stakes. In Maine, there was a clear loser. So the journalists reported that.

    Can you just be honest in posts like this, and admit that your point is to highlight a conservative view? That in this case, you’re more concerned about promoting a particular point of view than in journalism.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    I like the AP story better– it gets to the historical context faster– but I guess I don’t see the NYT story as so much worse, though the lede is subtly misleading. OTOH the best sentence in the AP story leads off the second paragraph.

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