A good deal for $107,500?

There’s this New York Times feature called “Room for Debate.” The name alone, and its presence on the opinion pages, led me to believe that maybe there would be, I don’t know, a debate between the featured participants. The topic yesterday was “same-sex families,” the hook a new movie about a lesbian couple and their children. But there was no debate that I saw. Featured opinions ranged from those of Dan Savage to those of an Evergreen College professor. It was just a given that society should have no qualms about same-sex parenting. The end. The ruling class marches on.

That’s fine — if unbelievably boring, predictable and close minded — for opinion pages, I guess. But, as I’ve documented approximately eleventy billion times in the past couple of years, the same problem plagues the “news” pages of most major papers.

For just a tiny example of the weaknesses in how same-sex marriage is treated, let’s take a look at coverage of a new Public Religion Research Institute poll. Now, nowhere in the Los Angeles Times story or in the Religion News Service story will you learn that PRRI is a liberal group that is not unbiased when it comes to same-sex marriage. No, the Los Angeles Times describes the group behind the poll as a “Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit” and a “nonpartisan research and education group.”

You know what might be helpful to learn about the poll? That the poll was financed by a liberal foundation. The purpose of the poll, according to the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund was:

To survey California religious communities and help develop religious education strategies supporting gay equality. $107,500

No, the mainstream media didn’t report that the poll was designed with advocacy in mind. And it was even mentioned in the organization’s own press release announcing the poll! (They also claim funding from the Ford Foundation.)

Now let’s look at the RNS story:

New polls in California indicate public opinion on same-sex marriage may be changing toward acceptance, and religion continues to play a large role in the change.

A poll released Wednesday (July 21) by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) showed that if a vote were held on Proposition 8, which ended same-sex marriage in the state two years ago, Californians likely would allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.

That mirrors findings of a Field Poll released Tuesday that was hailed by the gay-rights group Equality California. Both polls found a bare majority (51 percent) of California voters said they would vote to approve same-sex marriage.

Now, I don’t believe that PRRI was paid to do an advocacy poll on California attitudes toward same-sex marriage prior to this, so there’s no way of knowing whether their results indicate that public opinion is actually changing. They do claim that while two-thirds of Californians report no change in their views, one in four Californians have become more supportive of gay rights over the last five years. I don’t know if that means the sides are getting more polarized, if attitudes toward gay marriage in particular have changed, or what, exactly.

But there have been previous Field Polls. Let’s go back to the 2008 Field Poll. That would be the one done the same year that Californians voted — like every other state that’s had an opportunity with a similar referendum — to ban same-sex marriage. What did the Field Poll show that year?

. . . a Field Poll found that 51 percent approve of the idea of allowing same-sex couples to marry.

Wait, so in 2008 a Field Poll showed that 51 percent of Californians said they supported same-sex marriage and a 2010 Field Poll showed that 51 percent of Californians said they supported same-sex marriage. And what this means, according to RNS, is that “public opinion on same-sex marriage may be changing toward acceptance”? Really?

You know what would be a good story for the mainstream media to look into in light of the real world data — such as the vote in 2008? One where the attitudes of Americans who oppose same-sex marriage are not caricatured or dismissed but fairly presented.

For the coverage of this poll, the RNS and LA Times only quote Robert P. Jones, the head of PRRI. They never identify PRRI as an advocacy group and they never explain that the poll was done with advocacy in mind. And the story is getting quite a bit of mileage.

All I can say is that the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund definitely got a lot of free media coverage in support of a pet issue for that $107,500. Good work! But kind of embarrassing, again, for the mainstream media.

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  • Martha

    Speaking of foundations throwing money at groups for same-sex advocacy, any mainstream reporting on this which I’ve seen in the Episcopalian corner of the blogosphere?

    Link courtesy of Stand Firm blog:

    http://pewforum.org/Religion-News/Foundation-donates-400K-for-Episcopal-gay-liturgies.aspx

    “A Michigan-based gay rights foundation has given more than $400,000 to a California seminary to help craft formal liturgies for the Episcopal Church to bless gay and lesbian relationships.

    The Episcopal Church still officially considers marriage between a man and a woman, reflected in the marriage rite of its Book of Common Prayer. Many dioceses, however, unofficially allow priests to bless same-sex relationships and even marriages.

    Because the church puts a high value on scripted liturgies, many same-sex couples want their own marriage/blessing rite since many bishops are reluctant to use the traditional husband-wife marriage liturgy for same-sex unions.

    The church’s 2009 General Convention gave the green light to collecting “theological and liturgical resources” that would form the basis of an official same-sex rite that could be added to the list of approved ceremonies.

    Many observers expect the church, when it gathers again in 2012, to approve rites for same-sex unions, or at least give official approval to start the process, which can take several years.

    The $404,000 grant from the Arcus Foundation to the Church Divinity School of the Pacific will help facilitate the process; the church’s official Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music has only $25,000 designated for the project.”

    To recap – the Episcopal Church itself only devoted (or could only spare) $25,000 for developing same-sex liturgies; an outside foundation found $404,000 to throw at the same purpose. That’s one heck of a lot of spare change dug out from behind the sofa cushions, and I would have thought it might warrant a tiny bit of attention as, oh, an attempt to influence the internal debate of a denomination? By what looks like – perish the thought! – buying influence?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Martha,

    The story you linked to IS mainstream media — Religion News Service.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Remember to keep comments focused on journalism. I just had to delete a comment from an advocate that had nothing to do with journalism.

  • Dave

    Mollie, there was too a debate in “Room for Debate.” It just wasn’t a “gay marriage: yes or no?” debate. It was about how lesbian nesting and parenting has previously been portrayed in the screen media. The fact that they didn’t get into GR’s favorite debate within this topic doesn’t mean the press doesn’t get religion.

    The public comment, btw, did get into the “yes or no” debate, but I found that boring — recycling worn talking points.

  • Bill

    The purpose of much polling (across the political spectrum) is not designed to determine what the population actually believes, but rather to elicit responses supporting a particular viewpoint or agenda. This can be used to get free ink and airtime, especially from sympathetic media.

    Likewise, focus group testing is used to determine the most effective phrasing and framing of a question. The question “Do you think the government should intrude into a woman’s right to her own body?” will generate a different response than “Do you think abortion destroys a developing human baby?” The questions are loaded.

    The upshot is that Mollie’s frustrations are well founded. Polls made public are often nothing more than PR gimmicks.

  • Theresa

    I too would like to see the position of people opposed to same sex marriage, clearly and accurately presented. Because, being a Lesbian myself, I can’t think of a valid reason that someone else’s opinion can dictate the course and legal validity of my personal relationship. People can have their opinions all they want, just as I do, but that doesn’t mean that they can dictate the course of my life with their opinion. I am a law abiding, tax payer, who is in a relationship that is not illegal. I’m not in to polygamy, pedophilia, or beastiality. I am in a perfectly legal, monogamous loving relationship and would like to marry the mate of my choice. Why then, can’t I do that? Because someone next door might be grossed out or believe it’s immoral? Why do they get a say in my personal choices? I don’t get to go over to their house and tell them who to choose as their mate. And some may say that gay marriage will lead to other things becoming legal, like Polygamy or Beastiality or incest. I find this ridiculous because those things are illegal for many reasons, that have nothing to do with a loving same sex relationship. Gay people are already in relationships. We are already raising kids. Our personal lives are already in full swing, and perfectly legal. Why then can’t we have the legal protections? And if it’s said that gays aren’t as faithful or monogamous, if it’s said that we are promiscuous, I would direct whoever is saying that to look at heterosexual marriages as well, and see that there’s the same percentage of people who will stay, as who will stray in both camps. And the ones who are not monogamous, don’t care to have the right to marry anyway. So it’s just those of us who want to make a family like everyone else. And if people are worried about the influence on children, I would again like to point out that gay relationships are already out there. It’s best that they are informed of the existance of same sex relationships, and at the same time the children need to be taught age appropriate information. No second grader needs to be taught about sex of any kind, unless their own parent teaches them. Beyond the health issues, no sex “education” should be taught at school. That being said, it is a health issue to have sex of any kind, and children as young as 12 ARE engaging in sexual relations of different kinds. They need to know how to protect themselves and be informed! It’s the same issues as if a school is teaching the kids about anal sex between heterosexuals (which is very popular, in case you haven’t noticed!), or any other form of sex between different sex couples. The balance needs to be struck between gratuitous “teaching” and protecting the kids’ health. But no matter what kind of sex they are being taught about or informed of, it needs to be appropriately done. Hearing about sex isn’t going to sway any kid from one side to the other. It didn’t with anyone that I know. Those of you out there who are heterosexuals, does knowing about gay sex make you want to go out and do it? Would it have when you were a kid? For me that answer is no!

    So yes, I would LOVE to hear what the opposition has to say, and what possible reasonable grounds they have to believe that they can step into other people’s personal lives and impose their view or opinion. How is it legal and fair for others to choose to my mate, when we’re already in a legal relationship?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Come on people. This isn’t hard.

    Keep comments focused on journalism and not advocacy — for same-sex marriage or otherwise.

    Thanks.

  • James

    One where the attitudes of Americans who oppose same-sex marriage are not caricatured or dismissed but fairly presented.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Opponents of equal marriage do not have a rational, moral, or otherwise justifiable opinion. A “fair presentation” of their opinions would be just one sentence: “Hateful, narrow-minded bigots who understand neither morality nor their country’s ideals continue to oppose same-sex marriage.”

    The press, whose job it is to tell the truth, and all others in possession of operating consciences should treat opponents of equal marriage just as we treat racists and sexists.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    James,

    Your comment proves my point better than I could. The press has done you — and civil discourse — quite the disservice.

  • dalea

    One of the difficulties GR faces when looking at the press coverage of issues in California is that GR restricts itself to English language coverage. LA’s La Opinion claims a readership almost as large as the LA Times. (In part this is based on the fact that Hispanic households have more members than Anglo ones.) Which I thought should be discussed in looking at the numbers quoted in the various surveys.

    The figures shown appear to indicate a major shift among Latinos in acceptance of Same Sex Marriage. This is presented as a simple fact without any explanation. Which is where the practice of ignoring the Spanish press comes in. Since the Prop8 vote, there have been some changes about attitudes on Gay issues. When Ricky Martin came out, the Anglo press barely covered the event. The Spanish language press made this a cover issue for weeks on end. Ricky Martin is one of the most popular and beloved Hispanic artists. Suddenly, all sorts of people were forced to rethink their attitudes with most becoming more accepting. Add to this, the SSM victories in Portugal and Argentina and the Federal District of Mexico. It is becoming widely known that Spain has had SSM for several years.

    All of these changes in the Hispanic world have been covered in the Spanish press. Yet when looking at changing attitudes among a key demographic, MSM coverage simply is ignorant of this context.

  • Martha

    Apologies, Mollie. I suppose I meant “Not specialised”, as “Religion News Service” strikes me as being.

    Imagine if, oh, the IRD or Focus on the Family or whomever you like to pick had contributed a huge wodge of cash to a denomination to develop liturgy or services – wouldn’t the papers be all over it?

    So did any paper in California or Michigan run this story (and not on page thirty-six below the ad for the tyre-rotating service)? With explanation of who the foundation was and what its aims were?

  • Martha

    James, what is your opinion of those who oppose all marriage on ideological grounds that it is institutionalised sex-for-meat trading, propagates the patriarchy, is an outmoded hierarchical system of oppression, and that GLBT persons have no business getting involved with such a system but should instead be working to bring it down and develop a new model of interpersonal and social relationships?

    Are opponents to marriage qua marriage “Hateful, narrow-minded bigots” who are also sexists and racists? (Given that a lot of people want to support marriage)?

  • Eric

    This isn’t complicated. A private organization published something in a section that clearly states that it is infact not news, but Opinion. That really is the begining and end of it.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    It’d be interesting to conduct a poll to try to determine if there was a difference in “likelihood or motivation to vote” between supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage.

  • dalea

    Mollie, about the NYT ‘debate’. Who would you suggest as a plausible author for an anti article? I would expect that you would be a very likely candidate. Both because you have no history of animus against Gay people and because your arguments can not be tied to the usual suspect organizations. What would you say?

  • Chris

    The PRRI poll found that 51% (plus or minus 2%) would approve of same-sex marriage. Statistically, I’m guessing that 49-53% is the 95% confidence interval for the poll–in other words, the PRRI would predict that 49-53% of voters would vote against Proposition 8 if the vote would be held tomorrow. Based on that, I think calling this number a “bare majority” is probably wishful thinking. Statistically, the respondents are evenly split. The confidence interval spans the 50%. Although the MSM often fails to get religion–they almost always fail to get statistics. :-)

  • Chip

    Mollie,

    By your logic, we and the media should also be skeptical of the John Jay study on Catholic clergy sexual abuse because it was paid for by the USCCB, no?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Chip,

    I didn’t say to be skeptical of the PRRI study. I honestly haven’t looked into how it was done or anything.

    I simply think that the aims of the poll be disclosed. PRRI was very up-front about it, so was the foundation that put the money up. The media should simply report it. Keeping that information secret is just kind of odd.

    It would be like not mentioning that the John Jay study was commissioned by the USCCB. That would be . . . bizarre.

  • Adam

    It’s rather telling that you automatically equate a group seeking methods for advocacy of same-sex marriage rights with both ideology and partisanship (by your own admission, judging from your own text.)

    The description from the MSM isn’t inaccurate or “keeping that information secret.” It may be omitting the group’s goals, but non-partisan is not necessarily inaccurate – not at all.

    Like I said, your own words are very telling and are really rather self-defeating of your criticism.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Um, in what world is advocacy for a particular reform not indicative of ideology?

    Ideology simply means a particular orientation that characterizes the thinking of a group.

    Focus on the Family is non-partisan. Family Research Council is non-partisan. But if they put out a poll about same-sex marriage, we all know the media would identify them as having a position on the matter.

    I mean, this really has to be one of the silliest comments I’ve ever received.

    Of course, normally the commentary here — no matter the particular ideology that is behind it — is usually pretty good.

  • Dan Berger

    @ dalea,
    Mollie, … I would expect that you would be a very likely candidate. Both because you have no history of animus against Gay people and because your arguments can not be tied to the usual suspect organizations.

    It seems to me that, per some of the not-yet-spiked comments on this blog, opposition to same-sex marriage is a priori evidence of “animus against Gay people.” Mollie’s good standing in LCMS would be an obvious tie “to the usual suspect organizations.”

    It’s just more framing the terms of the debate to shut down debate, like the word “homophobia.”

  • http://www.acupuncturebrooklyn.com Karen Vaughan

    @dalea,

    Fascinating about the coverage in the Spanish language press. We miss a lot not covering major minority press, be it language or ethnicity.

    @Chris,

    If the prior statistics had been expressed, showing say a 38% approval in the year 2000 changing to a 48% approval in 2007 and apparently plateauing for a couple of years, it would still “indicate public opinion on same-sex marriage may be changing toward acceptance.” Lacking that kind of perspective, it leaves us with so bare a majority that the interval of confidence could easily wipe it out.

    Statistical analysis, alas, should be taught at an early age and because we bias our mathematics education towards algebra instead, the ability to meaningfully evaluate a study is almost absent whether in the medical press or the popular press.

    And of course they were surveying Californians, not voters whose strong opinions may motivate them to show up in the polling place. In which case it would be interesting to see if the 49% against gay marriage had changed in how strongly they believe between 2008 and 2009.

    @Mollie,

    Room for Debate is not news but opinion, and as such was asking about the way movies should portray gays, not about the pros and cons of gay marriage. So it is pretty irrelevant to your story, which rightly suggests that the writers should do more research and disclose the purposes of polls. It would not have used up much word count to parenthetically identify the source and bias of the funding.

  • http://bendingthetwigs.blogspot.com Crimson Wife

    There’s also the tendency of a certain percentage of responders to lie to poll-takers about holding the “politically correct” view. Some responders who actually do oppose redefining marriage to include homosexual couples may claim they support it for whatever reason. It’s akin to the “Bradley effect” underestimating the support for African-American candidates.

  • http://bendingthetwigs.blogspot.com Crimson Wife

    That last sentence should read overestimating support, darn typo!

  • http://www.publicreligion.org Robert P. Jones, Ph.D.

    I am writing to correct the record about Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). PRRI is not a “liberal group” as Ms. Hemingway asserts. Rather, PRRI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan, independent research and education organization specializing in work at the intersection of religion, values, and public life. As a research organization, we do not take positions on, nor do we advocate for, particular policies. As members of the American Academy of Religion and the American Association for Public Opinion Research, our research team also follows the highest academic research standards, including balance and transparency (we fully disclose funding sources and publish the entire questionnaire, e.g.). As Ms. Hemingway notes, the well-respected California Field Poll–which was released just one day prior to the PRRI poll–found exactly the same support (51%) among Californians for allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, as the PRRI poll did. And as to our findings that views have gotten more supportive among Californians over the last 5 years, the field poll trends also bear this out, as do a number of other polls. If the point of the poll were to produce skewed results, we didn’t do a very good job. But our goal was to provide the best measure of where attitudes were 2 years after Proposition 8.
    Robert P. Jones, Ph.D.
    CEO, Public Religion Research Institute

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Dr. Jones,

    Are you saying that the Haas Foundation didn’t fund this poll or that their goal of giving you a six-figure gift to help achieve “gay equality” was incorrect?

    If so, I think you should have them correct the record immediately.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Dr. Jones,

    Also, are you not the same Dr. Jones who has worked at the liberal groups People for the American Way and the Center for American Progress? Who advises progressive religious groups?

  • Dave

    Mollie, aren’t you edging into the ad hominem here? Do only registered conservatives have the right to conduct opinion research and call it unslanted?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Dave,

    I certainly don’t mean to. And not just because I don’t consider “liberal” to be a bad word. As I mentioned earlier, I did not suggest that there was reason to be skeptical of the study.

    But it’s not news that there are conservative and liberal pollsters. You can be a conservative or liberal scholar and do honest work. I am sure that Jones and company are in that camp.

    I just think that the funding and purpose of the funding should have been disclosed.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I finally read the poll and, well, I do think people should be cautious about this poll. It reads like a push poll.

    I think this is common polling behavior. And I can see where it’s in the interest of PRRI to deny that the questions are designed to push public opinion rather than report it.

    The poll begins by putting people in mind of the problems of the state government and the growth of government before asking whether you think gay couples should be “allowed” to marry or whether there should be no legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship. These are the ways you phrase things if you’re trying to suggest better and worse alternatives.

    No biggie — polls do this all the time — but it’s easy to see why the group was given over $100,000 to advance an agenda.

  • Dave

    I just think that the funding and purpose of the funding should have been disclosed.

    Mollie, in another post you cited a statistical claim that 10% of adult males are child molesters. Did you subject that claim to this level of scrutiny?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Dave,

    While data on child abuse remains problematic, this isn’t a board for discussion of the underlying data, but, rather, for how journalists should treat these discussions.

    In the Newsweek article I linked to, it identified the sources of the data and also noted that some people think the rates of abuse are much higher (related to the idea that sexual abuse is an underreported crime).

    In any case, that’s the primary issue here — reporting where the data comes from and who’s behind it. For instance, in the Newsweek story, it said that the John Jay report was commissioned by the USCCB. That’s good to disclose.


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