About a year ago, Gallup did a poll showing that Americans are completely ignorant of what percentage of the population identifies as homosexual. Mainstream studies indicate that the actual figures are somewhere in the low single digits, but Americans believed — on average — that 25 percent of the population is gay. This includes data showing that 35 percent of Americans think that more than 25 percent of the population is gay.
I’ve long wondered why it is that Americans are so wrong on this, but I can’t help but think that the mainstream media plays a significant role. I have to read tons of news stories on a broad array of topics for my various jobs and the last week has seemed about 87 percent gay news (only very slightly overestimating for editorial effect).
Now, for many people in newsrooms, redefining marriage laws to include same-sex couples is an issue for which they’ve been campaigning openly or otherwise for years. You’d be a fool to expect that when President Barack Obama changed his position on the issue, that it would result in anything other than very favorable and largely one-sided coverage. A few media types have been honest about what’s been going on and discussing whether they’ve betrayed the journalistic ethics they aim to uphold. And that’s an interesting question to discuss.
Some readers pointed us to the NPR Ombudsman’s discussion of same here. Edward Schumacher-Matos writes:
Since President Barack Obama announced last week that he supported same sex marriage, scores of listeners have complained that NPR’s coverage cheered the announcement. As Susan Reif of Fairfield, OH, wrote: “I am so curious as to what NPR’s push is to have same sex marriage in America? … Please, please, quit pushing this stuff down all of our throats.”
Pat Morley of Herriman, UT, was embarrassed by an All Things Considered segment covering the president’s announcement. Andrew Sullivan, an eloquent public intellectual and advocate of same sex marriage, was interviewed at length on the show. Morley, an NPR fan, was driving home in his car and said he assured a dismayed passenger, “Just wait a minute, they’ll interview someone with an opposing view.” It didn’t happen. That night, he found an article in NPR.org that more fully covered dissenters, but wrote of radio: “Please don’t allow your usual high standard of excellent reporting to decay.”
Schumacher-Matos points out that some folks on the other side of the issue felt that since the Southern Poverty Law Center had identified a Christian group as a hate group, that group shouldn’t be permitted on air. For more on how the SPLC has nuked the fridge, see here and here. Anyway, the ombudsman says he’s struggling with the issue and seeks input.
A review of all NPR’s shows in the eight days after Vice President Joe Biden started the sudden national debate that led to President Obama’s dramatic announcement finds that the coverage did indeed skew in favor of giving air time to the side that favors marriage equality. The review ran Sunday to Sunday, ending May 13, the day after Mitt Romney’s own bold speech at Liberty University’s graduation ceremony.
He breaks down the numbers and shows that of the 38-plus reports about the gay marriage debate that NPR ran, interviewes with supporters far outnumbered interviews with opponents. But I’d point out a few things. For one: 38 stories! Wow! For another, numbers like this aren’t the best way to gauge bias, although they do play a part. Do you, for instance, adopt the language of one side of the debate over the other, as Schumacher-Matos so blatantly does here? I mean, to put it another way, you might notice if he said instead of “to the side that favors marriage equality” something like “to the side that proposes destroying the traditional family” or something like that. In general, less partial language might be in order.
The ombudsman quotes deputy managing editor Stuart Seidel, who is also the standards editor, as justifying the coverage as fair and without favor or prejudice and saying “it was important to capture the way it was experienced by those it affected most.”
But, again, how do we know who will be affected the most by radical changes in marriage law? (I assume that’s what we’re talking about and not, as it turns out, simply a statement from the president or vice president.) It is certainly possible, as advocates of changing the law say, that precisely no one other than those relative few who want to enter a same-sex marriage union, will be affected. It’s also possible that such changes will dramatically alter marital norms, that those who oppose the change will be marginalized as barely-tolerable bigots, that educational systems, businesses and the culture will all see the effects of the change. What about First Amendment issues, such as freedom of speech, freedom of association and religious liberty?
I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to these questions but I wonder on what basis the journalist is making his claim.
I did like this quote from Seidel:
The issue for journalists is not one of whether there is a bias in favor or against same-sex marriage or gay rights. It’s very hard to find anybody in society who does not hold a personal opinion regarding those issues — or many other issues that come up daily in political and social coverage. The challenge regarding coverage of gay rights, as with so many other matters, is whether a journalist is successful in setting aside bias to hear and fairly report divergent views and perspectives. We do that.
Indeed. Too often we blame personal opinions for what is actually journalistic laziness. Maybe it’s because my own political views are so radical (Yes, I’m one of those nearly anarchistic libertarians. Calm down, tmatt!) and therefore very few people share my views, but I aspire when covering a story simply to find out more about what other people think. Some of the most accurate and fair reporters I know when it comes to covering issues related to homosexuality are themselves gay.
Where things got interesting was in this section:
Standards of process have served well, but news outlets also have to decide on core values.
I agree with Seidel that editors shouldn’t be ruled by number counts. But numbers at times are useful as an indicator and a tool: to know what you’re doing forces you to think about what you should be doing and whether to adjust. Last week’s numbers suggest to me that in the future more opposition voices have to be brought into the coverage of an issue on which Americans are divided. The same would not be true for an issue about which there is no longer much debate: abolishing slavery, for example.
That said, I agree with Seidel that the focus last week should have been on the people most affected by the president’s announcement, who are gay Americans. Most of us want to know their reaction first, and indeed, in the first five days last week, the coverage ran more than 2 to 1 in their favor. Opponents may be appalled by what they think gay marriage does to society, but as individuals they are less directly affected by what clearly was an historic announcement by an American president in support of same sex marriage.
Oh my goodness. First off, that was so subtly done, there, comparing support for traditional marriage laws to love of slavery. Good work! And as for the next graph, if that doesn’t perfectly show the blind spot that all media have had on this issue for the last 10 years of coverage, I can’t imagine what would. The media really seem to believe that changing marriage law and related marital norms would affect no one but gay Americans — beyond, um, some of them being “appalled”? What a complete failure of imagination and intellect. What a complete failure to accurately characterize the actual views of people opposed to the change.
Hewing to these standards of process have served American journalism well, but I am becoming ever more convinced that news organizations also have to make clear what their core values are. How gay rights fit into those values is a defining issue. I am struggling with where to draw the lines, however, and would love your input.
Beyond the fact that I believe this represents a vocational confusion about the duty of a journalist, one that suggests a lack of humility on the part of the journalist, it’s also just a very curious business strategy, isn’t it? Like, the way to respond to the fact that NPR just alienated a good portion of whatever remnant of a conservative audience it had is to be even more partisan on gay rights?
Schumacher-Matos notes that Seidel stopped short of suggesting that public opinion polls — showing a shift in support toward “marriage equality,” as he puts it — should be a guideline for how to balance stories. Isn’t it fascinating how completely unbinding public opinion polls, polls that routinely overestimate support for redefining marriage laws to include same-sex unions, should be a guide for how to slant coverage but the fact that voters in 30-plus states have voted in this year or recent years in favor of traditional marriage laws (and none have voted to change the laws) should be of no consequence?
It almost seems like the game is rigged. Although what do I know, I’m sure that NPR’s pro-life slant is something I just haven’t picked up on since public opinion polls have started moving in that direction.
Oh wait, there’s more from Seidel:
But he also notes that there can be a problem of “false equivalence” when presenting multiple sides. Some sides, on some issues, in other words, are more valid than others.
Deliciously Orwellian. I can only hope Seidel was trying to make a point about how not to do things. I fear he was not.
OK, and I’m sorry for this being so long, but it’s important. The column sparked a bunch of debate. I wanted to highlight a few of the comments:
Tom Kaz (bastiat) wrote:
I don’t expect each “side” of a debate to get exactly 50% of the sound bites or advocates/spokespeople. That’s a red herring. The problem with NPR’s coverage is…
1. they amplify the issues they think are important (by the number of stories/minutes they report on a topic). And the topics NPR thinks are most important are topics liberals think are most important…or topics that advance a liberal cause.
2. it isn’t just gay marriage or these 38 stories. NPR gives greater voice to supporters of liberal causes on every politically polarizing topic.
3. they characterize vicious partisans like Andrew Sullivan as “an eloquent public intellectual” and want us to believe people like David Brooks (who voted for Barack Obama in 2008) is a conservative. …
There’s something bordering on obsession with the amount of coverage NPR served up….
John Williams (tjdw) wrote:
Why no breakdown of the number of minutes/hours devoted to each side? Why no examination of the prominence given to each side (proximity to beginning of hour or half hour & placement within a story)? Why no examination of how much challenge there was to claims of each side?
Philip Prindeville (philipBZ) wrote:
So we have a tacit acknowledgment from the Ombudsman and a senior editor that the Ethics handbook is moot. To wit:
“So while it’s natural to notice news that relates to events or issues you’re personally interested in, it’s also crucial to ask yourself what other people – people who would disagree with you, who live in other parts of the country, who have had vastly different life experiences from yours – would consider news. This is especially critical if you and your colleagues share similar backgrounds and points of view; a lack of diversity among employees will lead to less varied story lineups. [...] So you not only need to look at all the different angles of a story, but at all the different possible stories that help to fill in the picture of what’s taking place across the country or around the world.”
Lisa Boucher (Fourcade) wrote:
The point is that NPR has failed to present its listeners with an honest account of the case against radically changing the definition of marriage. They have chosen, instead, to frame the issue according to the rhetoric of gay activists. NPR does this because on this issue, they have adopted the role of advocates, not objective journalists. … the issue of marriage has persuasive arguments on both sides — based on differing values. So it is entirely inappropriate and shameful for NPR to be broadcasting advocacy journalism on the issue of marriage.
Ah yes, public intellectual Andrew Sullivan. So smart he has time to investigate Sarah Palin’s uterus and write stories with headlines such as “Why Are Obama’s Critics So Dumb?” (A headline, I’ll add, that he said he stood by.)