Same-sex marriage, celebration and “core values”

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 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.

And later:

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.)

Print Friendly

  • Ben

    I’ve often wondered about what it would be like to be a journalist in the South during the civil rights era. I’m not sure if the profession today would judge balanced coverage in that era to be good journalism. We’d probably uphold stories that told the story of injustice in a compelling way, made it real particularly for white readers. But maybe not — perhaps the more historically useful coverage would be stories that really captured the thinking of segregationists. But would we feel those stories were somehow complicit?

    I get it: This analogy drives a lot of people crazy because they see no parallels with race. But a lot of journalists do, so I’m offering it to simply explain why there is drift from the balance model when it comes to gay marriage coverage.

    Mollie, you have been pointing out that it’s not unreasonable to expect the acceptance of gay marriage to change society’s view of marriage. I think this is very true, but only for a segment of the American population. A lot of America has shifted to viewing marriage as primarily about love, secondarily about children and have flexible approaches to gender roles. This happened before gay marriage came on the scene. I’m guessing a lot of today’s journalists are steeped in this value-system, and for them, gay marriage really would not shift social values one centimeter.

    When an intellectual argument is laid out against gay marriage, it relies on reopening a lot of debates that are pretty much settled in this post-feminist segment of America, and so it doesn’t really compute. Or it would require a story that covers not just the gay question but older questions of feminism, and that’s a lot of intellectual ground to cover in a news article.

    I want better coverage of the gay marriage debate too. I think Mollie’s critique is valid. I’m just suggesting that for the reporting to be useful it would need to go way beneath the current slogans surrounding gay marriage and explore debates from the time of the 1960s on the role of women and the purpose of marriage. Maggie Gallagher is a great source on the opposition side who will argue marriage is first and foremost about children and that many in America — not just the gay community — do not feel that way and that’s the deeper argument.

  • sari

    Ben, great comment.

    If cohabitation and divorce rates are any indicator, traditional marriage is on the wane, especially for people below a certain age. Over the past few years, many, journalists included, have noted the irony–that the GLBTQ community seeks the institution that so many heterosexuals walk away from. To feminism, I’d add contraception, whereby couples can control the woman’s fertility.

    Mollie, do the data suggest that positive coverage of gay issues by the MSM has led survey respondents to believe that >25% of the population is homosexual? That’s a big leap, especially since the media usually cite studies with actual numbers in their articles. Or could their ignorance be more a reflection of the poor state of American education?

    Could the push for acceptance derive, at least in part, from straight people’s horrendous treatment of non-heterosexuals rather than liberal media bias? It’s disingenuous to ignore the part played by the religious leaders and institutions who helped foster hateful behavior or the religious leaders who acted on their own proclivities while denouncing the same behaviors in others. In this way, the issue is very much akin to slavery and later, segregation/Jim Crow, which institutions were validated by many, many churches.

    I see no simple answers to this very complex question. Certainly, the media can’t be held responsible for people’s ignorance.

  • tmatt

    My personal position has always been that the more divided the nation is on an issue, the more the press needs to strive to be accurate and balanced in its coverage. In other words, once again, I would strive to defend the American model of the press, as opposed to a more European, advocacy model.

    It is not that I oppose the consumption of advocacy media — such as World or Newsweek, National Review or The New Republic. I simply think that we cannot afford to lose sight that there is a need for the American model to be defended.

  • Chip

    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 suspect that Mollie intended to link to this ten year old report rather than a two-day-old NYTimes blog piece about former President Bush. …

  • Chip


    Gallup did a follow up poll last May to its 2002 poll

  • tmatt

    Corrected: Thanks for the updated link.

  • tioedong

    Ben is right: he says:”A lot of America has shifted to viewing marriage as primarily about love, secondarily about children and have flexible approaches to gender roles. This happened before gay marriage came on the scene.”

    The problem? The fruits of this new idea of marriage as merely being about affection has led to half our children being born out of wedlock, and the fruits of “flexible” approach to gender roles has led to women accepted into all professions but without changing the job to enable them to raise children (see Betty Frieden’s book “the Second Stage”, a book that got her ostracized by the feminists).

    As I pointed out in the kerfuffle about Pacqiuao, other cultures such as here in Asia see marriage differently: Confucius emphasized stability in marriage and family as the basis of a stable society; and outside the affluent west, most countries see the family, not the government, as the main source of support in times of trouble.

    So what the press is not doing is seeing marriage as other cultures see it, or discussing the nature of marriage and sexual roles. Instead, they push the same meme: “marriage equality”…

  • Chris Atwood

    Interesting point about the estimate of the number of gays and lesbians in the population. So much of public debate takes place on the basis of assumed figures that exist in peoples’ heads, but NEVER become questioned publicly or addressed in the media.

    For example, immigration. A large part of what’s driving the debate is the sense that many have that Mexicans and other non-white races “breed like rabbits.” It’s never stated, never addressed, and hence never contested, but its FUNDAMENTAL to how people feel about the issue. Ask an ordinary American to estimate the number of children the average Mexican family has, they come up with numbers like 7 or 8. But tell that in reality it’s 2.7 and dropping fast, and their eyes pop and their brains start working–it’s amazing to see. (Try it some time, I guarantee you will get a most satisfying “surprise” reaction).

    Getting that figure out and into peoples’ heads would probably do more to change the immigration debate than anything else. And ditto for the gay/lesbian number; I’m not sure how it would affect the debate, but I know it would.

    Here’s a question a journalist could ask: “Andrew (or whoever), let’s say gay marriage becomes the law of the land, over the long term what percentage of couples do you see being same sex couples?” Or “Mr. Patrick (or some other official in a state where SSM is already law), what percentage of couples in the state are same-sex?” The answers would be interesting–the reaction even more so.

  • Julia

    A lot of America has shifted to viewing marriage as primarily about love, secondarily about children

    I think the country has moved even further – marriage is now primarily about government benefits & protections and orderly division of property in the event of splitting up. You don’t need to be married to love somebody and live with them any more – and secular society doesn’t really expect it.

    It is true, however, that people no longer see marriage as a permanent commitment that should ride out the inevitable periods when the parties just don’t feel loving.

    Most surprising to somebody my age (67) is the complete flip on the prior attitude that women benefit more from marriage than men – because they are physically weaker, are even more physically vulnerable when pregnant and caring for new-borns, benefit from help in rearing & protecting offspring, and need stable financial support because women typically don’t earn as much throughout their lifetimes for a variety of reasons.

    It’s that aspect of physical protection offered by a husband that has totally disappeared in a country where we women now take our safety for granted. Nobody even mentions it in debates about marriage any more – it’s assumed that men invented marriage to control women.

  • Fr. Peter Calabrese

    Just the fact that the NPR ombudsman uses the term – marriage equality tells you the bias. Even the ombudsman is trapped into using the words of one side of the debate.

  • Darel

    The elite print media in particular long ago decided that same-sex marriage was the “right answer” (I’ve cited the poll several times here at GetReligion). If the elite media agrees on a single position, then “journalistic ethics” (whatever those are) become utterly irrelevant.

  • sari

    I agree with most of your post, except for this:

    You don’t need to be married to love somebody and live with them any more – and secular society doesn’t really expect it.

    I would suggest that marriage has been the standard or ideal towards which we should strive, but that cohabitation without marriage is old. England banned common law marriage in the 1700′s. Ten U.S. states and the District of Columbia currently recognize it.

    One thing currently lacking in any media treatment, including what’s presented here, is a marriage timeline, something to give the reader a sense of how the institution has changed over time. Is it religious, secular, both, or neither? Who decides who marries whom? How about gender roles and responsibilities?

  • Julia

    I’m sure nobody is reading this, but something occurred to me that I never see discussed.

    In law school we learned that one of the original reasons for an official marriage ceremony is to announce to the community that the couple is now officially committed to each other. That accomplishes two things: 1) others should back off because they are no longer on the marriage market; 2) notice to the business community that they are responsible for each other and their offspring.

    There are laws in every state making it possible for merchants or service providers to go after the other spouse and either of the parents to pay bills incurred. This is the main reason why lists of marriages, births and divorces are printed in the paper. And in addition to debt collection, in many places an abandoned spouse can contract for what is called “necessities” and the merchant can get additional court help to collect from the spouse. That’s why you may see public notices that X is no longer going to be responsible for Y’s debts. It might not hold up in court, but gives notice that responsibility will be fought.

    Marriage is not just a piece of paper.
    Believe me. Ask any attorney.

  • Julia


    If you are still reading here. I was mainly thinking about the last hundred years or so. In the really old days people without property usually didn’t bother to get married: thus, common law marriages developed – which were to the benefit of merchants and women who needed support.

    There’s a famous case in Illinois of some very prominent people in a university town splitting after many years together with children. Turns out they had one of those hippy weddings many years ago in California and there is no common law marriage in Illinois. Wife got el zippo.

    Years later I had a similar client who discovered while living with her hippy boyfriend for a few years in Idaho, that the state of Idaho considered them married under the common law. Now 25 years and 2 children later in Illinois, she finds out that a common law marriage need not be recognized by another state. We split things on a partnership theory, but she didn’t walk out with much because she had been a stay-at-home mom.

    None of this has much to do with religion, except for the ethical obligation to be honest in your dealings with others.

  • sari

    Excellent points, Julia. These distinctions are relevant to any discussion of traditional marriage, because the word seems to mean different things to different people. On the religious end, marriage entails one set of obligations, and, on the secular, a different set, with some overlap. The SAHM model upheld as traditional is actually very, very recent, the result of unprecedented improvements in the standard of living. More usual were parents who both worked, either at home or elsewhere, and children who were assigned more responsibility and a greater degree of autonomy at much younger ages than children are now.

  • Bill

    Chris #8,

    Just a mathematical point: the fertility rate of any group is not simply the average number of children each woman has, but the age at which she has them. We’d also have to look at the median number and the normal distribution of births.

    But you’re right about the common errors of common knowledge.

  • Bill


    What about the Lee Marvin case and the concept of “palimony?” Are there common law implications of that?

    Being of the same vintage as you, I too have noticed the decline of the concept of husband as protector. Such a role is now viewed as condescending and patronizing. But one thing I’ve observed by reading history and simply living this long: men without responsibilities are dangerous.

  • sari

    Bill #16. How refreshing! Add to that the importance of comparing birth rates between different groups and in different regions.

    Bill#17. We’re seeing (to use a cliche) major paradigm shifts. To the husband’s role as protector, we should add woman’s (and children’s) position as property.

    Again, with all the press on same-sex marriage, we’ve seen little to no coverage on how marriage has changed over time in Western civilization, and none comparing the institution across religions and cultures.

    …one thing I’ve observed by reading history and simply living this long: men without responsibilities are dangerous.

    People are beginning to figure this out.