The media’s next move on same-sex marriage

Last week we looked at NPR’s self-analysis of its bias in favor of same-sex marriage. Even before I wrote that, I wanted to look at this earlier piece by Brian Stelter at the New York Times headlined “Did the News Media Drive the Gay Marriage Debate?” So we’re finally getting around to it.

The article begins by pointing out that Shepard Smith of Fox News announced Obama’s new found support of same-sex marriage with the line “The President of the United States, now in the 21st century.” An site affiliated with Fox News opined in an opposite direction.

He says these headlines point to how same-sex marriage is a media fixation and how the press prodded the change for Obama. He points out that it was in interviews, not stump speeches or debates, where Obama made all of his various claims regarding his views on marriage law.

We get a brief background look at how Vice President Joseph Biden kicked off the media frenzy with his support of changing laws to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples. Then this:

For years, conservative media critics have asserted that many mainstream journalists favor gay marriage and tilt their coverage of the topic accordingly. On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Thursday, Mark Halperin of Time magazine seemed to agree. “The media is as divided on this issue as the Obama family — which is to say not at all,” he said. “And so he’s never going to get negative coverage for this.”

Later in the morning on NBC’s “Today” show, a co-host, Savannah Guthrie, brought up a similar point. Interviewing a panel of guests, she said: “You know, so many people in the media seem to uniformly support same-sex marriage. Do you think that this dialogue we’re having nationally doesn’t adequately recognize that for many people, this is an issue that they struggle with and don’t believe in?” One of the panelists, Star Jones, answered, “It really is an issue that people struggle with.”

“Certainly, members of the national media have long held relatively liberal attitudes on gay rights and sexual expression more generally,” said S. Robert Lichter, a professor of communications at George Mason University and the director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

We’re told of Lichter’s 1980 random sample of journalists at major media outlets (such as The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, broadcast outlets and PBS) that only 25 percent agreed with the statement “It is wrong for adults of the same sex to have sexual relations.” And 97 percent agreed that “the government should not attempt to regulate people’s sexual practices.”

What does it mean that this sample of journalists from 30-some years ago had such views outside the mainstream and that these views have been pushed from media outlets in the intervening years?

“I think attitudes like these reflect a professional culture that draws people differentially from progressive and cosmopolitan backgrounds, and that reinforces those views through contact with like-minded colleagues. I don’t think this means there is a conscious effort in most newsrooms to aid in the struggle for gay rights, but a general sympathy on a personal level may subtly color the reporting. And this could occur in ways journalists themselves may not be aware of.”

We get some more interesting context of how the media pushed the story the day after Biden’s surprise announcement and how it led Obama to ask for an interview with a sympathetic journalist. We learn, too, about how happy she was to hear the words in support of same-sex marriage law when they came out of President Obama’s mouth. She says she gets chills even upon rehearing.

It’s all very interesting and straightforward for a brief piece. I wonder what it means, though. For one thing, with no disrespect to how different the media’s views on this issue are relative to, say, voters in the thirty-plus states that have advocated retaining a traditional definition of marriage as a heterosexual union, I wonder how well situated the media are to covering this story, particularly as it relates to unintended consequences or any potential downside or, simply, the views of those who disagree.

That they are open about their inability to cover this issue without emotion or religious-like fervor is a fantastic thing. I think it’s only appropriate that media critics and ombudsmen at Newsweek, NPR and the New York Times — among others — are open and honest about their intractable bias on this topic.

But from that point of acknowledgement, where do we go? What should happen from there? Just keep things the way they are and defend it as part of a media outlet’s “core values”? Give up on any attempt to report the story rather than be advocates for one side? What do you think?

Cheerleading image via kots/Shutterstock.

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  • kyle

    It would seem that the American model of journalism, at least as it relates to culture war issues, is officially dead, and we’re all poorer for its demise.

  • Matt

    “…only 25 percent agreed with the statement “It is wrong for adults of the same sex to have sexual relations.” And 97 percent agreed that “the government should not attempt to regulate people’s sexual practices.”

    What does it mean that this sample of journalists from 30-some years ago had such views outside the mainstream and that these views have been pushed from media outlets in the intervening years?”

    Are these views “outside the mainstream?” What evidence do you have that they are? Offering the failure of gay marriage to gain support at the ballot box doesn’t really seem on point–it’s at least possible that most people oppose gay marriage but agree that “the government should not regulate people’s sexual practices.”

    I agree with your criticism of the media’s cheerleading on the topic, but your argument would be stronger if your own writing didn’t display an eagerness to cut corners and conflate things.

  • Mark C.

    I can’t agree with Kyle. The idea of journalism can actually be objective is inaccurate at best. I tend to think that an accurate description of the idea is closer to “farce” than anything. Reporters and publications have their biases. They are unavoidable. We all look to the world with a certain point of view. It’s just reality. We’re better off if everyone is upfront about them. More often than not, those biases and points-of-view are actually useful. Sometimes they are problematic. But begin aware of them is important and necessary for critical appraisal and thinking. The standard operating procedure of journalism which hides those biases and points-of-view works against rather than enhances critical appraisal and careful thinking.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Matt,

    I was trying to summarize from the article — which went on to show that these views were outside the mainstream that year. (And I want to emphasize that the article and my summary were dealing with views from 30 years ago.)

    But I don’t believe the Times cut corners there — although it could have been fleshed out just a bit more, certainly.

    I myself wondered about the particular wording of the question regarding sexual practices. As a libertarian, I certainly agree with that statement but wondered if it had qualifiers emphasizing that “people” didn’t include children or others deemed incapable of making decisions on their own. But this was just a brief piece and didn’t include space for explaining more.

  • kyle

    So Mark, you are disagreeing not with the thesis that the American model is dead here but the idea that we’re poorer for it, if I understand you correctly. You seem to be advocating the point of view that the American model is inherently flawed and impossible because of our innate biases.

    I don’t think the one follows from the other. I mean, I think it’s obviously true that one can’t possibly eliminate all bias. There is inherently selection bias. You can’t write a news story without choosing something for your lead, something to end your story, some narrative structure to it, some angle or frame to it.

    But what the American model does is encourage a journalist to try to consciously compensate for those biases, to see things from another point of view than his own, to attempt to understand why a person of intelligence and good will might disagree with him, to report in such a way that such a reader or viewer will see his point of view accurately conveyed.

    This is just basic justice, basic civility and good will, the sort of thing that serves the common good. The American model promotes these virtues, promotes the idea that a media outlet can be a “marketplace of ideas,” a kind of virtual public square where engagement between different points of view can happen.

    That doesn’t happen, at least not in a normative sense, in advocacy publications. And these culture war issues are a prime example of this. Those on the wrong side of the marriage issue from the media’s point of view are not merely ignored, they are routinely caricatured, demeaned as ignorant and even demonized as bigots and haters, while often the most articulate voices of that position go literally unheard. Those advancing the position that religious liberty requires that religious charities not be forced to pay for things contrary to their moral beliefs are ignored until it can no longer be ignored, and then they are demonized as monsters out to take away everyone’s contraceptives and waging a “War on Women” — while readers literally have been so poorly informed that they could not tell you specifically what the bishops are upset about.

    I get the theory, that rather than write from what Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere” you get more lively, informative and useful information when people write openly from a point of view. But in practice what it often ends up looking a lot more like Rush Limbaugh calling someone a slut or Keith Olbermann calling someone a mashed up bag of meat.

    So I think something is lost when we give up even trying to have a “public square” where people of different views can at least attempt to look at the same facts together and have a conversation.

  • Jerry

    One interesting effect of the President’s statement is the impact on African Americans. That is surely worthy of coverage. I particularly liked this blog posting because it emphasized that the findings needs to be considered tentative at this point:

    But the limited and anecdotal — and we stress limited and anecdotal — evidence from recent polls suggest that may be changing.

    The Post-ABC poll showed support for gay marriage in the black community jumping from around 41 percent to 59 percent. Despite the small sample size of that demographic in the poll, that is a statistically significant shift.

    And PPP’s polling backs it up.

    In its Maryland poll, support for the gay marriage law in the African-American community increased from 39 percent to 55 percent in just two months. And the same pollster has found similar shifts among black voters in Pennsylvania and North Carolina in recent weeks — the latter which passed a gay marriage ban right before Obama changed his position.

    The sample size in any of these four polls isn’t enough to draw broad conclusions; we cannot stress that enough. But the fact that all the polls all show roughly the same thing suggests strongly that Obama’s shift on this issue has translated broadly to the black community

    .

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/post/how-obama-moves-the-needle-on-gay-marriage/2012/05/25/gJQA17JRpU_blog.html

  • Mark C.

    Kyle is right that I am disagreeing with the comment that we are all the poorer if the “American model” of journalism is dead. But I think I’d also disagree that said model is dead. Journalists are, by and large, still invested in that model. Whether they practice it well or not might be open for debate, but it seems to me to still be the model strived for in journalism as an industry.

    If the American model does indeed encourage the sort of things Kyle suggests it does, it does so opaquely. As a reader, we cannot judge whether a journalist has gone after other points of view or accurately described them. Without knowing where the particular writer (or sometimes publication) is coming from, this is impossible to judge. The reader is left to guess and seek to read tea leaves to critically appraise the reporting and article. Or we are forced to read naively and simply assume that it is objective, accurate, and something that can be taken at face value. Either way, the result is not something that encourages critical appraisal and thinking or fosters a real “marketplace of ideas” and “public square.” Further, it’s a good way to keep a bias or even an agenda, intentional or otherwise, hidden from readers. What I want is transparency.

    The issues you cite are a good example of the problem with the opacity that the American model encourages, one might say even requires. The critics here are trying to discern something that isn’t stated and then imputing some point of view on journalists broadly. Might those conclusions be correct? Possibly. But they might also miss the mark by a wide margin. The point is, because the model basically requires reporters to hide their points of view, we do not know and many advocates of the model would find it of questionable integrity or ethics for journalists to make where they themselves are coming from on a particular issue known and a part of their writing. I find that both unhelpful and sometimes can be dangerous.

    Lastly, fear of appearing to be advocates for a point of view sometimes seems to prevent journalists from doing their jobs. They all to often end up simply reporting what one or another “side” in an issue says without asking probing questions or reporting factual information that calls that into question. For example, time and again interviews or quotes from so-called “family values” advocates give inaccurate impressions of research or cite information that is simply false, or at least disputed without providing analysis of what they said. No doubt some of this is not, at least in part, because they would look like they are repeating one “side’s” talking points.

  • kyle

    But I think I’d also disagree that said model is dead. Journalists are, by and large, still invested in that model. Whether they practice it well or not might be open for debate, but it seems to me to still be the model strived for in journalism as an industry.

    What I said is that it’s dead on culture war issues. In that context, we’re talking about a situation where, as the post suggests, reporters, editors and so on are all but saying they’re simply not interested doing the job the American model says reporters should do, and what the history of the institutions for which they work imply that they are doing.

    (And of course, if you think misrepresenting factual information, studies and so on is limited to or even primarily associated with advocates of family values, I’d like to introduce you to the abortion industry, which does that for a living.)

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I’m not entirely sure I have much to add at this moment (still ruminating on the “what this means” question I posed) but I wanted to thank everyone for a very interesting conversation. It’s given me a few points to ponder.

  • Mark C.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on whether the American model of journalism is dead on the “culture war” issues, Kyle.

    (And of course, if you think misrepresenting factual information, studies and so on is limited to or even primarily associated with advocates of family values, I’d like to introduce you to the abortion industry, which does that for a living.)

    Of course it’s not limited to advocates of family values. Additions to that list can be made on many issues, all across the political, economic, and social spectrum.


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