Reporting on gay marriage in Spain

Laying out the front page of the November 7 issue presented a few problems for the Madrid daily El País. Journalists at Spain’s largest circulation newspaper (345,000) began a walk out this week after management announced that it was cutting 139 of the paper’s 460 posts. Those who still had jobs would see their pay cut by 13 per cent.

Management has had to fill in to keep the paper going and Wednesday presented them with two major stories: the U.S. presidential election and the decision by the country’s constitutional court upholding the country’s gay marriage laws.

Under the headline “El matrimonio gay es constitucional” El País reported that on 6 Nov 2012 eight of the Constitutional Court’s 11 judges rejected a legal challenge to Spain’s gay marriage law introduced in 2005 by the Socialist Party government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. The law had been challenged by the People’s Party (PP), which recently took power under its leader Mariano Rajoy.

The article reported that 11 of the court’s 12 justices took part in the decision, and that support for gay marriage was voiced by the 7 liberal judges and 1 of the 5 conservatives – one conservative judge recused himself.

The first few paragraphs of the story are fairly straight forward, recounting the legislative background to the case and summarizing the legal arguments. Paragraphs that indicates the newspaper’s view of the issue round out the story.

El PP prefería amparar legalmente la unión de parejas homosexuales sin darle el nombre de matrimonio para “no generar confrontación social”. Pero la única confrontación social conocida hasta ahora, la única protesta masiva que ha habido en la calle desde la aprobación de la Ley por el Gobierno socialista en 2005 ha sido la de miles de ciudadanos que protestaron contra el recurso del PP y exigieron a Rajoy que lo retirara.

The PP had preferred a law that would give legal protections to gay couples without giving it the name of marriage so as to “not generate social confrontation.” However, the only social confrontation known so far, the only mass protest that has been on the street since the adoption of the Act by the Socialist government in 2005 has been the thousands of protestors who have called upon the PP and Rajoy to withdraw their legal challenge.

The article also has a side bar that discusses the Popular Party’s reactions. However, it does not quote Rajoy or supporters of traditional marriage, but the minority within the PP who support gay marriage. An American analogy would be having a discussion of the Republican Party’s reactions to the gay marriage vote in Maryland through quotes from the Log Cabin Republicans.

What also is missing is any reaction or comment from the Catholic Church – the primary opponent of the gay marriage law.  The following day El Pais ran a story that summarized the comments of the bishop of San Sebastián, José Ignacio Munilla on behalf of the Spanish Episcopal Conference – but that was it. There was no attempt in the main story to speak to the objective moral truth claims made by the church about the nature and value of marriage that lay behind the PP’s challenge to the 2005 law.

I should say that such an omission would be deadly for an newspaper article written in the classic liberal style, but El País is not that sort of paper. It follows the European advocacy model — in this case its news is written, unashamedly, from a a left-liberal point of view which espouses the European anti-clerical line.

Religion has no business in the public square, El Pais and most European newspapers believe. This argument is not unknown in the U.S. also. In the Proposition 8 case in California, Federal District Court Judge Vaughn Walker invalidated the California ballot initiative that defined marriage as being between one man and one woman. Judge Walker held the “moral and religious views” behind Proposition 8 were not “rational,” hence it was unconstitutional.

President Barack Obama, a former law professor, has argued that “What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy demands is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.”

While the secularist demands this, democracy does not – nor should journalism. Ignoring the religious arguments in public policy disputes, or dismissing them out of hand is an attack on freedom – religious freedom and democratic freedoms. It is also poor journalism as it omits one of the essential elements of the story.

The solution to this problem in Europe is to take more then one newspaper — El Pais is left liberal and you know what you are getting when you hand over your Euro. ABC and El Mundo  are Madrid’s two other quality papers. ABC is conservative and El Mundo center-left. Taken as a job lot a reader gets all sides of the story. Unfortunately in the U.S. newspaper market few if any newspapers acknowledge their biases, and two newspaper towns are few and far between.

What say you GetReligion readers? Is it fair to say that the American press has adopted the European advocacy style — but without admitting its bias? Is El Pais without ABC America’s future?

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  • John Mark

    The American press is certainly routinely accused of drifting towards advocacy journalism…..some times on the basis of ‘selective indignation’ …….what they find newsworthy and what they don’t. In an age where hyperbole and invective are the order of the day, this may not be true in every case. But in general, I suspect it is, and will continue to become more apparent. We need, on one hand, a return to objective journalism, and on the other hand, transparency when journalism is tilted.

  • northcoast

    Peripheral to the subject another newspaper confers the academic rank of professor on our President. Anyone interested in the difference between an American university professor and a lecturer can find an explanation under “Lecturer” at Wikipedia, which includes the following: “When confusion arose about Barack Obama’s status on the law faculty at the University of Chicago, the institution stated that although his title was ‘senior lecturer,’ that school actually uses that title for notable people such as federal judges and politicians who are deemed of high prestige but simply lack sufficient time to commit to a traditional tenure-track position.” At the time, Barack Obama was an Illinois state legislator, and his University position was part time.

  • jose

    “There was no attempt in the main story to speak to the objective moral truth claims made by the church about the nature and value of marriage that lay behind the PP’s challenge to the 2005 law.”

    Because we had to listen to them day after day in 2005, when the bishops repeatedly attended demonstrations against the law. We’re already well aware of the “objectively disordered” thing around here by now, thank you.

    Religious arguments were not ignored. They were considered by lawmakers, judges and the general population back in 2005, and recently by the supreme court as well, and they were rejected. Not publishing christian teachings that are widely available for free just around the corner from wherever you may be (we do have that many churches and catholic schools) does not represent an attack on freedom. Demanding every newspaper publish christian teachings despite being irrelevant to the story (which is about a supreme court decision, not about why gay marriage is wrong), that’s definitely an attack on their editorial freedom.

    And El Mundo is plain right wing, not center-left. Maybe it’s center-left by conservative America’s standards, but those aren’t the standards that should be used to judge newspapers from other countries.

    • geoconger

      I hear what you are saying, Jose, that the religious arguments against gay marriage were raised in 2005 and were not persuasive to the governing party. However, the article did not say this.

      I do not agree that the religious arguments were irrelevant to the story as they were the arguments that lay behind the legal challenge. Nor would I agree with your characterization that I am demanding every newspaper publish Christian teachings. What I am saying is that a balanced article would have addressed in a sentence or two the existence of these arguments.

      That is the difference between the European advocacy model and the Anglo-American or classical liberal model of journalism. It gives both sides of the argument. This article did not.

      • jose

        Grab El Pais editions from 2005 and you will have all the arguments you like, because that’s when conservatives presented their appeal to the supreme court. Here you go. It’s not the job of the newspaper to explain everything all over again. Old news. Already done.

        • Gail Finke

          Jose: It’s not the job of the newspaper to explain everything all over again? Then I suppose journalism must be quite different in Spain than it is in the USA. Here, an article about a controversial court decision should ALWAYS include a summary of the argument against it, as well as who is making it. Are you really arguing that everyone who would read the story knows what happened seven years ago? What about people who were children then? People who were out of the country? People who have just moved to the country? People who just weren’t paying attention?

  • Mark C.

    Sometimes it seems as if the expectation placed upon journalism is to make each story contain the whole of the matter. It is as if it is expected that anyone reading an article on any subject will come to it in fresh and ignorant. I think the point Jose makes is a good one. Newspapers and other news media do not need to rehearse the whole story and all the arguments ad nauseam. There is a good balance between reporting what is new and filling in people who may not have been paying close attention to a particular story. When issues have been significant ones for some time, restating what is supposedly missing here becomes tedious rather than helpful and enlightening.
    As to the question of “European style advocacy style,” I don’t think papers have openly done so. One could identify a number of outlets who have embraced it but don’t acknowledge it., which is problematic. Even more problematic is the way that papers, editors, but esspecially individual reporters, hide their own point of view, approach, and bias behind the supposed mantle of journalist ethics and objectivity. But as a reader, I need to know these things so that I can reasonably evaluate what is being said. I wish we’d encourage a return to “advocacy style,” something that was historically also the norm in American newspapers, simply because we’d all be clear from what perspective an individual journalist or news media organization is writing.

  • Franco

    “While the secularist demands this, democracy does not”.
    Are you sure? I think it does, indeed. If one religion is able to impose its own beliefs on citizens who follow other religions, it doesn’t sound very democratic to me (e.g. my religion forbids gay marriage, so I make a secular law forbidding gay marriage to ALL the citizens, even those who do not share my own religion. Is this democratic?).

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    One way the First Amendment and Freedom of religion is being slowly eviscerated is by the media so often screaming against religion winning any votes in the public square and caricaturing any democratic convincing of a majority that the Church or the Bible is right on a specific issue( and should be codified in law) as a trampling on the religious rights of the losers or potential losers in a free and open debate. But that is what lawmaking in a democracy is all about –winners and losers of debates and the winners getting to have their agenda codified in law.. It is as if only, for example, those steeped in the anti-life philosophy and policies of Planned Parenthood have a right to try to get a majority on their side and then codify that majority in law (all the while being financed by federal monies).
    Here in Mass. on the issue of doctor assisted suicide, the spin on many of the media stories was that religious people were trampling on the rights of others instead of exercising their democratic right to convince a majority to agree with them on a matter of public policy.
    This is a form of bigotry–treating ideas of religious provenence as somehow illegitimate or second-class–instead of sticking to debating the issues on their individual merits . Whether it is doctor assisted suicide or abortionists protecting older men from statutory rape charges, the debate should be over those issues. But as so often happens anti-religious bigotry is stirred up to help promote otherwise weak cases. And, sadly, many fall victim to this stratagem.

  • Jason

    Perhaps you should have reported has ABC or El Mundo treated the story? Did they explain the religious objections to same-sex marriage? Did they feel that necessary? Were their stories “objective” or were they slanted in some way? Could they be perceived as simply mouthing the sentiments of the ruling party or the Catholic Church?

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