Critical thinking would help reporters cover gay debates

Yesterday we looked at some of this week’s worst examples of some major media’s trouble covering homosexuality or same-sex marriage. It was what I was thinking about as I ruminated on a first-person essay on TheAtlantic.com headlined:

There Probably Isn’t Any Neutral Way to Report on Homosexuality
Journalists could do better at conveying the best traditionalist arguments against gay marriage. But some people won’t be satisfied unless gays are stigmatized as in bygone days.

The Atlantic piece, written by Conor Friedersdorf, is a highly personal essay about how he would run a newspaper. He argues that he’d advocate for changing marriage law, and viewing this as a “civil rights” issue — but he’d do so in a transparent manner. He sees the problem with the approach taken by some mainstream media outlets, those that share his partisan views but aren’t forthright about it, as one of failing to be honest and transparent about their grounding premises.

And, he says, he’d want to be fair to those who disagree but are not bigoted. But, he says, let’s not pretend that bigotry isn’t a driving force here:

But let’s be clear: While journalists are obligated to set forth the best arguments from all sides in their “facilitating public discourse” mode, they oughtn’t give the impression, in their “conveying reality as it is” mode, that the most thoughtful, non-bigoted arguments against gay marriage are all that’s driving the debate. It’s been some years since I went door-to-door as a beat reporter, talking to anyone I could find about gay marriage on one of the occasions that the issue flared up in California. I won’t pretend that the dozens of people I spoke to in person or the hundreds I interacted with online were a scientific sample. But suffice it to say that it is very easy to find people whose opposition to gay marriage has nothing to do with a principled commitment to preserving marriage as an institution whose primary purpose is procreation and child-rearing.

These people are cool with marriage in its modern, secularist, find-your-soul-mate-but-no-fault-divorce-just-in case incarnation. They just don’t want gays to participate. The number of people who object to gay marriage is far bigger than the number who embrace traditionalist notions of marriage. And public opinion is changing so quickly in part because encounters with real-life gays rather than stereotypes thereof tend to make many people more sympathetic to gay marriage.

You get where he’s going. I’d argue — and have argued strenuously — that sharing the fullness of the debate on this topic requires digging deep. Part of that means digging deep into the views of those who would retain marriage as a heterosexual institution.

But even in Friedersdorf’s essay we see a failure to recognize a distinction many traditionalists make between disapproval of a particular behavior and disapproval of a person. Later, Friedersdorf says he’d like to know what marriage traditionalists such as Eve Tushnet would do if they ran a style section to a newspaper. It’s an interesting choice because Tushnet is rather famously same-sex attracted and also celibate for religious reasons. One of the problems with the current media approach to this topic is how many journalists lazily prejudge any disapproval of any aspect of homosexuality with bullying, bigotry and hatred.

A correspondent, who is a journalist, had some challenging remarks in response that everyone should read:

Friedersdorf raises a good and worthwhile point when he says many opponents of redefining marriage are “cool with marriage in its modern, secularist, find-your-soul-mate-but-no-fault-divorce-just-in case incarnation. They just don’t want gays to participate. The number of people who object to gay marriage is far bigger than the number who embrace traditionalist notions of marriage.” Very true. However, I think the very simple and obvious explanation for this is not bigotry so much as a kind of soft hypocrisy rooted in not thinking deeply, Yes, the reasons we should not redefine marriage have implications for divorce laws and “childless by choice” and the sort of Hollywood “soul mate” model of marital love that much of the culture has embraced which they have not thought through. I will even go so far as to say that thinking it through has led many people to switch sides, because they do not like those implications for themselves. … Look for instance at the pastoral letter that Benedict praised during an ad limina visit of American bishops this year when he gave that “controversial” address on chastity. This is precisely the sort of depth that most secular media steadfastly ignore.

However, that thoughtlessness is hardly unique to the traditional side. I would argue the overwhelming majority of people in favor of same-sex marriage have not thought their arguments fully through, either, which I consider largely to their credit. They have not thought through what it means for children to say that either a mother or a father is optional not just de facto but de iure, not just in fact, as something that happens sometimes, but in principle. They have not thought through what it means to have three parent birth certificates, and to treat school materials that talk about “mother and father” without equal time given to alternative situations as “heteronormative” — as something practically stigmatized and bigoted. Most of these people are motivated by what they see as fairness — again, to their credit — to people with same-sex attraction. I laud their sympathy. But they have not thought through what fairness means for a wedding photographer who is not an exempted “church” but whose moral convictions do not permit her to pretend she thinks this event people are asking her to shoot is a marriage. They have not thought about fairness as it applies to a father who wishes to opt his children out of being indoctrinated in the state’s newfound moral orthodoxy that conflicts with his own in his neighborhood elementary school to which he pays taxes. The overwhelming majority of these people have no idea at all of advancing the ideology one finds in statement such as http://www.beyondmarriage.org/ — the total undefining of marriage. Even many of the more knowledgeable advocates on the other side would probably reject some of statement. Yet many are blissfully unaware that such goals exist or motivate anyone, and those who do not lack this knowledge have been spared the difficult and important work of explaining to themselves and to society how their ideas don’t lead to the more radical ones. Why do that when the secular media frame for the story casts you as Dudley Doright and those who disagree as Snidely Whiplash? (Boo! Hiss! Hooray!)

Exactly. There are so many areas to explore, journalistically speaking. Unintended consequences has to be chief among those that haven’t been. But it’s significantly harder to do the job of a journalist — impartially dig around in various belief systems — if you aren’t clear about the goal of your job. Some journalists in extremely high places (NPR, Washington Post, New York Times) have articulated a confused understanding of their job — still report news on many issues but campaign like the most strident partisan when it comes to religious and social issues.

If a reporter wants to campaign, engage in advocacy journalism, or write thinly-veiled op-eds, that’s fine. But it does a disservice to civil discourse and critical thinking when this is presented on the news pages as news.

The thing is that it’s actually not that difficult to be “neutral” in reporting on homosexuality and proposed changes to marriage law. It simply requires a modicum of humility and critical thinking. Sadly, those have been hard to find in the vast majority of mainstream media reports on these topics.

Image of reporter trying to remember how to think critically via Shutterstock.

  • Ben

    I recommend the comments under the Atlantic article with m w trying to lay out – as a devil’s advocate – the anti-gay marriage viewpoint. Maybe some traditionalist readers here might jump into that fray so it’s actually committed people on both sides of the equation debating. In the best of cases, the open forum of comment boxes on major media sites can be a corrective to discussions that aren’t happening in journalist copy.

  • Kodos

    Mollie:
    I’m glad the correspondent included a link to the “Beyond Marriage” website. This statement has been around for years and includes some famous signatories, but the MSM has studiously ignored it, no doubt because the Beyond Marriage platform is a ready-made rebuttal to the common assertion that gay marriage is not a slippery slope to more problematic forms of legally recognized sexual unions like polygamy or polyamory.

    • Will

      Once again, I do not understand why polygamy, which has existed at all times and in many cultures, is “more problematic” than confecting a form of “marriage” which has never existed anywhere, to the point where opposing same-sex marriage is automatically “hate’ and “bigotry”, but opposing plural marriage (treating people like the Dargers (http://www.amazon.com/Love-Times-Three-Polygamous-Marriage/dp/B007MXBK4S/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1362607710&sr=8-1&keywords=love+times+three) as criminals and pariahs is “not hate”. I still await an explanation more convincing than “That’s DIFFERENT!”

      • Micha Elyi

        I still await an explanation more convincing than “That’s DIFFERENT!”
        Will

        They do have one other explanation: “SHUT UP!”

  • sari

    I thought the Friedersdorf essay excellent and believe that he is correct in stating that any positive coverage of same sex persons or issues would be understood as newspaper advocacy by a certain segment of the readership.

    Consider this. In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, acts of violence committed by people with mental health issues now receive national coverage. Most of these stories would have remained local until recently, and most are reported in the most dispassionate manner. It is clear, at least to me, that members of the media are trying to steer the issue of gun control and mental illness in a particular direction, not by direct comment, but by upping the flow of information. So, too, the decision to include/exclude articles on same sex issues, however neutral the article, speaks to how members of the media decide what is relevant news.

    • Micha Elyi

      The Friedersdorf essay is hopelessly confused. “Gay” is a politics. “Homosexual” is a lifestyle. “Same-sex attracted” is a kind of bias.

      “Gay marriage” makes even less sense than “Marxist marriage.”

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    I think there are also may real homophobes who have bent under pressure to accept the secular concept of “marriage equality.” What I mean is that they really believe otherwise and would stand up for that if they felt they had some backing, but the pressures from society to have them accept “marriage equality” have caused them to accept it. There is a lot of bullying going on, and bigotry and prejudice, and it’s not just from the traditional marriage corner. It takes a lot of courage to stand up against some of these pressures – and how that can be called “fear” of homosexuals is not very clear.

  • Ben

    Fascinating, Mollie. Thanks. GetReligion and the Atlantic should do a little cross post experiment where the communities are merged somehow in the com-boxes. That’d be fascinating.

  • Mr. X

    On the topic of unforeseen consequences, it seems that disagreeing with gay marriage in Britain is enough to get one fired, even before it becomes law:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9901134/Police-chaplain-forced-out-after-criticising-gay-marriage.html

    Of course, given the attitudes of a lot of people I’ve come across, I can’t help but think that, for some, this consequence isn’t really unintended at all.

  • ceemac

    Mollie,

    I am glad I read the entire original article because I found out he didn’t mention only Tushnet. Do you think you could do what he thinks can’t be done?

    He wrote:
    What I wonder is how media critics like Hemingway or traditionalists like Dreher or Eve Tushnet, all of whose work I admire, would run their own “Style” sections if they were trying to publish a mass publication for an entire state, or an entire nation. I am certain, having long read their work, that they’re all as horrified as anyone by bigotry, persecution, and violence directed at gays. And I know that they could avoid that ugliness even as they did far more justice than usual to the strongest arguments against same-sex marriage. But I wonder if even their publications would be regarded as “fair” by the subset of traditionalists who insist that maintaining a general stigma against homosexuality is of vital cultural importance. In fact, I suspect that there is no publication that they could stomach publishing that would also satisfy those traditionalists. But I am often pleasantly surprised by wonderful things they produce, so perhaps I am wrong.

    • Martha

      Maybe he could try writing about “supporters” and “opponents” by not confining those labels to only one side. If the supporters of same-sex marriage are quoted speaking in favour of their proposed legislation, then in turn, they should be called opponents when they are trying to get legislation changed or overturned (like the California Proposition 8 law cases). Otherwise, we get the “rights” people all on one side, and the “foes” or “anti-rights” people all on the other, as in the abortion debate, and that makes it very clear who are the baddies and who are the goodies – after all, if you are against a right, you are on the wrong side, are you not?

      Also, take a good, hard look at that term “marriage equality” and examine why it doesn’t apply in this case. “Marriage equality” means “wanting all marriages to be treated similarly or to be equal”. Now, since we’re not talking about three different legal forms in marriage in Classical Rome, then we must mean that “this form of marriage is not considered the same as that form of marriage”, as in the opera “Madame Butterfly” where the American Pinkerton is perfectly happy to go through a form of marriage with the Japanese Butterfly, but does not consider himself to be ‘really’ married, nor – presumably – is this considered a legal marriage in America. But since a form of same-sex marriage does not currently, nor has ever, existed, then we are not speaking of making same-sex marriages fully equal to opposite-sex marriages.

      Neither do we mean “giving gay and lesbian persons equality of access to marriage” since (a) they already have the same access to marriage as heterosexual couples; that is, they can marry a person of the opposite gender and (b) in a reductio ad absurdum, heterosexual persons cannot marry persons of their own gender either, so it’s not a simple case of “you can marry whom you like but I can’t”.

      What is being campaigned for is a completely new understanding of marriage, either a creation of a new form of marriage or a re-definition of marriage as it has been understood. That’s not equality, that’s change.

      • Kodos

        From “Through the Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll:
        “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
        ’The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
        ’The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    “Bullying, bigotry, hatred.. homophobic.” The regular use of those words to attack people who, for moral or traditional reasons, are against gay “marriage” is, according to many accounts I have seen, part of a calculated strategy to marginalize and smear those who refuse to give their stamp of approval to what they consider to be an activity not worthy of any kind of societal approval .
    As one commenter pointed out, if there is any bullying in the media going on in the debate on this issue, it is coming mostly from those propagandizing for gay “marriage.”

  • John M.

    Mollie,

    That quote from the “correspondent” above is one of the most intelligent things I’ve read in the context of this national discussion.

    And FWIW, I think you are doing noble work on this issue which really is one of fairness.

    -John

  • Mark Baddeley

    It’s excellent to see Friersdorf’s essay in play – although I wonder if it is more a sign of the death of the aspiration of objectivity in journalism than part of a conversation of ‘truth in advertising’ in one’s settled attitude to the debates of the day.

    I *really* like the correspondent’s contribution – I wish more stuff like this saw the light of day in mainstream journalistic endeaours (obviously not straight news, but certainly that next, ‘op ed’, circle out from straight news). It is a clear, reasonable, and rational statement that is not dumbed down and does not reflect the groupthink that seems to be often given sway in journalism.

    Great to see both there. Gratz to the writers, and to the Atlantic.

  • Thinkling

    There is more intelligence in this piece and the discussion here than in whole newsrooms. Thank you GR for this.

    As an aside, I just start reading “After the Ball”. I have been following GR for some time now and have been perplexed as to the apparent unique shortcomings of journalistic efforts in this particular area. Well, just starting the book was extraordinary. Remember the part of a movie thriller at the end when the hero ties all the loose pieces together, the Eureka light bulbs go off and the villain is suddenly exposed? Reading this book is having the same effect.

  • AZTran

    This raises the issue of when it is appropriate for journalists to ostracize a people based on their beliefs. Generally, it is assumed that journalists should stay neutral. There is a societal consensus however that it is appropriate, even for journalists, to ostracize racists. That seems to be the model that journalists have in mind when reporting on genderless “marriage.”

    The key is that if journalists and society generally are going to ostracize people based on a belief, they had better be right that the belief is in fact false. Otherwise the result is persecution. This is why the civil rights model is so dangerous when applied to the marriage issue.

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