Lovers and labels in coverage of same-sex marriage ruling (updated)

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Update: Yikes! One of the drawbacks of media-criticism-on-the-go is the possibility of writing a post that, in retrospect, makes you sound really stupid.

Such is the case with this one, which prompted reader Sarah Morriss to comment:

You do know that “Virginia is for lovers” is the tourism and travel slogan used by the Commonwealth of VA, and thus the headline is likely a play on that, no?

Nope. I didn’t know that. But a quick Google search finds a Wikipedia entry describing the slogan as “one of the most iconic ad campaigns in the past 50 years.” Uh, somehow I missed it.

That does put the headline in a different light, although one could argue that not all readers nationally would understand the play on words.

My original post appears below.

* * *

Virginia marriage is for all lovers

Let’s take a quiz and see if you can guess the source of the above message:

A. Sign at a gay-rights rally.

B. Slogan for a same-sex marriage campaign.

C. Headline on an Associated Press news story.

If you picked C, you would be mostly correct. This is the actual headline on AP’s story on a federal appeals court ruling Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional Monday:

U.S. court: Virginia marriage is for all lovers

Even attributing that statement to the court, the headline still strikes me as a doozy, especially given that the 98-page ruling never uses the word “lover.” The term “same-sex” does appear 151 times, along with 321 references to “marriage,” and other major news organizations stuck with more journalistically neutral headlines.

Appeals court upholds decision overturning Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban (Washington Post)

Appeals panel strikes down Virginia gay marriage ban (USA Today)

Appeals Panel Rejects Virginia Gay-Marriage Ban (New York Times)

Appeals court strikes down Va. same-sex marriage ban (Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Appeals court rejects Virginia same-sex marriage ban (CNN)

Not a lot of creativity in those headlines, granted. But not a lot of editorializing either.

The headline isn’t the only place the AP story hints at bias. The wire service quotes an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer and sees no need to label the group. The same can’t be said of the story’s treatment of a legal group that supported Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage:

The decision by U.S. District Judge Arenda Wright Allen that Virginia’s ban violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection and due process guarantees was challenged by two circuit court clerks whose duties include issuing marriage licenses. They were supported by the right-wing legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, based in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The group said it may ask for a full circuit rehearing, or appeal directly to the Supreme Court.

“Every child deserves a mom and a dad, and the people of Virginia confirmed that at the ballot box when they approved a constitutional amendment that affirmed marriage as a man-woman union,” ADF Senior Counsel Byron Babione said.

If the AP is going to describe the Alliance Defending Freedom as a “right-wing legal group,” shouldn’t it — in the name of balance and fairness — also characterize the ACLU as a “left-wing legal group?” (Interestingly, the New York Times story labels the ADF a “conservative legal group,” a less pejorative description in my view. But still, if that adjective is necessary for the ADF, shouldn’t the Times also add “liberal” to its assessment of the ACLU?)

“Right wing” is one of those loaded phrases that one would expect to be addressed by the journalist’s bible — the Associated Press Stylebook. Oh, wait, the stylebook does address it:

right wing (Source: AP Stylebook)
(n.) right-winger (n.) right-wing (adj.) Generally try to avoid in describing political leanings.

Hmmmm. Apparently, AP forgot to check its own stylebook. Perhaps the news organization was too preoccupied celebrating lovers in its headline?

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • dasrach

    In fairness to labeling ADF as “conservative” and not labeling the ACLU at all, I’d wager a sizable chunk of money that more people have heard of the ACLU than ADF. People need the label just to have a basic idea of what ADF is, which they don’t need for ACLU.

    “Right-wing,” however, is indefensible.

    • Jim Davis

      They may have heard of ACLU but not its political leanings. It’s a prevailing custom of the mainstream media: Liberal organizations are “normal,” but conservative organizations need a label. But after literally writing the book on proper word use, AP bears a heavier responsibility to shun such bias.

  • Sara Morriss

    You do know that “Virginia is for lovers” is the tourism and travel slogan used by the Commonwealth of VA, and thus the headline is likely a play on that, no?

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Yikes! I didn’t know that. I’ll update the post.


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