Good News about Good News and Bad News

David Crary of the Associated Press has a helpful round-up of marriage equality politics in several states: Maryland, New Jersey, Washington, Maine, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Minnesota. The first four there are hopeful stories, the latter three are cause for concern (in the short run, at least).

Crary’s piece drew the attention of Christianity Today’s Politics Blog. That’s not surprising, since CT’s readership is the evangelical subculture for whom marriage equality has been a headline-grabbing obsession for the past decade.

But Sarah Pulliam-Bailey’s post is remarkable for its matter-of-factness. That amounts to a subtle shift.

I used the words “hopeful” and “cause for concern” above to characterize the state of marriage equality in the states. That’s how I regard the news that Crary reports. Some of it is Good News, and some of it is Bad News.

Usually when we talk about the myth of perfect “objectivity” in journalism — what Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere” — we’re talking about partisan politics. But the truth is that almost all news is conveyed as either Good News or Bad News. And most of that news has nothing to do with politics, partisan disputes or politicized controversies. “Objectivity” in reporting such news is neither possible nor desirable.

Look at a newspaper (quick! — while you still can). Much of the stuff in there each day isn’t political. A big chunk of the paper every day is filled with car-crashes, traffic jams, house fires, crimes and community events. Family of three displaced by fire. Police accuse man in string of robberies. Woman dies after accident. Students’ carnival funds trip for marching band. That sort of thing.

Reporting on those stories is never objective and no one would want it to be. It would be weirdly inhuman to treat stories like that objectively. The house fire is Bad News, but the family’s safe escape is Good News. The robberies are Bad News, but the arrest of a suspect is Good News. The fatal car crash is Bad News. The students’ successful fundraiser is Good News.

Any report that “objectively” ignored the badness and goodness of the news in such matters wouldn’t come across as “fair and balanced,” but as off-putting and strange. A report on a house fire that didn’t frame the incident as an unfortunate, undesirable event wouldn’t seem “objective,” it would just make the reader think that there was something weirdly wrong with the reporter who wrote it.

That implicit framing has usually been the norm for reporting on marriage equality in the evangelical press. CT’s posts and articles on the subject have usually treated any advance toward marriage equality as an implicit defeat — as Bad News. But that framing doesn’t shape Bailey’s recent post.

This is news. That CT is reporting such news without explicitly framing it as Bad News is, I think, Good News.

The post concludes with this sentence:

Rep. Barney Frank’s office said that the retiring 71-year-old Democrat from Massachusetts will marry his longtime partner in Massachusetts.

That’s offered as one more relevant data-point in a roundup of recent news on the topic. It’s not lamented or subtly recoiled at, or positioned as further evidence of America’s moral decline. It’s just, “Oh, and Barney Frank is getting married” with no further comment.

This is a familiar sort of news to anyone accustomed to reading newspapers. It’s a wedding announcement. Newspaper-readers know how to read a wedding announcement.

A wedding announcement is always a Good News story. We may not know or care about the couple involved as we flip through the pages of the paper or scroll past the articles on the screen, but such stories always inevitably register as Good News. It’s very hard to think of them otherwise. A wedding story is always a check in the plus column, informing us of an increase in the total stock of human happiness. We mentally file such news on the opposite side of the ledger from all those stories of car-crashes and house fires and crimes. It gets listed alongside that story about the school carnival, or the one about the local church’s sesquicentennial or the opening of that new business on Main Street.

And that long habit — well-established and utterly sensible — is bound, increasingly, to be the frame that shapes news coverage of marriage equality. It will shape how stories are reported and how they will be read. Good News — a happy couple is getting married.

Crary’s article clearly outlines the many ways in which marriage equality is also still a partisan political controversy. Reporters who approach it as such will, rightly, try to provide balanced coverage that fairly represents both sides of that partisan political dispute. And readers predisposed toward one side or the other in this dispute are bound to approach every such story by viewing it through the lens of a victory or a defeat for their side. And that political controversy framing won’t be going away any time soon.

But at the same time, that framing is constantly being undermined by the unambiguously happy news of wedding announcements. There’s no on-the-other-hand opposing point of view to such happiness that can hold itself up as the equivalent other side of the story. It just doesn’t work.

Here is a happy couple celebrating their wedding. But, on the other hand, here is someone who resents their happiness and would legally forbid it if they could. Even if the reporter is vehemently opposed to marriage equality, and even if the report is being read by readers who share that vehement opposition, that just doesn’t work. The happiness and celebration will still register, on some level, as Good News. And the opposing view will thus register, on some level, as “opponents insist that Good News is Bad News.” Those two things just can’t be convincingly “balanced” against one another.

 

  • Lori

    I suspect one reason that the announcement of Frank’s upcoming marriage was presented in such a neutral, single sentence way is that if you go any deeper into the story it becomes obvious that it really can’t be crammed into the Bad News frame. Frank and his partner, Jim Ready,have been together for 31 5ish years. It’s tough to sell the lie that all  gay relationships are about nothing more than sex and teh ghays are going to destroy The Family when you’re talking about a couple who have been together dated longer before getting engaged than a lot of the people condemning them.

    See below: I must have merged 2 gay marriage stories in my head. Sorry. That’ll teach me to trust my memory on things that I read casually.

  • Lori

    I suspect one reason that the announcement of Frank’s upcoming marriage was presented in such a neutral, single sentence way is that if you go any deeper into the story it becomes obvious that it really can’t be crammed into the Bad News frame. Frank and his partner, Jim Ready,have been together for 31 5ish years. It’s tough to sell the lie that all  gay relationships are about nothing more than sex and teh ghays are going to destroy The Family when you’re talking about a couple who have been together dated longer before getting engaged than a lot of the people condemning them.

    See below: I must have merged 2 gay marriage stories in my head. Sorry. That’ll teach me to trust my memory on things that I read casually.

  • Lori

    I suspect one reason that the announcement of Frank’s upcoming marriage was presented in such a neutral, single sentence way is that if you go any deeper into the story it becomes obvious that it really can’t be crammed into the Bad News frame. Frank and his partner, Jim Ready,have been together for 31 5ish years. It’s tough to sell the lie that all  gay relationships are about nothing more than sex and teh ghays are going to destroy The Family when you’re talking about a couple who have been together dated longer before getting engaged than a lot of the people condemning them.

    See below: I must have merged 2 gay marriage stories in my head. Sorry. That’ll teach me to trust my memory on things that I read casually.

  • Persephone

    Sarah Pulliam-Bailey’s post may have been written from a less-horrible-than-usual point of view, but the comments that follow are as awful as should be expected.

  • Persephone

    Sarah Pulliam-Bailey’s post may have been written from a less-horrible-than-usual point of view, but the comments that follow are as awful as should be expected.

  • Guest-again

    Was this sort of reporting an illusion from the fading past? -
    ‘Fire company 18 responded with two engines to a structure fire on Maple Ave, which was reported to 911 at 4:20pm No one was injured, but the building suffered significant damage estimated at $100,000. After the roof partially collapsed, the structured was been condemned by the county building inspector. No cause for the fire is currently known, though an investigation is underway. The building was last inspected for fire code compliance on March 15th of this year, according to the fire inspector’s office.’ 

    Or maybe this isn’t ‘reporting?’

  • Anonymous

    Rep. Barney Frank’s office said that the retiring 71-year-old Democrat from Massachusetts will marry his longtime partner in Massachusetts

    That’s just … I’m going back and forth between “sweet” and “heartbreaking” — great that they’re marrying, but heartbreaking that they didn’t get a chance to marry sooner.

    There will be a time, I hope, when I don’t find simple things like that more affecting than the heterosexual equivalent. But I’m in my twenties, and I can remember a time (in high school!) when gay marriage was unimaginable, so it may take awhile.

  • Anonymous

    Was this sort of reporting an illusion from the fading past?

    No, but there’s a major difference between a short factual report and a longer one. (See, e.g., this piece in the New York Times.)

    The difference isn’t just because of space — I suspect it’s also because of time. Note that the report you cite doesn’t contain the date: that means the paper published it either the day of the fire or the day after. That’s nowhere near enough time to interview people or do any sort of research. The article I linked to, by contrast, was published two days after the fire: that’s enough time to notify the families of the deceased, get in touch with the survivors and relatives, and have data from preliminary investigations (unless you’re Bruce Barnes, of course).

  • Anonymous

    Was this sort of reporting an illusion from the fading past?

    No, but there’s a major difference between a short factual report and a longer one. (See, e.g., this piece in the New York Times.)

    The difference isn’t just because of space — I suspect it’s also because of time. Note that the report you cite doesn’t contain the date: that means the paper published it either the day of the fire or the day after. That’s nowhere near enough time to interview people or do any sort of research. The article I linked to, by contrast, was published two days after the fire: that’s enough time to notify the families of the deceased, get in touch with the survivors and relatives, and have data from preliminary investigations (unless you’re Bruce Barnes, of course).

  • Anonymous

    Was this sort of reporting an illusion from the fading past?

    No, but there’s a major difference between a short factual report and a longer one. (See, e.g., this piece in the New York Times.)

    The difference isn’t just because of space — I suspect it’s also because of time. Note that the report you cite doesn’t contain the date: that means the paper published it either the day of the fire or the day after. That’s nowhere near enough time to interview people or do any sort of research. The article I linked to, by contrast, was published two days after the fire: that’s enough time to notify the families of the deceased, get in touch with the survivors and relatives, and have data from preliminary investigations (unless you’re Bruce Barnes, of course).

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    http://imgur.com/gallery/zqTxV

    This kind of useless bumpf is what passes for “journalism” some days. (-_-)

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    http://imgur.com/gallery/zqTxV

    This kind of useless bumpf is what passes for “journalism” some days. (-_-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/jon.maki Jon Maki

    I can’t help but wonder what a “fair and balanced” report about a house fire would be like:

    “The homeowners claim they lost everything they own and don’t know where they’re going to sleep tonight, but the fire that claimed the house required fuel to produce rapid oxidation, thereby releasing both heat and light.”

    I can picture O’Reilly calling the homeowners “pinheads” and telling the producer to cut their microphones…

    To your larger point, I can’t help but think that you’re underestimating the ability of the readers of CT to view a wedding announcement as bad news, and I think that the best case scenario here is that they simply didn’t feel a need to comment further.  I mean, the concluding sentence already includes “Barney Frank,” “partner,” “Democrat,” and “Massachussetts,” so the readers of CT already know it’s bad news. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/jon.maki Jon Maki

    I can’t help but wonder what a “fair and balanced” report about a house fire would be like:

    “The homeowners claim they lost everything they own and don’t know where they’re going to sleep tonight, but the fire that claimed the house required fuel to produce rapid oxidation, thereby releasing both heat and light.”

    I can picture O’Reilly calling the homeowners “pinheads” and telling the producer to cut their microphones…

    To your larger point, I can’t help but think that you’re underestimating the ability of the readers of CT to view a wedding announcement as bad news, and I think that the best case scenario here is that they simply didn’t feel a need to comment further.  I mean, the concluding sentence already includes “Barney Frank,” “partner,” “Democrat,” and “Massachussetts,” so the readers of CT already know it’s bad news. 

  • http://flickr.com/photos/sedary_raymaker/ Naked Bunny with a Whip

    I think a fair and balanced report would be, “The homeowners claimed the fire was started accidentally, but an anonymous source inside the fire department noted that they had a history of smoking.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

    Ideally, you would have a spokesperson from a super-PAC funded by Loki, god of fire and mischief go head to head with, I dunno, an analyst from Americans Against Arson, an influential anti-fire think tank. They’ll go around and around in circles for thirty minutes, at which point Wolf Blitzer or Anderson Cooper or Piers Morgan will call time and say, “Thanks for coming. Moving on to our top story, Newt Gingrich is calling on President Obama to invade the Sun. Is this a good idea or a bad idea? We’ll have two guests on our panel to discuss.”

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Skimming a few comments on that linked article reveal to me the usual spat of ignorance.  “Gay’s already have the right to marry, just not gay-marry!”  Or “As a Christian politician you need the moral authority to follow the Bible when making laws!” 

    Oi, did they ever take a high school level civics class? 

  • Anonymous

    Fred, I am always glad for your hope, and one day, I know that most of your fellow evangelicals will deserve and justify it. I don’t know when that day will be, but maybe it’ll come sooner than I expect. This particular issue has shown some very sharp, very quick, and very generational movement towards the cause of liberty and equality already.

  • cjmr

    I hate to rain on the parade, guys, but 31 years is how OLD Frank’s partner is.  They met at a fundraiser in 2005.

  • Emcee, cubed

    I hate to rain on the parade, guys, but 31 years is how OLD Frank’s partner is.  They met at a fundraiser in 2005.

    Frank’s partner is 41, not 31. But yes, they have only been together for 4-5 years. (They may have met earlier, but reports say they have been a couple since 2007)

  • cjmr

    Bad subtraction on my part–the article had what year he was born in.  Actually, that is a very STUPID subtraction mistake on my part, since he’s the same age as my own husband!

  • Lori

    Ah crap. I must have merged two different stories in my head. Right name, wrong number of years. (And now I’m wondering who I was thinking of, because I’m 99% sure I didn’t just pull that out of my ear.)

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Acccording to my readings,Maryland’s proposed law has the most explicit religious protections that have been tried yet. I look forward to seeing how the homophobes trip over themselves to cliam it’s still impinging on their freedom

  • Amaryllis

    Oh, I’m sure Don Dwyer (“There’s going to be tremendous pressure on lawmakers from the public.”) and Ed DeGrange (“No.”) and the Maryland Marriage Alliance (“But men and women are different! But people will call me a bigot! But won’t somebody think of the children?!”) will think of something

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Yes, but watching them try to defend an indefensible position with increasing desperation is a prime form of amusement. 

  • Anonymous

    I read three comments on the Christianity Today article and was amazed at the level of stupidity I found there. Willful ignorance at its best.

  • Nathaniel

    To hell with those people. Anyone by this point who can’t see the common humanity of gay people are no longer merely ignorant. They are willfully, maliciously blind.

    Screw them to hell.

  • Guest-again

    That report was just something I made up as an example – and the fact that the date was missing is an example that I worked for a while in PR (in part feeding newspapers/editors/journalists articles, actually – our host is too polite to point out just how corrupt journalism has been for decades in the U.S., and who actually writes a lot of the ‘reporting’ people read), and not as a journalist.

    However, if I had written such a short factual blurb, my own editor would have been very unhappy – we were doing PR, and not journalism, after all. However, we did generally expect the newspaper/editor/journalist to reduce our text to something like that, which is why we always included as many ‘objective’ facts as possible, while tempering ourselves to a style that wouldn’t make the gatekeeper gag.

    But as noted, that feels like part of a fading past.  

  • Anonymous

    The comments to the CT piece are Bad News.

  • Anonymous

    So what was the point of the example, in that case?

    And, no, that isn’t necessarily part of a fading past: the first report of a story (which — online or no — is still where people are going to hear (or at least link to) a lot of local news) often is brief and objective. (When my friend died, the first article never mentioned his name: he was an age, a sex, and a state of origin. I hated the reporter for it, but, when the report was released, there’s a good chance they hadn’t contacted all his family yet.)

  • Guest-again

    The example was in response to this, from our host -
    ‘Police accuse man in string of robberies. Woman dies after accident.
    Students’ carnival funds trip for marching band. That sort of thing. Reporting
    on those stories is never objective and no one would want it to be. It
    would be weirdly inhuman to treat stories like that objectively.’

    Of course we get news about such events all the time, and yet, it is not a myth to consider reporting objective. I’m not getting into a major discussion here about objectivity, but that sort of passage again mights me yearn for the days when reporting facts was considered the basis of objectivity, and not the starting point for telling bad or good tales. Building is built, building is torn down – neither event needs to have a good or bad narrative attached when reporting about the events.

    Of course, this can lead to further discussion about what is news – though again, that is not my point.

    It just bothers to what extent the propagandists (of all stripes, from crassly commercial to unstoppably ideological) have managed to so poison the essential Enlightenment idea of a world in which events occur, regardless of one’s perspective. And no, the Enlightenment was not the end all either – the Buddhists have some fascinating insights into reality which correspond profoundly well with the science the Enlightenment brought forth to the understanding we currently have of the universe around us – which will change, of course.

    The idea of objective reporting is a worthy goal, even when it is not completely attainable – because any other method reporting is story telling, editorializing, or even simple propaganda. It was a noble experiment to have news attempt to be objective – and it was poisoned, with malice aforethought, by a number of people who knew such reporting would be damaging. Just ask Nixon. That 8 and 1/2 minute gap? That was a fact, and it was what forced him to resign, since only the most partisan could believe that erasing a tape during a criminal proceeding was for any reason but to cover up wrongdoing.

    And yet, years later, here is Ailes running a network explicitly dedicated to ensuring that what happened to Nixon will be impossible – after all, when even the idea of ‘objective’ is discredited by those who benefit from it (such as citizens concerned that their president really was a crook, even if he had said he wasn’t), those who could never stand having basic facts presented have managed to build a barricade to the only thing that they feared – the truth.

  • MaryKaye

    Guest-again, I think there are two definitions of “objective” in play and this is causing confusion.  You’re using “objective” as “reports true things and not false ones.”  I doubt Fred would disagree with this as a goal.  But I think Fred is using “objective” as “reports only facts, without interpretation or reaction” which is somewhat different. 

    I don’t think the Watergate reporters avoided taking a stand on what they had discovered:  that they wrote in terms of “Nixon did this:  was it good or bad?  Views are divided.”  They were perfectly prepared to say that it was wrong.

  • Emcee, cubed

    I just ran across this by accident, but might be what you were thinking of. Bruce Harris, the Republican African-American openly gay mayor in New Jersey is about to be appointed to the state Supreme Court by Governor Christie. I believe he has been with his partner for about 31 years.

  • Guest-again

    ‘Guest-again, I think there are two definitions of “objective” in play and this is causing confusion.’
    I agree, but the examples seem to indicate an overlap, which may be unavoidable after having been immersed in American media for decades.

    ‘They were perfectly prepared to say that it was wrong.’
    Actually, no – they were perfectly prepared to let everyone make up their own minds about what a missing 8 and 1/2 minutes of recorded conversation meant (and though this is a broad discussion, those missing minutes are what finally ended Nixon’s presidency, as it was an incontrovertible fact that someone within the Nixon White House erased what they felt was evidence, and that the erasing those words was better than letting people here what was said – in other words, that action proved that Nixon was the crook he said he wasn’t, at least in the eyes of whoever erased the tape). And this is exactly what Ailes attempted to defeat through his memo detailing the need to create a network that would be able to combat such ‘bias.’

    There was a time when no one really argued about facts. These days, thanks to a combination of commercial interests (the tobacco companies are at the root of much of the current discrediting of science in an apparently scientific manner, joined later by the manufactures of CFCs, then fossil fuel companies), religious interests (creationism has never given up), and political interests (Fox is a propaganda channel, according to the man who runs it – if you believe what he wrote, that is), facts are under dispute in a way that looks very hard to understand from outside of the U.S.

  • Tricksterson

    I’m old enough to remember when interacial relationships, never mind marriage, were, albeit no longger illegal, still something to arouse serious controversy on both sides of the aisle.  So progress does happen.

  • Aajala4luv

    he who has hear let him hear that the world is at hand and all what happening is the fulfilment of the end time.be watchful……… wat next after gayism