Yet another one-sided AP same-sex marriage story

Yet another one-sided AP same-sex marriage story October 23, 2013

Over the weekend, I did a post titled “Another one-sided AP same-sex marriage story.”

I complained, not for the first time, that The Associated Press seems to have decided that stories about same-sex marriage need to include only one side: the side excited about same-sex marriage.

My post prompted this comment from a gay-rights advocate who identified himself as Scott L:

Sounds like the AP is behaving like a responsible organization in 2013. Marriage equality is a reality in much of the country. Accept it.

I spiked that comment and a few others that railed against the gay-rights movement because they fell outside our policy for reader feedback:

Engage the contents of the post. This is a journalism weblog. Please strive to comment on journalism issues, not your opinions of the doctrinal or political beliefs of other people.

In a nutshell, as we’ve explained many times, GetReligion is a website that focuses on journalism and media coverage issues. We advocate for fair and accurate news reporting and identify ghosts in religion news coverage. But Scott L took to Twitter to accuse me of bias:

After I encouraged Scott to make his point with a clear journalistic focus, another reader (with whom I have had a few personal and professional ties over the years) chimed in:

I replied:

But as I explained, I couldn’t have a serious discussion in 140-character bits on Twitter. And also, I was on deadline with my real job yesterday.

So here we are … so I’ll attempt to answer the questions.

First, on the notion that pro-gay comments get moderated or deleted. Yes, that’s right. And so do anti-gay comments that have nothing do with journalism. This is not a site to advocate one side or the other. It’s a site to discuss journalism. If you want to suggest that journalism needs to tell only one side of the story, do that and explain why in terms that make it clear you’re not simply arguing the doctrinal or political issues.

Second, on Greg’s question of whether it’s disingenuous to require both sides of every story. There’s nothing disingenuous at all about my contention that fair, responsible journalism should include voices on both (or all) sides of big, important public debates.

Do we ask the KKK to comment on NAACP stories? Not necessarily. But if you’re writing about a KKK rally, yes, try to get a comment from the KKK. Sorry, folks, but that’s journalism. Sometimes, we quote people with whom we vehemently disagree.

I’ve written 450-plus posts for GetReligion since 2010. I’d invite Scott or Greg or anyone else to send me any links to my posts that were advocacy on either side of an important issue and not advocacy for quality journalism.

For Scott and Greg, the debate over same-sex marriage may be over, and they may have strong opinions on which side is correct, which is certainly their right in a free country. But from a journalistic perspective, a responsible reporter can’t make that determination.

The latest example that I’ll use comes from Tennessee, where AP again seems to have decided to tell only one side of the story:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Four same-sex couples who were legally married in other states filed a lawsuit Monday challenging Tennessee’s laws that prohibit recognition of their marriages.

The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Nashville, says Tennessee’s laws violate the federal Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process, and “the constitutionally protected right to travel between and move to other states.”

The U.S. Supreme Court last June struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. However, the court did not address state bans on same-sex marriage. Under the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, gay couples who are legally married in states that allow it can get the same federal benefits as married opposite sex couples.

In Tennessee, however, marriage between partners of the same gender is prohibited by state law and by a constitutional amendment approved in 2006. It says that for a marriage to be legal in the state, it must be between a man and a woman.

“All of our plaintiffs are people who were legally married in their states of residence,” said Abby Rubenfeld, an attorney for the couples. “The federal government says it’s OK … then they move to Tennessee for job purposes, for whatever, and all of a sudden their marriage isn’t recognized.”

After including background on the plaintiffs, AP quotes a same-sex marriage advocate:

Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, a gay rights advocacy group, said he applauds the plaintiffs’ effort because he is contacted every week by gay couples seeking legal recognition.

“We believe it’s the first step in knocking down a huge barrier of discrimination in the state,” he said.

OK, but how did Tennessee’s same-sex marriage opponents respond? Why do they believe that the state should deny gay couples legal recognition? AP, once again, doesn’t bother to quote anyone on the other side. (Seriously, has there been an internal AP memo to produce biased journalism on this issue?)

How might a quote from the other side look in a story such as this? This kind of quote from a USA Today story on the same lawsuit would be a start:

Officials with the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office, which will defend the state against the lawsuit, said it was too early to comment. The lawsuit was filed in federal court here.

“As we have noted before, the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision did not invalidate state laws regarding marriage,” spokeswoman Sharon Curtis-Flair said.

As would this one:

David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, is one of the architects of the efforts to narrowly define marriage, a definition he says should stand in the state.

“California and New York had the right to define marriage as how their people saw fit, and so should the state of Tennessee,” said Fowler, a former state senator. “The whole principal of federalism is that if one state has laws that are different than that of another state, then you are free to vote with your feet.”

The USA Today story isn’t perfect, but it at least gives the impression of journalism as opposed to, say, advocacy.

Hey AP, you might try it sometime.

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29 responses to “Yet another one-sided AP same-sex marriage story”

  1. I think that you’re not quite giving sufficient time or credit to the journalistic question your commentators are (perhaps inadvertently) raising: are there situations in which journalists may, in principle, decide not to give a voice to a position which they judge to be regressive, abhorrent, or fringe? Is there a danger of false equivalency in journalistic coverage?

    I’m on the traditional marriage side of this debate, insofar as I can sum up my position in a single sentence (not an easy task!), but I am interested in this discussion of how journalists might distinguish between fair representation vs. false equivalency, and ethical reporting vs. advocacy. Is the legitimate need to represent a position dependent on the number of people who hold it? (And if so, what about minority concerns?) Is it dependent on its internal thoughtfulness and coherence? (Although thoughtfulness and coherence are difficult to accurately report even when on behalf of a position you agree with). Is it dependent on historical importance, or gravity of the issue at stake, or national or local influence? What are the determining factors?

    • Good point that maybe I acted too hastily in deleting Scott L’s original comment without engaging him or asking him to explain his journalistic point. My excuse is that I have a real job and this isn’t it and so maybe I was too trigger happy. Then again, maybe I get some points for coming back to his comment and concern and explaining the thinking with this post? 🙂

      • You definitely get points for that! I’m always complaining that journalists don’t ask the questions I’d like answers to, so maybe I’m just seeing the opportunity here to get at one of those questions I’d like answers to. 🙂 I’m not a journalist, so it could be that I’m missing some obvious and well-known journalistic principle that could be applied here…but then, this blog exists in part to educate and advocate for journalistic principles, doesn’t it?

      • I have a real job, too, which is why the comment was brief. Your deletion of it demonstrates, I guess, that your time and space is more important than mine, which is exactly the problem with how straight privilege is playing out in this conversation.

        • Unless only straight people are allowed to start and run blogs, I don’t think you can attribute the difference between poster and commentator to ‘straight privilege’. Frankly, that hurts your credibility as a serious person.

          • It really doesn’t though, when religious straight folks are arguing that they need to be included in every story. I’m arguing that it’s possible for a story to be about queer folks without mentioning straight opposition because sometimes straight people *aren’t* what we’re talking about. Bobby thinks that straight problems with gay marriage need to be brought up in every conversation about marriage equality.

            Straight privilege plays out when queer folks have to step back so that straight people can be heard.

          • No one here is arguing that pro-traditional marriage viewpoints need to be included in every story. Get Religion primarily addresses examples of news stories that don’t “Get Religion”, so it’s pretty natural that they would only address the topic when they see an example of a case in which coverage seems unbalanced. That doesn’t mean that they think that viewpoint needs to be in every story…but it certainly should be in any story that is explicitly about opposition to traditional marriage measures, don’t you think?

          • So, how would you feel if the shoe were on the other foot? If the AP put out a story and only quoting opponents of your position, espeically if it is still and undecided political issue, would you think it is unfair advocacy? If gay voices were totally ignored would you not worry about it simply because it was an article about opponents of same-sex marrage?

    • If the Associated Press abandons the American model of the press then that model is, for all practical purposes, DEAD.

      So it is false equivalency to deal fairly and accurately with the views of, well, Mother Theresa, Orthodox Judaism, the Dalai Lama, Billy Graham, the majority of African-American church leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., Pope Francis and numerous others?

      If reporters cannot handle this basic journalistic task then they should of their own free will work for advocacy publications committed to their doctrines on these issues.

      • I’m not saying whether it’s false equivalency or not (I mean, obviously, I don’t think it is). I’m just saying that it seems like the question should be addressed with some real, useful guidelines/distinctions to help us all differentiate journalistic judgment from value judgment, particularly if you do value the american model of the press. Do j-schools address this conflict or distinction? Does the AP?

    • I think the way it is handled depends upon the context of the story. Using the KKK/NAACP analogy, if a story was about, say some NAACP conference or meeting that had no direct bearing on the KKK, it would be permissible to omit a KKK comment (and, in fact, might be strange to insert one). However, if the story was about an NAACP counter-protest of a KKK march, then I think such a story would require at least a quote or two from a KKK source, regardless of how odious their position may be. In the AP story, we have eight people challenging a Tennessee constitutional amendment defining marriage in a certain way. It would be mandatory in such a story to quote someone who favors the definition as it exists. If it was a story about how these people arranged the flowers at their ceremonies, then such a quote would be out of place. Scott L’s comment was irrelevant because he wasn’t addressing the context of the story, but was merely making a value judgment on the Tennessee amendment. I think Mr. Ross was right to ax it.

    • This is my whole point: same-sex marriage is a reality in many places, regardless of what conservative religious folks think about it. Since it is a reality (like, say, a heliocentric solar system), it is perfectly responsible to talk about same-sex marriage as a reality without mentioning detractors (just like you wouldn’t mention heliocentric-solar-system deniers, even if they believed it because of God).

      It is entirely possible — and indeed responsible — to talk about same-sex marriage without mentioning opposing viewpoints because very often the opposing viewpoints are irrelevant to the story. Conservative religious folk (yes, including Pope Francis) may need to accept that they aren’t driving the conversation and aren’t actually as important as they think they are.

      In this case, to “Get Religion” may mean leaving it out.

      • How many of the stories critiqued here for ‘pro-gay bias’ actually talk only about same-sex marriage, rather than about the fight for same-sex marriage, legislation, court cases, or advocacy?

        For the most part, I think Aaron is on the right track-context matters. If you’re talking about people acting in advocacy positions, as many of these stories are, you really need to talk about why they feel the need for advocacy, and you can’t address that fairly without explaining why they face opposition. If there was a well-funded pro-heliocentrism rally or piece of legislation, your story would be pretty incomplete if you didn’t explain why they felt the need to organize, and why there are still geocentrists out there.

      • But same-sex marriage is not a reality in Pennsylvania. That was the whole point of the story about which you commented and said that no traditional marriage voices were necessary. The story was about how same-sex marriage advocates are having trouble getting a gay marriage law passed in Pennsylvania. THAT story doesn’t need any comment from the folks who are refusing to pass same-sex marriage? Sorry, I don’t buy that. But I do appreciate your comments on this post enlightening me on where you’re coming from. And concerning your limited time, I do apologize for deleting your comment without trying to engage you further.

  2. Sorry, folks, but that’s journalism. Sometimes, we quote people with whom we vehemently disagree.

    Back on the 15th I started working as a movie reviewer for a local newspaper.

    Part and parcel of the job is “Critiquing each individual movie on its own merits (or lack thereof), regardless of what I think about it ahead of time.”

    For example, while some of actor Tom Hanks’ previous outings have left me cold (such as the overly cliched “The Terminal”), I gave “Captain Phillips” a 9 / 10. It was an honestly good movie. The lost point had nothing to do with Hanks, and everything to do with certain scenes being too graphic for my tastes.

    Had I approached the film the same way that some of these Associated Press reporters have been approaching the gay marriage issue, however, I’d have picked a different movie entirely so as not to give Hanks a chance to change my mind.

      • In contrast –

        I figured that “Escape Plan” would be good, hilarious fun due to the two stars involved. Instead, I gave it a mere 7 / 10 due to the plot contrivances involved and the unfortunate implications inherent in the ending.

        Sometimes, you have to set aside your own biases and prejudgements in order to do the job.

  3. Bobby, can I ask if The Christian Chronicle ever takes sides and publishes stories which lean one-way? I think we know the answer. I’m bemused by your last couples of posts. Not so long ago AP issued new advice that “husband” and “wife” were not to be used when describing same-sex couples, and that they outlawed the use of the word “homophobia” – I guess if you sweep homophobia under the carpet by not acknowledging it, it will somehow go away. Where did you stand on these? Did you agree that the word “homophobia” should not be used? If so, how does that sit with journalistic integrity?

    I would also take issue with your description of Scott L as an “gay-rights advocate” – what makes you say that? Are you a “Christian-rights advocate” because you take a particular religious position?

    I’m an atheist but I often read some of your articles because I like to keep my eye on you lot ! No, actually I read it because I am interested in exploring how we can narrow the gap between us gays and you Christians – if a majority of Catholics in the US and UK believe that being gay is fine, and many other Christian denominations also believe that, then can it really be that difficult?

    You are nothing like LifeSiteNews or WND, whose agenda and hatred is clearly laid out, and I’ve generally found the articles balanced, so I’m hoping that you will accept that my points have some merit, and I would be interested to hear your take on what appeared like AP homophobia at the start of this year, but which you now describe as pro-gay bias. Are they not reflecting majority opinion at this point?

    Now that AP have relented on the use of “husband” and “wife”, you are free to use that when describing same-sex couples, if that is how they refer to themselves. But would you?

    • GullverUK,

      Certainly, the Chronicle publishes stories through the lens of our audience, which is members of Churches of Christ. But the Chronicle is not a mainstream news organization and doesn’t claim to be. We do, however, produce a lot of quality journalism, evidenced by numerous awards we have received from religious and secular journalism associations. Nonetheless, the Chronicle has nothing to do with GetReligion, which is a website that critiques the mainstream media and its coverage of religion. We don’t critique journalism by the religious press.

      So you seem to be responding to an apple with an orange …

      I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying AP has done on husband and wife. Are they allowing that term or not when referring to same-sex spouses? You said “not” up high but indicated otherwise in your comment.

      I’m also not familiar with the AP decision on homophobia. I would assume they’re telling reporters that they shouldn’t use that word in news copy because it’s loaded, which seems to make journalistic sense to me. On the other hand, I can see times when a reporter would want to include that word in a quote from an advocate.

      Anyway, I appreciate your comment because I get the sense that you are really concerned about journalistic issues, which is what we do at GetReligion.

  4. OK, is this the message: Quoting Pope Francis or other traditional religious leaders equals quoting the KKK? Just trying to be clear on this issue.

    • You believe journalists need to clearly and fairly be able to understand and represent positions they don’t hold, right? So how would you fairly represent this particular position, whether or not you agree?

    • I think a media organization might be able to make the argument that sexual orientation and gender identity are more like race than they are like ‘lifestyle choices’, and so decide not to give space to the position that same-sex relationships are sinful.

      It is an interesting question: at what point did journalists stop talking about segregation by presenting both sides and start talking about it in terms of a civil rights struggle by a marginalized population? The same thing may be going on here.

      • The same thing may be going on here, but it’s actually not. In the old newspaper articles covering segregation and the civil rights movement, did they not get quotes from both sides? Or did they, at one point, simply start ignoring one side or the other because they felt it was their moral duty to do so? If so, when did that point come? Once all the laws made segregation illegal? Is that when newspapers stopped taking note of the opinions of others? I’d love to see any examples of this from original news sources.

          • Thanks for the link. It seems like only one side was shown. While that could just have been the focus of the article, I was surprised how much I missed hearing the other side. How did people at the time voice their objections? That would seem like a fascinating historical perspective.

            Only allowing one voice just seems so un-democratic.

          • Yes, but a story *today* would portray pro-segregationists as a lunatic fringe at best. People preaching racial superiority are given very little serious platform for their opinions, which is as it should be.

            The numbers haven’t quite yet marginalized the anti-marriage forces as a lunatic fringe, but they’re well on the way. If you’re still of this opinion I can understand the frustration, but also see a danger of creating and continuing the kind of false equivalency we see in much of journalism in which “both sides” need to get equal voice even when they do not have equal moral, intellectual, or evidentiary weight.

            In a story about a domestic abuse law, would one give equal weight to old-school chauvinists who think it’s OK for husbands to beat their wives?

  5. If there are situations where presenting both sides of an issue is a worry, why not just indicate the percentage of the population that generally ascribes to the unfavorable position? I don’t think people, journalists especially, should fear charitably portraying opposing positions.

    As a side note, I’ve always wished there was a way to easily portray a frequency distribution graphs in written language. Add another dimension to portray ascribed importance and tonnes of information gets communicated. Mathematical illiteracy eventually becomes a real barrier to effective communication (just as failures to charitably understand religious perspectives becomes a barrier).

    • I was reading an article on the dramatic increase in the number of people who choose to live “gluten free” in the United States. The article stated that less than 1% of the population of the U.S. has celiac disease, the condition that makes gluten actually harmful to the body. So the reporter putting that little tidbit of numerical information in there really drastically changed my outlook on the report. I’d like to think people have the sense to know that “1 percent of the American population believes that the earth is actually flat” means that “most people don’t believe this.” But I’d like to hear what those flat-earth people have to say anyway!

      If you’re a racist, a religious nut, an atheist, a Republican, an abortion enthusiast, a pedophile–bring it on! I can handle hearing what people believe and then deciding for myself.

  6. I’d also add that the statements in which you saw value – about federalism – not only clearly contradict the “full faith and credit” clause of the Constitution (and are, therefore, on shaky at best legal ground) but don’t give an actual argument; one states that the law has not yet been successfuly challenged, and the other states taht they want to avoid giving equal rights to same-sex couples *without bothering to state why.*