Saved by zero

zeroYesterday, I pointed out that journalists covering financial donations to California's ballot initiative on marriage should attempt to put contributions in context. The latest filings covering donations show same-sex marriage supporters raised $43.3 million in 2008 while the measure's sponsors raised $39.9 million. This makes it the most expensive social issue race in the nation's history. Lots of donors and lots of big donors weighed in on this contentious issue. Many of the stories about the latest filings from the California Secretary of State deal with the contributions -- of cash or services -- by religious groups. This is certainly a most valid angle.

Here's an early report on the Los Angeles Times site:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints contributed about $189,000 in "in-kind" donations to the campaign for the ballot measure that banned gay marriage in California -- but the church wants to make it clear that that wasn't such a large sum.

In a statement, church officials noted that the contributions were a tiny fraction of the roughly $4 million raised by the "Yes on Proposition 8" forces. (The number does not include church members who made individual donations.)

I know that zeros don't seem like important numbers but they are. It wasn't $4 million raised by the measure's supporters but $40 million. What it means is that the corporate LDS' contributions represent less than one-half of one percent of the total contribution.

The article goes on to mention other contributions but fails to explain that the cited donations come just from the latest filing. That means that we don't hear about some of the really notable contributions -- such as the million-plus dollars given against the measure by the California Teachers Association and George Soros or the million-plus dollars given in support by the Roman Catholic Knights of Columbus.

Even though votes and financial contributions in support of traditionally defined marriage came from a wide religious, racial and cultural spectrum, much of the response to the vote has targeted Mormons. This has included violence against Mormon wards and temples, burning of sacred Mormon scripture, the blacklisting of Mormons who contributed to the battle, and forcing multiple Mormons out of their jobs. While the coverage of this blacklist and violence has been remarkably restrained, much of the reporting after the last filing homed in on Mormon contributions. This brief story, also in the Los Angeles Times, focuses solely on the Mormon reporting and how one of its political opponents interpreted the filing.

And here's how the San Francisco Chronicle reported the same issue:

Mormon church officials, facing an ongoing investigation by the state Fair Political Practices Commission, Friday reported nearly $190,000 in previously unlisted assistance to the successful campaign for Prop. 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California.

That is one dramatic lede. It definitely could be -- and has been -- argued that it's a bit misleading. It could also have been written that Mormon church officials reported in-kind, non-cash contributions to the successful campaign for Prop. 8 days prior to the reporting deadline.

The story gives the impression that the church disclosed these in-kind contributions solely because someone filed a complaint against them in November alleging they hadn't fully disclosed the support they gave. That may be true. That may not be true. And unless the reporter has facts to back up the claim, he should probably just lay out the facts. The rest of the story reads more like an op-ed rather than a dispassionate laying out of the facts.

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