Giddy in newsrooms: Is gay-marriage coverage slanted?

Media-beat scribe Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post is getting knocked around a bit these days in the kingdom of Romenesko at Poynter. The hook is a Kurtz column about new research -- a joint project of the Pew Research Center and the Project for Excellence in Journalism -- into the mindset of American journalists. The headline, of course, is that journalists think the media is being too soft on President Bush. Then there were these statistics: At the national level, 34 percent of the journalists described themselves as "liberal," 54 percent as "moderate" and 7 percent as "conservative." Kurtz noted that the local split was 23-61-12. This raises all kinds of questions, like: What does the word "moderate" mean?

However, the religion ghosts in the report were -- surprise, surprise -- so obvious that they showed up in the executive summary. This led to the Kurtz paragraph that is causing offense in some quarters:

The survey confirmed that national journalists are to the left of the public on social issues. Nine in 10 say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral (40 percent of the public thinks this way). As might have been inferred from the upbeat coverage of gay marriage in Massachusetts, 88 percent of national journalists say society should accept homosexuality; only about half the public agrees.

This ticked off some lifestyle left people in the blogosphere. The crucial question seems to be this: Are there two sides to the gay-marriage story? Is this a case in which mainstream journalists -- as opposed to reporters at places such as Salon.com, Out and some sections of the New York Times -- should attempt to find some kind of balance between those in favor and those opposed? Or, in the view of the press, is this officially a battle between the enlightened and the bigots?

The key letter at Poynter.org came from Ron Kampeas, who is concerned that Kurtz is concerned that waves of celebratory news coverage in Massachusetts might be a sign of liberal bias. Here is the money paragraph:

How do you avoid upbeat wedding coverage? The May 17 spot story was essentially that these people who could not previously get married were getting married. It was an event story, and demanded on the scene color. Was there a bias in the political story in the weeks and months that preceded it? I'm not sure, that's best left to the people who pick through the miles of newsprint. But as last Monday's story was not the conceptual, political for-and-against story. Everyone interviewed at the events -- the couple, the licensed marrier, the guests, the family -- are naturally going to be happy. Does the "Vows" column in the New York Times have a bias toward weddings? Should a wedding be covered like a campaign rally, with every second graf a reminder of "why this might be wrong." How do you fact check a wedding? How many people, even among the opponents of gay marriage, could be counted on for pertinent nay-saying quotes in wedding coverage? Who, aside from the God Hates F**s guy, is going to say Bob and Steve or Millie and Joan should NOT have had fun today?

That's one perspective. The key, however, is whether newsrooms contain journalists with the skills and the commitment to cover both sides of this highly complex and highly divisive moral, political, legal and even theological story. Can anyone find articulate voices on both sides? This may even be an issue that requires what I call a "visual fairness" strategy, with newspaper editors assigning reporters to cover developments on both sides of the debate and write stories that are played side by side.

It could happen. But would there be journalists in U.S. newsrooms who could even imagine what this story looks like from a morally conservative point of view? Would they be attacked by co-workers if they raised questions about balance and fairness? The Kurtz column includes this quotation on these questions:

Tom Rosenstiel, the project's director, says the growing proportion of self-identified liberals in the national media -- and the fact that "conservatives are not very well represented" -- is having an impact. "This is something journalists should worry about," he says. "Maybe diversity in the newsroom needs to mean more than ethnic and gender diversity."

Amen.

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