A good deal for $107,500?

There's this New York Times feature called "Room for Debate." The name alone, and its presence on the opinion pages, led me to believe that maybe there would be, I don't know, a debate between the featured participants. The topic yesterday was "same-sex families," the hook a new movie about a lesbian couple and their children. But there was no debate that I saw. Featured opinions ranged from those of Dan Savage to those of an Evergreen College professor. It was just a given that society should have no qualms about same-sex parenting. The end. The ruling class marches on. That's fine -- if unbelievably boring, predictable and close minded -- for opinion pages, I guess. But, as I've documented approximately eleventy billion times in the past couple of years, the same problem plagues the "news" pages of most major papers.

For just a tiny example of the weaknesses in how same-sex marriage is treated, let's take a look at coverage of a new Public Religion Research Institute poll. Now, nowhere in the Los Angeles Times story or in the Religion News Service story will you learn that PRRI is a liberal group that is not unbiased when it comes to same-sex marriage. No, the Los Angeles Times describes the group behind the poll as a "Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit" and a "nonpartisan research and education group."

You know what might be helpful to learn about the poll? That the poll was financed by a liberal foundation. The purpose of the poll, according to the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund was:

To survey California religious communities and help develop religious education strategies supporting gay equality. $107,500

No, the mainstream media didn't report that the poll was designed with advocacy in mind. And it was even mentioned in the organization's own press release announcing the poll! (They also claim funding from the Ford Foundation.)

Now let's look at the RNS story:

New polls in California indicate public opinion on same-sex marriage may be changing toward acceptance, and religion continues to play a large role in the change.

A poll released Wednesday (July 21) by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) showed that if a vote were held on Proposition 8, which ended same-sex marriage in the state two years ago, Californians likely would allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.

That mirrors findings of a Field Poll released Tuesday that was hailed by the gay-rights group Equality California. Both polls found a bare majority (51 percent) of California voters said they would vote to approve same-sex marriage.

Now, I don't believe that PRRI was paid to do an advocacy poll on California attitudes toward same-sex marriage prior to this, so there's no way of knowing whether their results indicate that public opinion is actually changing. They do claim that while two-thirds of Californians report no change in their views, one in four Californians have become more supportive of gay rights over the last five years. I don't know if that means the sides are getting more polarized, if attitudes toward gay marriage in particular have changed, or what, exactly.

But there have been previous Field Polls. Let's go back to the 2008 Field Poll. That would be the one done the same year that Californians voted -- like every other state that's had an opportunity with a similar referendum -- to ban same-sex marriage. What did the Field Poll show that year?

. . . a Field Poll found that 51 percent approve of the idea of allowing same-sex couples to marry.

Wait, so in 2008 a Field Poll showed that 51 percent of Californians said they supported same-sex marriage and a 2010 Field Poll showed that 51 percent of Californians said they supported same-sex marriage. And what this means, according to RNS, is that "public opinion on same-sex marriage may be changing toward acceptance"? Really?

You know what would be a good story for the mainstream media to look into in light of the real world data -- such as the vote in 2008? One where the attitudes of Americans who oppose same-sex marriage are not caricatured or dismissed but fairly presented.

For the coverage of this poll, the RNS and LA Times only quote Robert P. Jones, the head of PRRI. They never identify PRRI as an advocacy group and they never explain that the poll was done with advocacy in mind. And the story is getting quite a bit of mileage.

All I can say is that the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund definitely got a lot of free media coverage in support of a pet issue for that $107,500. Good work! But kind of embarrassing, again, for the mainstream media.

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