Advocacy at expense of the truth

samesexmarriage 01Yesterday I pointed out the laughably biased spin the Los Angeles Times put on its own poll about support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. While the pro-marriage amendment folks had a 19-point lead over the nays, the Times made it sound like it was hanging by a thread and doomed to fail. In addition to using the headlines "Californians slimly reject gay marriage," "Californians reject gay marriage by a bit," and "Californians narrowly reject gay marriage," the article also made the claim that the numbers were even worse than they seemed for proponents of traditional marriage. Times staff writer Cathleen Decker wrote:

But because ballot measures on controversial topics often lose support during the course of a campaign, strategists typically want to start out well above the 50% support level.

"Although the amendment to reinstate the ban on same-sex marriage is winning by a small majority, this may not bode well for the measure," said Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus.

It may be true and in fact sounds plausible that constitutional amendments lose support as campaigns proceed. But some of the commenters in the post below, including Chairm, pointed out another factor that was curiously left out of the Times story. Here's how the Baptist Press put it:

Although 54 percent is a slippage in support for traditional marriage since 2000 -- when a law banning "gay marriage" passed 61-39 percent -- marriage amendments typically do better at the ballot than they do in polling. For example, a Wisconsin amendment in 2006 polled anywhere from 48 to 51 percent in pre-election polls but passed 59-41 percent, and an Oregon amendment in 2004 polled around 50 percent but passed 56-44 percent.

This blogger has more examples to buttress the claim that marriage amendments poll worse than they perform at the ballot box. This response bias exists because respondents to polls feel that they are under societal pressure to answer a certain way. It's magnified in high-profile, controversial areas such as same-sex marriage to the point of having the catchy name "Spiral of Silence." I wish I had a better reference than Wikipedia, but here's how they describe the phenomenon:

Mass media plays a large part in determining what the dominant opinion is, since our direct observation is limited to a small percentage of the population. Mass media has such an enormous impact on how public opinion is portrayed, and can dramatically impact an individual's perception about where public opinion lies, whether or not that portrayal is factual (Scheufele and Moy 1999). Noelle-Neumann describes the spiral of silence as dynamic process, in which predictions about public opinion become fact as mass media's coverage of the majority opinion becomes the status quo, and the minority becomes less likely to speak out (Miller 2005:278). The theory, however, only applies to moral issues, not issues that can be proven right or wrong using facts.

Now the majority opinion actually happens to be in support of traditional marriage. But the majority opinion in newsrooms is quite different. As reader Darel pointed out:

In 2004, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 51% of the American public believed that "homosexuality should be accepted by society". Among the national press, a whopping 88% felt that way. More notably, 42% of the American public believed "homosexuality should be discouraged by society" while a mere 5% of the national press felt that way. Among self-described "liberals" in the media, 95% believed homosexuality should be "accepted by society" and even 84% of so-called "moderates" in the media agreed! I can't imagine there are anything but self-identified "liberals" and "moderates" reporting for the Los Angeles Times.

The normalization of homosexuality is a core value of the American professional class (of which the national press is an important part). None of us should be the least surprised by this story.

I'm thankful to Darel for finding that survey. I was trying to find it when I first started writing about the Los Angeles Times' cheerleading for same-sex marriage.

The extreme bias and manipulation of this story is unconscionable and must stop. Reporting this poll in this fashion is advocacy, not journalism.

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