Refereeing gay marriage wars

sullivanbookYesterday I criticized a Los Angeles Times story on same-sex marriage. While the post received tons of comments, very few -- very few -- managed to stay on topic to the purpose of this blog. Some posters used the comment thread as a forum to argue against same-sex marriage. Many others resorted to calling supporters of traditional marriage bigots. Sigh. It was all extremely disappointing. This is not the forum to debate same-sex marriage -- it is the forum to debate media coverage. We have a great community here of people who don't agree on much politically or religiously. Please respect that and keep on topic. I will be more trigger-happy with the comment delete button if necessary. And don't worry, there's plenty to fight over even when simply analyzing media coverage of the issue.

The latest news in the gay marriage wars comes as a result of a new Field Poll which shows some interesting results. Over half of Californians would oppose amending the state constitution to bar same-sex couples from marrying according to the poll. When last week's Los Angeles Times poll showed only 36 percent of Californians supportive of same-sex marriage, that result was downplayed as a narrow, slim victory for supporters of traditional marriage -- so you can only imagine how much the mainstream media hyped this result. As in, there are thousands of stories on GoogleNews about the poll.

It's definitely newsworthy and I'm glad to see so much coverage of the poll. But it is interesting that so few of the stories I read thought it necessary to explain the sudden shift (from Friday, even!) in popular opinion. Rather than look at any of the weaker coverage, I'll highlight a story from the San Diego Tribune that actually addressed the change:

In 2006, the last Field Poll on the issue, 44 percent approved of same-sex marriage and 50 percent disapproved.

Since then, several things have happened.

In 2007, the Legislature passed for a second time a law approving same-sex marriage, which was again vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. For years, California had already allowed same-sex couples to register in domestic partnerships that confer many of the same rights and responsibilities that go with marriage.

Last fall, a gay-rights group, Equality California, conducted a campaign that included television and Internet advertising along with house parties in support of making same-sex marriage legal.

Most significant, the state Supreme Court on May 15 ruled 4-3 that statutes banning same-sex marriage violate the right to marry embodied in the state constitution.

The decision overturned a law passed by the Legislature in 1977 and Proposition 22 approved by 61 percent of California voters in 2000. The ruling made California the second state after Massachusetts to legalize same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriages may begin in the state as early as June 14.

While some predicted a backlash from the court's decision, DiCamillo suggested the court might have helped increase support for same-sex marriage.

"The court is held in high esteem in California," he said.

So not only does this poll show an 18-point shift from the Los Angeles Times poll from last week, the poll director completely contradicts the Los Angeles Times story from yesterday arguing that the California court ruling would have no ripple effect. This New York Times story breaking the news that New York plans to recognize same-sex marriages in California also undercuts that silly "don't worry about same-sex marriage ruling" story from the Los Angeles Times. This Associated Press story credits the court ruling for the entire recent shift in attitudes. I only point that out to show how imprecise and all over the place the coverage of this issue is. It's also worth noting, and I didn't really see this discussed in any of the coverage, that someone could be opposed to same-sex marriage but not feel that it should be prohibited by an amendment to the constitution. As I mentioned, constitutional amendments are hard sells to the public. And yet that distinction was not mentioned by media coverage. Instead the storyline was that Californians now love same-sex marriage.

Football RefereeAnother piece of coverage completely lacking in all of the 1,400 stories on the matter is the issue of the Spiral of Silence.

The Field Poll is generally trustworthy, but we've discussed before the problem with mainstream media advocacy for positions skewing the results of polling. It was in 2000 that over 60 percent of Californians voted to ban same-sex marriage, after all. Generally speaking, of course, amendments to the constitution are a harder sell to the public than regular ballot initiatives, but it is also true that respondents to media polls tend to under report their opposition to same-sex marriage. I didn't see any story address that fact. And, of course, this problem will only be compounded by the media hyping of this story.

The poll did ask respondents for their religious affiliation and this Sacramento Bee story did a good job of including that data:

Born-again Christians objected to gay marriage, 68 to 24 percent. Protestants were opposed, 57 to 34 percent. Catholics were nearly evenly split. Voters from other religious groups favored gay marriage, 61 to 33 percent. Eighty-one percent of people with no religious preferences supported gay marriage.

"There are huge, substantial differences -- whether you live in the Central Valley or on the coast, whether you're Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, Protestant or no religious affiliation," DiCamillo said. "It's a divisive issue."

That should provide some interesting fodder for religion reporters to dig into. Why are people without religion the most uniform in their thinking? Why are Protestants opposed while Catholics are nearly evenly split? Rather than focus, as the Los Angeles Times has, on those "other religious groups" that favor gay marriage, I'd be interested in a story on these other questions.

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