The media's next move on same-sex marriage

Last week we looked at NPR's self-analysis of its bias in favor of same-sex marriage. Even before I wrote that, I wanted to look at this earlier piece by Brian Stelter at the New York Times headlined "Did the News Media Drive the Gay Marriage Debate?" So we're finally getting around to it. The article begins by pointing out that Shepard Smith of Fox News announced Obama's new found support of same-sex marriage with the line "The President of the United States, now in the 21st century." An site affiliated with Fox News opined in an opposite direction.

He says these headlines point to how same-sex marriage is a media fixation and how the press prodded the change for Obama. He points out that it was in interviews, not stump speeches or debates, where Obama made all of his various claims regarding his views on marriage law.

We get a brief background look at how Vice President Joseph Biden kicked off the media frenzy with his support of changing laws to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples. Then this:

For years, conservative media critics have asserted that many mainstream journalists favor gay marriage and tilt their coverage of the topic accordingly. On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Thursday, Mark Halperin of Time magazine seemed to agree. “The media is as divided on this issue as the Obama family — which is to say not at all,” he said. “And so he’s never going to get negative coverage for this.”

Later in the morning on NBC’s “Today” show, a co-host, Savannah Guthrie, brought up a similar point. Interviewing a panel of guests, she said: “You know, so many people in the media seem to uniformly support same-sex marriage. Do you think that this dialogue we’re having nationally doesn’t adequately recognize that for many people, this is an issue that they struggle with and don’t believe in?” One of the panelists, Star Jones, answered, “It really is an issue that people struggle with.”

“Certainly, members of the national media have long held relatively liberal attitudes on gay rights and sexual expression more generally,” said S. Robert Lichter, a professor of communications at George Mason University and the director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

We're told of Lichter's 1980 random sample of journalists at major media outlets (such as The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, broadcast outlets and PBS) that only 25 percent agreed with the statement “It is wrong for adults of the same sex to have sexual relations.” And 97 percent agreed that “the government should not attempt to regulate people’s sexual practices.”

What does it mean that this sample of journalists from 30-some years ago had such views outside the mainstream and that these views have been pushed from media outlets in the intervening years?

“I think attitudes like these reflect a professional culture that draws people differentially from progressive and cosmopolitan backgrounds, and that reinforces those views through contact with like-minded colleagues. I don’t think this means there is a conscious effort in most newsrooms to aid in the struggle for gay rights, but a general sympathy on a personal level may subtly color the reporting. And this could occur in ways journalists themselves may not be aware of.”

We get some more interesting context of how the media pushed the story the day after Biden's surprise announcement and how it led Obama to ask for an interview with a sympathetic journalist. We learn, too, about how happy she was to hear the words in support of same-sex marriage law when they came out of President Obama's mouth. She says she gets chills even upon rehearing.

It's all very interesting and straightforward for a brief piece. I wonder what it means, though. For one thing, with no disrespect to how different the media's views on this issue are relative to, say, voters in the thirty-plus states that have advocated retaining a traditional definition of marriage as a heterosexual union, I wonder how well situated the media are to covering this story, particularly as it relates to unintended consequences or any potential downside or, simply, the views of those who disagree.

That they are open about their inability to cover this issue without emotion or religious-like fervor is a fantastic thing. I think it's only appropriate that media critics and ombudsmen at Newsweek, NPR and the New York Times -- among others -- are open and honest about their intractable bias on this topic.

But from that point of acknowledgement, where do we go? What should happen from there? Just keep things the way they are and defend it as part of a media outlet's "core values"? Give up on any attempt to report the story rather than be advocates for one side? What do you think?

Cheerleading image via kots/Shutterstock.

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