Critical thinking would help reporters cover gay debates

Yesterday we looked at some of this week's worst examples of some major media's trouble covering homosexuality or same-sex marriage. It was what I was thinking about as I ruminated on a first-person essay on headlined:

There Probably Isn't Any Neutral Way to Report on Homosexuality Journalists could do better at conveying the best traditionalist arguments against gay marriage. But some people won't be satisfied unless gays are stigmatized as in bygone days.

The Atlantic piece, written by Conor Friedersdorf, is a highly personal essay about how he would run a newspaper. He argues that he'd advocate for changing marriage law, and viewing this as a "civil rights" issue -- but he'd do so in a transparent manner. He sees the problem with the approach taken by some mainstream media outlets, those that share his partisan views but aren't forthright about it, as one of failing to be honest and transparent about their grounding premises.

And, he says, he'd want to be fair to those who disagree but are not bigoted. But, he says, let's not pretend that bigotry isn't a driving force here:

But let's be clear: While journalists are obligated to set forth the best arguments from all sides in their "facilitating public discourse" mode, they oughtn't give the impression, in their "conveying reality as it is" mode, that the most thoughtful, non-bigoted arguments against gay marriage are all that's driving the debate. It's been some years since I went door-to-door as a beat reporter, talking to anyone I could find about gay marriage on one of the occasions that the issue flared up in California. I won't pretend that the dozens of people I spoke to in person or the hundreds I interacted with online were a scientific sample. But suffice it to say that it is very easy to find people whose opposition to gay marriage has nothing to do with a principled commitment to preserving marriage as an institution whose primary purpose is procreation and child-rearing.

These people are cool with marriage in its modern, secularist, find-your-soul-mate-but-no-fault-divorce-just-in case incarnation. They just don't want gays to participate. The number of people who object to gay marriage is far bigger than the number who embrace traditionalist notions of marriage. And public opinion is changing so quickly in part because encounters with real-life gays rather than stereotypes thereof tend to make many people more sympathetic to gay marriage.

You get where he's going. I'd argue -- and have argued strenuously -- that sharing the fullness of the debate on this topic requires digging deep. Part of that means digging deep into the views of those who would retain marriage as a heterosexual institution.

But even in Friedersdorf's essay we see a failure to recognize a distinction many traditionalists make between disapproval of a particular behavior and disapproval of a person. Later, Friedersdorf says he'd like to know what marriage traditionalists such as Eve Tushnet would do if they ran a style section to a newspaper. It's an interesting choice because Tushnet is rather famously same-sex attracted and also celibate for religious reasons. One of the problems with the current media approach to this topic is how many journalists lazily prejudge any disapproval of any aspect of homosexuality with bullying, bigotry and hatred.

A correspondent, who is a journalist, had some challenging remarks in response that everyone should read:

Friedersdorf raises a good and worthwhile point when he says many opponents of redefining marriage are "cool with marriage in its modern, secularist, find-your-soul-mate-but-no-fault-divorce-just-in case incarnation. They just don't want gays to participate. The number of people who object to gay marriage is far bigger than the number who embrace traditionalist notions of marriage." Very true. However, I think the very simple and obvious explanation for this is not bigotry so much as a kind of soft hypocrisy rooted in not thinking deeply, Yes, the reasons we should not redefine marriage have implications for divorce laws and "childless by choice" and the sort of Hollywood "soul mate" model of marital love that much of the culture has embraced which they have not thought through. I will even go so far as to say that thinking it through has led many people to switch sides, because they do not like those implications for themselves. ... Look for instance at the pastoral letter that Benedict praised during an ad limina visit of American bishops this year when he gave that "controversial" address on chastity. This is precisely the sort of depth that most secular media steadfastly ignore.

However, that thoughtlessness is hardly unique to the traditional side. I would argue the overwhelming majority of people in favor of same-sex marriage have not thought their arguments fully through, either, which I consider largely to their credit. They have not thought through what it means for children to say that either a mother or a father is optional not just de facto but de iure, not just in fact, as something that happens sometimes, but in principle. They have not thought through what it means to have three parent birth certificates, and to treat school materials that talk about "mother and father" without equal time given to alternative situations as "heteronormative" — as something practically stigmatized and bigoted. Most of these people are motivated by what they see as fairness — again, to their credit — to people with same-sex attraction. I laud their sympathy. But they have not thought through what fairness means for a wedding photographer who is not an exempted "church" but whose moral convictions do not permit her to pretend she thinks this event people are asking her to shoot is a marriage. They have not thought about fairness as it applies to a father who wishes to opt his children out of being indoctrinated in the state's newfound moral orthodoxy that conflicts with his own in his neighborhood elementary school to which he pays taxes. The overwhelming majority of these people have no idea at all of advancing the ideology one finds in statement such as — the total undefining of marriage. Even many of the more knowledgeable advocates on the other side would probably reject some of statement. Yet many are blissfully unaware that such goals exist or motivate anyone, and those who do not lack this knowledge have been spared the difficult and important work of explaining to themselves and to society how their ideas don't lead to the more radical ones. Why do that when the secular media frame for the story casts you as Dudley Doright and those who disagree as Snidely Whiplash? (Boo! Hiss! Hooray!)

Exactly. There are so many areas to explore, journalistically speaking. Unintended consequences has to be chief among those that haven't been. But it's significantly harder to do the job of a journalist -- impartially dig around in various belief systems -- if you aren't clear about the goal of your job. Some journalists in extremely high places (NPR, Washington Post, New York Times) have articulated a confused understanding of their job -- still report news on many issues but campaign like the most strident partisan when it comes to religious and social issues.

If a reporter wants to campaign, engage in advocacy journalism, or write thinly-veiled op-eds, that's fine. But it does a disservice to civil discourse and critical thinking when this is presented on the news pages as news.

The thing is that it's actually not that difficult to be "neutral" in reporting on homosexuality and proposed changes to marriage law. It simply requires a modicum of humility and critical thinking. Sadly, those have been hard to find in the vast majority of mainstream media reports on these topics.

Image of reporter trying to remember how to think critically via Shutterstock.

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