Gays and Mormons: Times headline chooses the frame, then paints the picture

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When my "rights" clash with your "beliefs," who should win? Right. That's how the Frame Game is played.

That's why the headline for a New York Times story on gays and Mormons is manipulative in the extreme. "Mormons Seek Golden Mean Between Gay Rights and Religious Beliefs," it says.

"The Frame Game" is tmatt's term for framing the conversation to shape your opinion, perhaps without even realizing it. Fortunately, the Times article itself is better, with the lede framing the issue as "gay rights and religious freedom." Although it could still be construed as rights trumping freedom.

At least the hed is accurate in reporting the balancing act of Mormon leaders: trying to oppose anti-gay discrimination while preserving the right to disagree with gays. In states like Utah -- where pro-gay legislation has stalled for years -- that could make a big difference, the Times says:

But they also called for these same laws, or others, to protect the rights of people who say their beliefs compel them to oppose homosexuality or to refuse service to gay couples. They cited examples of religious opponents of same-sex marriage who have been sanctioned or sued or have lost their jobs.
“Such tactics are every bit as wrong as denying access to employment, housing or public services because of race or gender,” said Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of a group of church leaders known as the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “It is one of today’s great ironies that some people who have fought so hard for L.G.B.T. rights now try to deny the rights of others to disagree with their public policy proposals.”

This gets points just for balance. It brings up the conscience issue without belittling it or hinting that it's a cover for bigotry. It directly quotes a church leader, not just a static statement from LDS offices. And it allows Oaks to bring up the irony that many conservatives have cited: gay activists demanding rights for themselves, then denying rights to others.

As the Times reports, gay leaders gave the LDS Church a p.r. bruising when it helped pass Proposition 8, outlawing gay marriage in California. The Mormons also sat out efforts to pass anti-discrimination laws in Utah, a position they now say they want to change.

The article cites five sources, a good count for a story of some 850 words. Surprisingly, after directly quoting a Mormon leader, the story simply quotes an unattributed handout statement from the pro-gay Human Rights Campaign. (Often, it's the opposite with mainstream media: quoting liberal people and conservative statements.) However, it devotes two paragraphs to the HRC, allowing it to say that the right to deny service equals the right to keep discriminating -- by doctors, landlords, businesses, etc.

Then the newspaper comes back with a criticism of the Mormons' new initiative by Baptist leader Russell Moore, who says the opposite -- that pushing for gay rights in jobs and housing always lead to "assaults on religious liberty."

The story says the new dual Mormon emphasis is "an attempt to placate all sides of a divisive issue," but there's a little editorializing when it gets skeptical on how well the approach will work:

But the approach announced on Tuesday by Mormon leaders is unlikely to do much to help calm this front in the culture wars. Gay rights advocates have long maintained that denying service to gays on the basis of religious belief is no different from the discrimination against blacks that was outlawed during the civil rights movement.

The article does commit at least one framing offense, adding sarcasm quotes to the term "religious liberty" campaign. The paragraph also errs in grouping Catholics with "other conservative evangelicals," although this may be a case of writing too fast.

One puzzle, or perhaps a dangling shoe: The Times says the Mormons supported passage of a local anti-discrimination law in Salt Lake City, but largely sat out the effort to the do the same statewide. What if the state law does pass? Will the Times, the Human Rights Campaign and others then start pressuring the church to do the same toward a national law?

Still, with the few glitches mentioned, the Times does a decent job of balance in this story. It applies terms moderately. It quotes more than side, and respectfully. And it doesn't try to tell us how the debate "should" work out.

Now, if the newspaper can train its headline writers to be as sensitive.

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