Clearing Up Yes and No

California papers wade through Prop 8 terminology

In California, the battle continues over Proposition 8, which would ban same-sex marriages, overturning the California Supreme Court’s May ruling that made them legal. And in-state newspapers have been doing their part to cover the different angles and implications of the ballot measure. (The Sacramento Bee, for instance, ran a story on Tuesday discussing whether or not marriages conducted before Nov. 5 will be invalidated, should the proposition pass.)

But as a Los Angeles Times article yesterday admits, “Many voters have expressed confusion about what yes and no votes mean. A yes vote would ban same-sex marriage, while a no vote would preserve it.” Confusing, no? Well, at the very least, there’s some room for befuddlement.

So how clearly have the papers been phrasing the yes-and-no’s surrounding Prop 8?

At times, vaguely. Some stories have sought to avoid mentioning official terminology, instead circling around “the underlying question of same-sex marriage” or how different counties are “handling same-sex marriages.”

And the LAT article that cites voters’ confusion, for instance, avoids mentioning Prop 8 by name in the lede (my emphasis): “While California voters remain closely divided on the question of gay marriage, a majority oppose a measure to ban it, according to a poll released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California.”

When the LAT article does mention Prop 8, its language runs amuck. Here, it convolutedly introduces the proposition and a new poll all at once:

…the poll also found that support for Proposition 8, which would amend the state Constitution to disallow same-sex marriage, has gained somewhat since a similar survey was taken in late August. The latest results show 44% in favor and 52% opposed, with a margin of sampling error of 3 percentage points.

Support, amend, disallow, in favor, and opposed—got it? The poll shows that support for the proposition has grown. But the story uses unnecessary verbiage to state that fact, and skips some important prepositional phrases along the way. Sure, it’s implicit that the “44% in favor” is 44 percent in favor of the proposition, but it could have been more clearly stated—“44% in favor of the proposition” or “44% in favor of the ban.”

The article runs into another clarity block when its author, Jessica Garrison, describes the money raised for and against the proposition, stating, “Yes on 8 campaign committees had raised $26.7 million while the No on 8 committees had brought in $26.1 million,” without explicitly stating the stances of those committees. Readers will probably figure it out; the names do speak for themselves. But by stressing the yes-no terminology, the article only contributes to the which-side-is-which morass. It perpetuates confusion, rather than going out of its way to promote clarity.

The San Francisco Chronicle does a better job with the following description of Prop 8 supporters. Titling a section of his article “‘Yes’ bus visits Oakland,” reporter John Wildermuth finds clarity in scenic details:

At the bus tour’s lone Bay Area stop, in East Oakland on Tuesday, about 100 sign-waving supporters heard from campaign officials and local black ministers speaking in front of a bus decorated with ads running the length of the vehicle urging people to “Say ‘I Do’ to Traditional Marriage.”

“This is not about taking away rights from anyone,” said Frank Schubert, campaign consultant for the Yes on 8 campaign. “It’s about standing up for rights.”

Go, props! The phrase “Say ‘I Do’ to Traditional Marriage” clearly and simply illustrates the goals of the group, Yes on 8. It also manages to avoid using the phrase “yes on 8” as a rhetorical crutch to describe supporters of the proposition.

Of course, such vivid scenes aren’t always available for the reportorial taking. The LAT article, for example, was reporting the results of a new poll. In those cases, it comes down to this: redundancy is required in order to clearly describe a ballot measure, and the stances of its supporter and detractors. “Yes on 8” and “No on 8” are specific campaigns dedicated to raising money and running ads for or against Prop 8. They’re also convenient ways to split California’s voting population according to their stances on the proposition. But to conflate the two—referring to the “No on 8 side,” for instance, as the LAT account did, instead of as the “No on 8 campaign”—is to take the easy way out. Sometimes, reporters should embrace clunky repetition and avoid the temptation to simplify in order to provide the most accurate explanation.

So, kudos to the Chronicle for including a key at the bottom of its article, which straightforwardly explains Prop 8, and then explains what a “yes” vote would mean, and what a “no” vote would mean. It’s just a small detail, but it sets the pitch-perfect tone.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.