Prop 8 by the Numbers

Strong previous reporting let the numbers speak for themselves

The California press has done a pretty good job covering the fierce battle over Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban, which passed yesterday after a night of counting. (Minus the occasional linguistic fumble. Remember the convoluted stance: yes on eight means no on same-sex marriage.) But with anxious readers repeatedly refreshing pages Tuesday night to see how the latest percentages split, how did West Coast news outlets juggle coverage of the controversial state initiative with front–page reports of the national election? Pretty well.

Tuesday night was admittedly difficult. Until 11 PM EST (when the California polls closed), all eyes and ears were on the presidential race. After 11 PM, all eyes and ears were on the commentary about Obama’s victory. With the presidential race taking precedence, there was less time and space to report on the Prop 8 outcome, one of the most anticipated results in California (and indeed, nationwide).

But to some extent, having less space wasn’t really a problem—most readers were probably keen on getting the results, not the analysis. The hot-button topic has been given a good once over by the California press; the results Tuesday night and Wednesday (At this writing, 52.4 percent in favor of the ban, with 47.6 percent in opposition to it, with 99 percent of precincts reporting, according to the LAT) were largely about the numbers.

For numbers, admittedly, you could go to any number of non-newspaper sources: there was the Web site of California’s Secretary of State, which listed the results of the initiatives in bleak, Courier typeface; Jim Burroway blogged the various state marriage amendments; and CBS’s Eye on Blogs suggested signing up for the Yeson8 and Noon8 Twitter feeds. (If you were curious, the Twitter Grader, which measures impact on Twitter, gives Yeson8 a sixty-four, and NoonProp8 a ninety-nine point one.)

But the Los Angeles Times handled the numbers pretty well too, with a corner box that listed the state initiatives, the respective percentages of “yes” and “no” votes, and the percentage of precincts reported. Click on the initiative, and readers were taken to a graphic of county-by-county results and margins of victory. As initiatives passed or failed, a green check mark or red “x” appeared next to it on the list. It was simple, easily interpreted, and small enough to stand alongside the national news. It floated trustily next to the state-by-state calls for Obama, and next to the “OBAMA WINS” headline that loaded around 11 PM.

The San Francisco Chronicle, meanwhile, put Prop 8 front and center, showing updates with a special News Alert box at the top of its Web site that announced the results as they were reported. (As of this writing, the alert reads: “Same-Sex Marriage Ban Wins Decisively; Opponents Sue,” which leads to an article about the suit.) There were no nifty county-by-county graphics on the Chronicle’s site, but, there were lists—by SF-area county—of Prop 8 returns.

The brief, numbers-heavy emphasis on Prop 8, the initiative with the heaviest presence on the front pages of the LAT, the Chronicle, and smaller papers like the Sacramento Bee, felt well-organized, and unconfusing. It also suggested that the papers had done their jobs—providing analysis on anything from historical precedent to fundraising, personal stories, and well-reported legal speculation—in the weeks preceding Election Day. And it’s ultimately telling that the lines that stick out most in Wednesday’s LAT account of the court challenge from gay-rights advocates, are arguably the following retrospective (and oddly reflective) ones: “With more than 96% of precincts reporting in the state, the measure leads by a margin of 52% to 48%, prompting The Times to call the race. Opponents of the measure have not yet conceded defeat. The loss was devastating to many in the state.”

The condensed lines contain in a nutshell: hard numbers, the newspaper’s responsibility in making the call, and the emotional weight of the response. And while the consequences of Prop 8 and the lawsuit to overturn it are next to be examined in great detail, and the state’s black vote (overwhelmingly in favor of the ban) will be dissected, there’s a modest journalistic thrill to be had in knowing that, in the late hours of Nov. 4, these papers, on the strength of past reporting, could let the numbers, at least to some extent, speak for themselves.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.